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About ten years ago, a friend went through successful treatment for a cancerous tumor on his tongue. He was not yet 40 and the treatment was horrendous. In addition to radiation treatment, part of his tongue was removed and reconstructed from his other tissue. One of the short-term side effects of treatment was that he lost his sense of taste. He also had to eat a liquid diet so his food also lacked texture. The preparation of all of his meals ended with a trip to the blender.

He has recounted to me at least a few times, the day he experienced, “the most flavorful” meal he had experienced for a long time, as his sense of taste began to return. It was a salmon meal I had made and brought to him, his wife, and his then young son. And yes, it had been prepared in a blender.

A salmon smoothie sounds like a really bad idea. It sounds like it would taste terrible. But as was regaining a lost sense, he noticed what he had gained rather than the fact that it did not taste like salmon he’d enjoyed before cancer.

Eight years ago, when I went through cancer treatment, so much changed in so little time. One of the changes is that I spent the summer, a glorious Seattle summer, in and out of surgery. There was no hiking or camping that summer. However, the following summer was an absolute delight. I hiked. I camped. I’d enjoyed it before, very much so, but I felt a keen sense of joy after the previous summer. The experience was dialed up in intensity.

And now, along with the rest of the world, I find life having changed all at once. We have all lost something in this pandemic. It has been challenging for us all. For some of us, it is harrowing. Fortunately, I am healthy and I am not forced to work in dangerous situations. My family and friends are healthy. I am not so worried about potential death. Yes, it could happen, but it is likely that I will be alive when the COVID-19 pandemic is ended by effective treatment and a vaccine.

I am allowing myself to wonder about what it will be like to savor the experiences that I will again have, to venture about the world more freely. I think about the first time I will be able to give my mom a hug again.

The waiting is hard but the waiting is necessary.

Be well,

Elizabeth

And I don’t need any of this. I don’t need this stuff, and I don’t need you. I don’t need anything except this. And that’s it and that’s the only thing I need, is this. I don’t need this or this. Just this ashtray. And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that’s all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that’s all I need. And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball. And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game and the remote control and the lamp and that’s all I need. And that’s all I need too. I don’t need one other thing, not one – I need this. The paddle game, and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches, for sure. And this. And that’s all I need. The ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine and the chair.
-Navin (played by Steve Martin),  The Jerk.

So much has changed for all of us in an astonishingly short amount of time. In the U.S., we’ve watched a wave flow across the globe. A trickle of newspaper stories turned into a deluge. A suburb north of my city, Seattle, Washington, a nursing home, was hit first. My brother teaches at a high school, down the street from the nursing home. Late last month, we decided that he should not visit our mother, who is 85-years-old. Another brother, who is married to a flight attendant, decided the same. I stopped visiting in person, as well. Mom is in good health and we want to keep it that way.

You have no doubt seen the buying frenzy of paper goods and disinfecting products. My husband, who typically does minimal grocery shopping, brought home survival food, on two separate occasions, less than one week apart. I learned that Spam, something I have maybe eaten once or twice in my life, is an essential tool for survival. I asked John to stop going to the grocery store. We argued about it for a bit and then it dawned on both of us that it might be more effective to actually look at what we had. By the time we’d reviewed our pantry, refrigerator, freezer, my homemade dehydrated backpacking/hiking meals, the food that he’d bought, and our stash of non-perishable food for emergencies (we live in earthquake territory), he estimated that we had enough food for approximately 72 days, not counting the approximately 30 pints of homemade preserves I have on my canning shelves. An overly sweet existence, but we would eat for another couple of weeks, without buying another single bit of food.

To be fair, I’d also been stocking up on items, just different ones. I had an irrational fear of running out of fresh vegetables and fruit. I still keep a good eye on my canned tomato, chicken broth, and dried bean supply. I have been making and dehydrating chili and soups. I hope that I will be using it for backpacking and camping, which is why I started using a dehydrator in the first place.  I had a rational fear of not having enough cleaning supplies for my psychology office, where up until a few days ago, I saw patients. Every morning, I had been disinfecting all “high touch” surfaces, light switches, thermostat knobs, door knobs, table tops, desk tops, pencils, pens, the control buttons on my office equipment, my cell phone, my cell phone charging stand, and all surfaces of my laptop computer.

I worry about my business. 80% of it is doing psychological testing, which has to be done in person. Last Monday at 11:00 am, right after testing a young teen, the Governor of my state made an emergency order and recommended a minimum of 6 feet distance (a bit less than 2 meter) between people who do not live in the same household. There’s no way for me to do that. On top of that, with having had SCAD, I have a rare heart disease of unknown origin. Who knows how my body would react to COVID-19? By noon, I had cancelled the rest of my scheduled testing patients and transitioned the rest of my business to telehealth, from my home. I knew that in two weeks, once I finished up all of my remaining report writing, my income would drop about 80% for who knows how long.

Two days later, I took my first virtual yoga class, from my favorite yoga teacher, Aubrey. She is calling the class, “Zoom Sangha yoga”. “Sangha” is a Sanskrit word for “community”. It was so nice to see everyone’s familiar faces to to practice yoga together. Yoga ends with a meditation. As I listened to the sound of my breath, I thought, “I have all that I need, in this moment.”

In this moment, as I write this, I have all that I need. I have my breath. I have my mind. I have my family. I have friends. I have shelter. I have clean water and good food. I have the nearby woods in which to walk. Not all moments are like this but right now it is.

I wish you many moments of having all that you need.

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Yesterday, John and I returned from a winter adventure in Arizona. For most of the trip, we hiked in beautiful Sedona. On the last full day of our trip, we drove to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and the only one in the U.S. Between the other-worldly wonder and the briefness of our visit, five hours, it was like a dream by the next morning.

The dream is settling into the reality that I was there and the memories and musings have built up to this bit of writing. When I was a girl, I learned that the Grand Canyon was formed by erosion from the Colorado River, which still flows thousands of feet below the rim of the canyon. When John and I looked at the canyon, we mused aloud, “There’s no way that little river could have made this.” I questioned my memory of my elementary school teachings and possibly, the quality of my public education. I hypothesized that the river must have been much wider and then dwindled in flow bit by bit until it’s current width. Then we got re-educated at the Geology Museum at the park. “The Colorado River has been the same width for the last 5 million years.” The river’s path caused fissures, which led to further erosion by the river’s tributaries. (Or something to that event. The Grand Canyon was right next to me. Turning away from it to read the additional explanation of how it got so wide was lower priority.) The canyon was described as perhaps the best example of the power of erosion in the world.

The primary reason for the Grand Canyon is stream of water that ground away at the strata of rock for 5 million years and counting. That erosion, the gradual diminishing of land, is considered, rightly so, one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

Loss is such tricky business, whether it occurs slowly, like the Grand Canyon, or more suddenly through the plate movements that created volcanoes and earthquakes in my native Washington State. There is loss of life, habitat, and the literal earth under our feet. And yet there is great beauty. I stand in awe at the power of Earth, at what she can do, all by herself, and instead of feeling frightened, I feel more connected. Yes, I will die. Yes, things will change. But there is a larger context that holds my little life, which is part of the great wonder. Then I am distracted by the beauty and I stop thinking about myself and my mortality.

Loss, as we all know, can cause trauma and grief. It can develop slowly or all at once. There have been much written about it and loss is generally perceived as negative, and often it is. But loss is much more than that, even the really sad losses. John and I have been listening to the podcast, Dolly Parton’s America. (Click on the link after you’ve read this post and you will not be disappointed.) One of the episodes is about how she ended her business partnership with Porter Waggoner. He had helped make her a star but over the years, he was working against her, possessive of her talent, and envious of her building success. When she left she felt “a sad freedom.” That’s acceptance in three words.

Loss can be an education, an acceptance of a reality and the loss of a reality that is no longer or never was true. Loss can whittle away what we want but don’t really need. Like Southwestern ceramic artists have done for centuries, loss can be intentional through the use of a stone to burnish a pot to gleaming black.

Loss can hurt and devastate. It can illuminate, teach, and result in greater wisdom. Holding these truths at once can elicit a sad freedom, joy, awe, anger, and every possible experience in the mindful moments of life.

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Diane and I met over seven years ago. We went through breast cancer treatment at about the same time and we both blogged about it. We’ve stayed in touch through social media. Yesterday, we met face-to-face, for the first time.

That’s the short version of the story. The larger truth is that Diane and I joined a group of breast cancer bloggers who provided and continue to provide much needed connection, understanding, thoughtfulness, compassion, joy, and humor during the most vivid technicolor aspects of our lives from the traumatic, the ridiculous, the ecstatic, the sublime, and all of the places in between.

Some of us from that original group are still connected either through continued blogging or interaction on social media. Some of us have died in the past seven years from metastatic (stage IV) cancer. Others have left social media for reasons, perhaps, related to the progression of disease. Quite a few of us don’t blog anymore or like myself, write much less frequently, and when I do write, it is usually no longer about breast cancer.

Diane lives in Florida now. She traveled to Seattle to pick up a new Golden Retriever puppy, who she has named, Yukon. Those of you who know Diane, know about what her dogs mean to her, how much she loves them and her talents in training them to be prize winning bird dogs. As of this writing, Diane is still traveling around the area before she picks up Yukon.

Diane and I both love the outdoors, so last Wednesday, the day of our meeting, was spent hiking in Mt. Rainier National Park. We had great conversations during the four hour round trip of driving, as well as during the hike itself. Diane is a skilled photographer. This is something I knew about her. What I didn’t know is that she has studied visual arts pretty seriously. I learned a lot from her on the hike. She shared her knowledge of composition and photographic technique. Diane loves to take photos, as do I. It was so wonderful to share our love of photography as well as our love of nature.

Diane and I had a daylong conversation with easy-back-and-forth. Speaking for myself, I felt not even one moment of awkwardness. We had a wonderful time. I’ve long admired Diane’s tenacity, humor, generosity, no nonsense honesty, and intelligence. I admire her even more now that I’ve learned more about her and had the privilege of sharing a day in the mountains on a truly glorious fall day.

There is something really special about these cyber relationships. We’ve had years of supporting each other and cheering on each other’s health and happiness. I am really happy to have Diane as a friend as well as to have the love and support of this community.

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Last week, part of my family and I cruised to Alaska and back. It was my brother, John’s idea. My mom has long wanted to go to Alaska and my dad did not want to go while he was alive. So on 8/31, the five of us, John, his wife, my John, and Mom, boarded a big cruise ship in Seattle, bound for Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan, and Victoria, BC.

Going on a cruise is not something I’m naturally inclined to do. It sounds like a lot of time on a boat with not a lot of time to explore the land. But this was a way for a group of us to travel and an Alaska cruise is rather scenic from the boat. Like Mom, I had not been to Alaska so I was very excited for the trip, as well.

I was less excited for the gambling, games, shows, formal nights, and selling (auctions, jewelry shows, etc) on the cruise. Nonetheless, some things sounded like they might possibly be a little fun, so I did some of them. And I didn’t just watch, I participated. I found that team trivia games were silly but really fun, even if it meant doing the YMCA dance in front of an audience. (Actually, that was extra fun.) It was fun to dress up for formal nights. Not having to cook for a week was really fun. I managed to eat well without blowing my fitness plan. Speaking of fitness, the treadmills faced the ocean and nearly every time I worked out, which was almost daily, I saw humpback whales.

My mom sang karaoke. Even with what my friend, Charlie, aptly described as “cheesy accompaniment”, she sang like the accomplished singer of 79 years that she is. She got some nice compliments from other people on the cruise, even a couple of days later, when we were in Victoria, BC. A woman gave her a hug, “You have a gift!” Finally, when given the invitation to join a group of dancers from the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes, I accepted it. It was a lovely experience to connect with other people, sharing their culture. One of the dancers was a one-year-old, Kayla. She was a little marvel. Not only did she sing, dance, and play a drum (with a few breaks to act her age), but her mother explained to us that Kayla is an accomplished learner of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian.

In addition to singing, which is something my mom does every week at church, she had a return to hiking. My parents were avid hikers and campers until my dad’s Parkinson’s disease got the better of his mobility and balance, when he was about 81. When we were at Mendenhall Glacier, located on the edge of Tongass National Forest, near Juneau, Mom decided that she wanted to do the 2 mile hike to Nugget Falls. John had suggested it but misread the sign, thinking it was a .3 mile walk. I protested, he didn’t get my concern so I dropped it. I didn’t think Mom could do it but she wanted to try and I said to myself, “Shut your pie hole. Mom is the captain of her own ship.” It took awhile but we all made it there in back despite the steady rain. Mom had really missed nature walks and was thrilled. I noticed that she was walking faster the next morning and she explained, “I got broken in.”

A consequence of my mindfulness practice is that I enjoy things more because I worry less about things that are not really important. I used to avoid doing things that I wanted to do because I was wrapped up in self-consciousness. I was holding myself from participation when the worst that could happen was embarrassment.

Throughout the cruise I thought to myself, “carpe diem”. I had a fantastic time and I was gobsmacked by the beauty. The rain did not ruin Juneau. We had a good time, anyway. Glacier Bay National Park/Reserve had stunningly sunny weather. It was like being in another world. But I had gotten there starting with the Puget Sound bordering my own city, following the Salish Sea and the Pacific Ocean north to Glacier Bay. I felt connected to that beautiful land by a common thread of saltwater. I was thrilled by the awe of the fellow passengers. People were stunned and gobsmacked by the beauty, even the man who wore his MAGA hat each day. I saw him sitting at a table for hours, watching the sea and the landscape with his binoculars. It reminded me of our share human connection. Just that reminder, alone, gave me some comfort in these challenging times.

As I’ve written before, I sometimes wish I could coast or cruise through life. It is just a fantasy. But cruises, literally and figuratively, happen. I intend to participate.

Peace, friends.

-Elizabeth

Mom brought Dad on the cruise so he wouldn’t miss out.

Juneau: Nugget Falls and Mendenhall Glacier. We saw lots of orca and humpbacks on our whale watching tour that day, too, but I tend to just watch instead of take photos with animals.

 

Mom and I looking snazzy for one of the formal nights. (My blogging friends may recognize my dress from my 25th wedding anniversary from four years ago. Like the comedian Tiffany Haddish and her white formal, I will wear a good dress every time the opportunity presents itself.) Note: I’m not sure why this photo is so big. Oh well, fun with technology.

Skagway and Haines. We saw four bear! For extra credit, try to spot the brown bear who is blending in with her surrounding.

Was Glacier Bay really this beautiful? No, it was one million times prettier!

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Saxman Village, Ketchikan.

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People, I’m going to get nerdy. I’m going to talk about a subject that strikes doom into many people’s heart. I am not joking even though I am using strong language.

I am going to talk about risk factors and what they mean from a research perspective.

When the media talks about “what causes/prevents cancer” or “what causes/prevents heart attack” or any other bad disease, they are usually referring to risk and protective factors. Example number 1. We know that smoking “causes” lung cancer. What that really means is that smoking is risk factor for lung cancer. We all know people who smoked throughout their lives and never got lung cancer. And some of us know people who got lung cancer who were never smokers.

So from a research perspective, smoking does not cause cancer. Smoking is a causal factor for lung cancer. It increases the risk of developing lung cancer by quite a bit.

“Elizabeth, that means that I can smoke, not feel guilty about it, and because George Burns smoked cigars all those years and lived to 100 years-old, I won’t get lung cancer?”

No, it means none of that. George Burns beat the odds. I mean literally just that. One, he lived much longer than average. Two, he lived much longer than average given that he was a smoker. No one reasonable ever said that there is a 100% chance of getting lung cancer if you smoke or that there is a 0% chance of getting cancer if you never use tobacco products in any way.

Okay, I promised to get nerdy but I am taking it back. Let me put this plainly. You can engage in activities or behaviors that are risk factors and end up with none of the risky outcomes. Risk is relative, not absolute. You can engage in activities or behaviors that are protective factors, you can be a teetotaler, never smoke, exercise regularly, eat well, be nice to your mother, and still end up with scary diseases. Those behaviors only reduce risk they do not eliminate any risk of disease.

And come to think of it, no matter what we do, some day, we will end up dying.

Does that mean that what you do today, tomorrow, or the next day doesn’t matter?

Thanks for understanding my need to be a a psychologist nerd. Yes, we are all about the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors but as Ph.D.’s, we are additionally, all about the research. Also, guilt is when you regret doing something that is in conflict with your beliefs and values. Sometimes I wonder when we talk about feeling “responsible” for our diseases that we are really talking about shame rather than guilt. Guilt actually can be productive and helpful. I didn’t believe that for most of my life until I understood the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt refers to behaviors that we can chose to change. Shame is the feeling, “I am bad.” That’s a lot different than guilt, “Wow, I wish I hadn’t done that.” Sometimes I do things that are at odds with my beliefs and values. I don’t think that I am alone in this. I try to treat myself with compassion. I am not always successful. I try to be compassionate and patient with myself for not living a perfect life. I am not always successful.

My proposal to myself and with all kindness, to you is, “How do you want to live your life today?”

Much love and peace to all of you,

Elizabeth

Lately, I am finding it easy to tip my toe into waters of despair. There have always been heartbreaking world problems but in this country, there are heartbreaking problems being purposefully created. Purposeful assault against vulnerable people and against our fragile Mother Earth. Oh yes, there is also the continued assault against our republic. The first anniversary of my dad’s death is coming up on July 5th. I have been feeling that, along with other personal losses, my scary past illnesses, parenting worries, for the last month.

Even for a mostly extremely lucky person like me, life is hard. Fortunately, I am able to take my toe out of the water of despair. Then I see a sliver of hope. It is a sliver but it is there. It is meaningful. It is an opportunity, fragile as it is. I would like to be more hopeful but I’m not.

Most of the day and most days, I feel energetic and happy. And then I feel the restlessness of wanting to get away. The sadness doesn’t last long, sometimes 30 seconds, other times, an hour or so. When I feel despair, it is perhaps for a few seconds. However, the restlessness stays with me. It makes it hard to do seated meditation. It makes it hard to write, which is why it has been so long since I have posted.

What I find easy, these days, is to hike. The forest is lush and green. The mountains are abundant with wildflowers. My body is gaining strength to handle steepness that I was not able to do when I was younger. Steepness gives way to vistas of nearly unimaginable beauty. The promise of a hike is enough to motivate me to put in long days of work and to get my chores done at home. I am able to free up time and space to get away.

And it’s not that I don’t think of the big problems when I am hiking because I do. But I do it while also being surrounded by a larger context of beauty and nature’s reminder of the vastness of time, space, and the ongoing life cycle. These things are bigger than me. They are bigger than our species. My mindfulness teacher talks about “residing in a larger container of awareness”. She is talking about something I don’t yet fully understand but I think I am getting gaining understanding.

I am grateful for the life circumstances that allow me to protect my hope and to protect my love of life and being. This hope motivates positive action. Thinking about problems is not the same as constructive action. It is merely grieving in place. I am learning and re-learning that I can grieve and move at the same time.

Peace to you, friends.

 

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The first time that I learned the importance of pacing, I was pregnant. The fatigue was really challenging. I was keenly aware of myself as a limited resource. I prioritized. I still ended up doing a lot but it was stressful and work was unsatisfying in many ways. Then I became a mother and it all became too much for me. I became clinically depressed, got treatment, and took a good look at my life. I was no longer depressed and with time, my energy increased and I was able to do more work than I had previously.

In 2012, my daughter was a teen and did not need my constant attention. I was working a lot at my private practice. I worked hours that I thought I “should” even though I was working more than full time hours during most weeks. I was working at a hard pace and if I am completely honest with myself, enjoying making decent money for the first time in my life.

Later in that year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I learned how quickly daily work schedules can be changed when they have to be. It was incredibly hard. Two years later, when I was done, I was still wiped out, though slowly regaining energy,  not to full strength, but to a higher level than before. I have not returned to full-time work since that time. I work about 80% of full time to allow for self-care.

Lately, I have been literally pacing myself. I am in training for a big hike. I am not naming it because it is a kind of hike and not really a specific hike. I want to increase my ability to hike uphill. I really enjoy hiking but I have avoided certain hikes for decades because I had trouble with elevation gain either due to injury or lack of fitness. I also had a fancy cardio test a few months ago and learned that although my aerobic capacity is better than average, my anaerobic capacity is less than average. I start building up lactic acid earlier than most. I wonder if this has always been true. It may explain why as a kid who was athletic, I hated running long distance and sports like soccer, which seemed like non-stop running. I am from Seattle and as you may have noticed, it is surrounded by mountains. There are a lot of steep hikes.

I am hiking a lot, gradually increasing the elevation of the hikes. I take photos, an activity I love to do, which also provides little breaks along the way. I am learning to hike at my own pace instead of trying to match the pace of others. Uphill, I am slow, but steady.

The frequency of the hiking is higher than before. I am going out 1-2 times a week to hiking areas. Sometimes I hike alone and other times I don’t. I am enjoying it immensely.

I do notice that it is a big difference in my level of outdoor activity. It reminded me of the second summer after my cancer diagnosis. I spent the first summer in surgeries, one after another, three total until the margins were finally clear with a right side mastectomy. At the end of the summer, I started one of many reconstructive surgeries. I had lost a summer of outdoor opportunities living in a place that has some of the nicest summers you will ever experience. By the next summer, I was bound and determined to live outdoors as much as I could, considering that I was still in treatment. We had a ball.

Two years ago, I was recovering from a SCAD induced heart attack and traveling to the Mayo Clinic. Last year, we were caring for my dad, who died in July.

At this moment, I am healthy and energetic, thanks to luck, exercise, healthy eating, yoga, and meditation. I am enjoying what I am able to do with this body of mine, which has been through a lot, and will be through more.  At this point, this pace is right for me.

April was wet but beautiful.

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May has been filled with splendid views and wildflowers!

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Our dear friends, Robin and Nate, were visiting from North Carolina recently. They asked a question about a parking sign they’d seen in Seattle, Robin had even taking a photo of it, “No Parking West of Here”. “We saw this weird parking sign. How do we know what direction is west?”

I thought immediately, “What’s weird about that sign? West is the direction of the Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains are to the east.”

My second thought was, “Oh yeah. I live here I know the landmarks.”

A life with without major landmarks is confusing. Disorientation is exhausting.

I am at a point in my life when I am establishing new landmarks. Actually, that’s not accurate. I am at a point of my life when I am mindful of the fact that I am in a perpetual state of landmark establishment.

I still think, every day, about the fact that I was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly 8 years ago.

I still think, every day, about the fact that I had my first heart attack (the second, 8 days later), nearly 2 years ago.

Despite this daily mindfulness, these landmarks have changed in my life.

I have been working hard on my mental and physical stamina. I am working hard to have a positive influence on my health. I meditate regularly. I do yoga twice a week now. I have increased my exercise and a couple of months ago, I tracked my 500th meal.

I am feeling healthier and more fit. I have had fitness testing and my cardiovascular health has improved a good deal in last last year or so.

Despite all of this, I am still considered, “obese” with my current body fat percentage, which was calculated in fancy ways. I actually think I look good. But that’s not what it is about, is it? I thought I looked good 25 pounds ago. I started working on my fitness so that I can do more of the things that I want to do and to reduce my body fat, because it raises my risk for disease.

I have used “looking good” as a landmark for so long. For so long, I didn’t think I looked good. For decades. Bit by by, I developed a better body image.

Looking good is not the same as health. I have improved my health in a great many ways. I can accept it if my current fitness doesn’t improve. I will work to see if I can improve it. I will hike, do yoga, and meditate.

I will do my best to enjoy the process, which does not require, at any time, looking in the mirror.

I will do my best to focus on what I can do right now.

Here are some photos from what I was able to do last week, hiking with John and our friends, who happen to be relatives, near Bend, OR. (Note: I appear in none of the photos because I was the photographer.)

 

A half century ago, Walter Mischel, a Stanford psychologist, led the classic “marshmallow study”, which was actually a series of studies. In one of them, young children were presented with a marshmallow and told by an adult that they could eat that marshmallow immediately but if they waited, they could have not one, but two marshmallows. Then the adult left the room for a short period of time while the young child was tested with one of the great tests of humanity, delay of gratification.

Delay of gratification is an aspect of motivation and I mean motivation from a neurological standpoint, not the popular understanding of just “wanting hard enough.” I could write an entire post on the pitfalls of thinking of motivation as “wanting” or “not wanting”; “caring or “not caring”; or the very damaging “being a good person” or “being a bad person”.

Motivation to obtain an immediate reward is easy. Motivation to avoid or escape immediate discomfort, danger, or something else we don’t like is also relatively easy. Both are forms of immediate reinforcement, the former is positive reinforcement and the latter is negative reinforcement.

I think about motivation a lot. Some of this is for professional reasons. I work with a lot of kids who have difficulties working for delayed rewards or to avoid delayed negative outcomes. They are most excellent at working for immediate reinforcement. If an activity is fun, they can do it for a long time. If an activity is mundane, boring, or frustrating, they do all they can do to avoid it or escape it.

Parents often don’t understand why it’s so hard for a kid to delay gratification. Why does he play video games all night? Why does she texts friends all of the time instead of doing homework? Don’t they know how important school is?

I empathize with the frustration. I also often give the parents an example. I say, “I have a Ph.D. and I am a generally very disciplined person. I want to be physically healthy. And yet for many years, I did not exercise regularly. I also have trouble maintaining a healthy weight. Food tastes really good.”

Most parents identify with this example. Working for the second marshmallow is really hard. The first marshmallow is right there, after all. Working to help avoid long-term negative outcomes is also hard. Those outcomes are a long way off and further, in the case of physical health, there are no guarantees of success in terms of extended life span.

This brings me to today’s topic, which is motivation to exercise. We’re all told to do it. I have struggled on and off with physical exercise. For the past several years, I’ve had a regular habit of exercise. I have recently “upped my game”. I want to hike more and the hiking in my area of the country is challenging because it is so darned hilly around here. I am also working to lose weight and be more fit in general. This has gotten me thinking about motivation.

First, here are some motivation myth-busters:
1) Motivation is not a moral characteristic. It is a neurological process.
2) Motivation does not have a switch that is turned on by wanting something hard enough.
3) Motivation is not fixed. Motivation is not the same for every life activity.  Even motivation to do the same activity can wax and wane. Making behaviors into habits can help but is not an absolute.
4) Doing things that are good for you in the long run but not satisfying right now is really hard.

Let me repeat that,  doing things that are good for you in the long run but not satisfying right now is really hard, especially if there is no immediate bad thing that happens if I skip it. However, it is possible to get better at this.

The hardest thing about exercising for a lot of us is getting started. Here are a few tips for reducing barriers. This is not an exhaustive list. Feel free to add your own tips in the comment section.

What exercise?
If you hate exercise, bundle it with something you like. Some people read or watch t.v. while using exercise equipment. I walk outside because I love being outdoors and it is also a good opportunity to take photos. If you are a social person, an exercise class may be a good idea. Once people are used to seeing you, they will ask you why you didn’t make it to a class! You can also do something pleasant or rewarding after exercise to increase motivation. (See below.)

When?
Schedule your exercise. If you take a class that only meets particular times, this can be a major advantage. Time flexibility is not necessarily an advantage when you are trying to establish a new habit.

Seriously, when am I going to do this? I am really busy. I can’t possibly add another thing to my schedule.
Say to yourself, “Maybe I could do one more thing.” Or, “Maybe I don’t need to do all of the things I am doing now.” Then take a deep breath. Maybe it’s the thought of having another commitment, another thing “I should do” that is the burden and not so much the time. You do not have to marry exercise. You can have a fling and see how it goes.

How do I get started?
This is getting out of bed early to exercise before work. This is looking at the bad weather outside and going out to exercise, anyway. This is scheduling a time, the time comes, and thinking, “I can do this later.” Here are some tips that might help:

  1. Reduce the number of steps needed to get started. Lay out your exercise clothes the night before. Sleep in your exercise clothes and put your shoes next to the bed. Get fully dressed for intended morning exercise as soon as you get up, including shoes. You may be surprised at how much trouble it seems to get your shoes on after you’ve finished your breakfast and drank some coffee. If you exercise after work, change into work out gear at your work place or as soon as you get home.
  2. Build in reward for getting started. Give yourself a small square of chocolate on your drive to the gym. Treat yourself to a coffee at a drive through. When my husband and I walk together on the weekend, we stop at the local coffee shop about 15 minutes into the walk. He is highly motivated for coffee and does not like our home coffee.

How long?
You all know the answer to this. Start with what is do-able. Start small. It is easier to build up than to make your goals so high that you feel that you have failed every time you have actually done exercise.

Maybe, just maybe, you will learn to enjoy exercise. Maybe the second marshmallow will be the exercise itself. Or maybe not.

How will you know until you try?

 

 

 

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