Category Archives: cognition

Alone Time

Of all of the proposals I make about how to use your time as a mother, this one is going to sound the most insane and pie-in-the-sky: Get some time alone.

We are going to bend the definition of alone to make it a bit more reasonable.

Being Alone Together

Zander and I went to the park the other day. Quiet and breezy, he crawled around the plaza and explored the world. Grabbing onto the side of the fountain, he tries to pull himself up. He is learning to stand.

For my part, I stretch out on the ground and check on him every few minutes. He’s always in my peripheral vision.

But instead of scrolling through my feed, reading a book, or listening to a podcast, I am just there. Laying. Being alone, with my thoughts. No intrusion of other’s ideas.

We are there for a bit over an hour and then I head home. I feel so at peace when I walk in. I pick up my copy of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. I say thank you for finally making clear to me what’s been missing in my life.

The Importance of Solitude

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Albert Camus, my favorite philosopher, said: “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.”

Different figures throughout history have boasted the benefits of solitude, from Aristotle to Audrey Hepburn. They may say the practice boosts their creativity or mediates their sanity. East and West both agree that solitude is necessary for a well-lived life.

Modern science is, unsurprisingly, finding that this is the case.

When you spend time alone—not taking in the thoughts of other’s or meeting the expectations of your social group, you get a jumpstart to the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the rest-and-digest part of your nervous system. Lower blood pressure, slower heart rate, and more relaxed muscles are all signs that your parasympathetic nervous system has been activated.

You also have time to reflect and flex your insight muscle. Taking yourself out of the social context allows you to see how you are being affected and how you are affecting in a way that you wouldn’t be able to when you’re in the thick of it. When your brain is in input processing mode, whether the input is books, podcasts, or friends, it can’t do the hard work of figuring out who you are and what you’re here for.

Shocking!

In a study done by the University of Virginia, researchers found that a quarter of women and two-thirds of men who were involved in the experiment would rather be subjected to an electric shock than be alone with their thoughts.

We are losing our ability to be alone. We haven’t analyzed its value—or maybe, like the participants in the mentioned study, we’re afraid to spend time with our thoughts.

And if we are, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves scattered, stressed, and burnt out.

Fancy Tech

Not being with my phone, I’d heard that. I knew you weren’t supposed to have it on you all of the time. But I forgot that books are another new-fangled technology that intrude sometimes on my solitude. And while I love phones, podcasts, and books, they aren’t as essential to the well-being of a human as blocks of quiet reflection sprinkled throughout the day and week.

Set an example for your children. Spend some time alone. Be bored. Teach them how to sit with boredom by not providing constant entertainment and noise.

While the perfect arrangement may not exist when you’ve got one kid strapped to you or four running around, make true solitude a priority. Go to the park without the phone. Ask the partner for a half an hour walk by yourself on Sunday. Find a way to make radical decompression part of your daily, weekly, or monthly ritual.

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Making the Hardest Parts Easier: Transitions from Big to Small

Daylight savings has become more confusing since giving birth. For as long as I can remember, I’ve run on industrial time. 6 o’clock is 6 o’clock, even if they have moved it an hour.

With a baby, though, I run on horticultural time. We follow the sun and the stars. I’m not sure when 7 o’clock is, but I know when the sun comes up. Everything in my schedule has been suddenly moved forward an hour. I was an early riser at 6:15 a.m. but now I’m a normal riser at 7.

My partner’s work schedule has changed to accommodate this weird quirk of certain industrialized nations. As have all of our activities.

This transition is frustrating like they all are.

Generating Energy

We transition several times a day from sleep to wake, from calm to calamity, from place to place. These can be very draining on our child and on us.

In High-Performance Habits, author Brendon Burchard details five things that effective people do better than the rest of us. He cites a ton of research on why these habits are so useful and gives you practical advice on how to implement them in your own life.

Of note today is habit number two. Burchard finds that extraordinary people generate energy.

Instead of letting their energy be leeched throughout the day, top performers find a way to create and retain as much as energy as possible.

In a revelation that will surprise no one, this means transitioning smoothly because people feel the most drained by adjusting. Things like:

  • Waking up in the morning
  • Leaving for work and school
  • Coming home
  • Bedtime

sometimes ask more of us than we feel we can give.

Giving Your Brain Space

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What extremely effective people have learned is how to transition gracefully. Regardless of how smart, fast, and competent you are, your brain needs time to switch tasks. You need time to organize your thoughts, to release your feelings, to re-center.

Try to find spaces and ways during your day to help your brain and body understand that one part of your day has ended and another one starting.

Do this for yourself and your child. While it might look different for the two of you, it is something you both need.

If you can recharge yourself before your child, you’ll be able to parent from the place that you want to.

Here are a few ways to give yourself a break and generate energy before trying to get kiddo up to speed:

  • Resetting the Room: Before leaving the room to move onto the next portion of your day, make sure everything is in the place you’d like it to be. This helps keep your house tidy, lets your brain know you are finished with that activity, can be used to prime the space for the next time you enter it.

As James Clear says in Atomic Habits, “Whenever you organize a space for its intended purpose, you are priming it to make the next action easy…Want to draw more? Put your pencils, pens, notebooks, and drawing tools on top of your desk, within easy reach. Want to exercise? Set out your workout clothes, shoes, gym bag, and water bottle ahead of time.”

By resetting the room to what you’ll need it for next, you are making you’re a transition easier for your future self, too.

  • Meditate: You do not need to set an alarm or open up 10% Happier. You don’t need to clear your mind or sit on a meditation pillow. All you need to do is give yourself a quick break. You can pick how many breaths you are going to take or pick a cue in your environment to decide how long to meditate for.

You might take ten deep breaths (inhale through the nose for two seconds, hold for two seconds, exhale through the mouth for four seconds.) Or you might think, “I am going to sit here and meditate until I hear a whimper of frustration from my toddler.”

  • Visualization: Take a moment to close your eyes. Picture a big To-Do list that you have written (or if you have one, walk over to it!) Check off what you’ve just accomplished.

Now, visualize yourself transitioning smoothly. You help your children wrap up       this portion of the day. You are successfully accomplishing the next thing on your list. You and baby are both contended, smiling, doing what needs to get done.

  • Movement: A big part of what you are doing when trying to transition is to release the built-up tension brought on by focus and labor. Movement will help get rid of some of this. You can do some simple stretching or ten burpees. Whatever suits your desires and abilities.

Staying in the Green

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Once you feel rejuvenated and ready to roll, then you can help transition your child.

When children don’t transition well, they often end up in the red zone (having a tantrum) or the blue zone (shutting down). If we can keep them in the green zone, the go-zone, the ready to grow, contribute, and explore zone, then their days will get easier. This is a habit they can bring with them into adulthood.

There are a few things you can do before transitions to help make them smoother, and some you can do when the change actually occurs.

Before a Transition:

  • Routine: We’re a big fan of routines here at Alert Authentic Mindful. Giving yourself and your children a routine makes life easier. For transitions, a routine means they have a loose idea about the structure of their day in their heads. This makes change and uncertainty easier to bear.

 

  • Nightly prep: Tell your child what is going to happen before the day comes. You know what is going to happen with your day. Why not clue them in on it?

 

You don’t have to detail each five-minute increment. X will happen, followed by Y. Think where the transition points are. That’s what they need to be aware of, not which toys they’re going to play with.

During a Transition:

  • Warnings: Give your child some time to prepare for changes. Keep in mind their developmental level. You can set an alarm, show them a clock, or tell them the series of events. “Soon, mom will stand up and get her purse, then…” You can also give your child some choice: “Pick one more thing to do before we leave this house/room/playground.”

 

  • Movement: Just like you, your child has been building up tension in their body while they participated in an activity. This could be from socializing, focusing, or using self-control to act appropriately in a setting. Movement can help to release some of that tension and prepare them for the next thing. You can ask them to join you for your stretches or burpees. Consider doing a special parent-child yoga pose help them feel connected to you during this rough time.

 

  • Connection: The name of the game when talking about discipline for children is connection. If you want them to follow your lead, they must feel like you are on their team. In order to do this, use or come up with a connection ritual. This can be something very simple like a 10-second hug which helps to soothe fears and releases serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin—chemicals that make us feel connected and happy. You can have a special kiss, a special dance, or a special song to feel in line with each other.

Mastering transitions will make your days significantly easier. Tweak any of these ideas to meet the specific needs of your family. Zander doesn’t need nightly prep—at 9 months old, he relies much more heavily on our routine. Some children actually do worse with a warning, seeing them as an opportunity to stop enjoying themselves right away and start complaining—in which case, maybe a quick sweep off the feet would do better.

Be aware of where sensitivities lie and hone your transition routine. With enough practice and forethought, going from one activity to the other over time will only become a problem when no one has had enough sleep.

 

 

 

You Have the Sleep Problem

Sleep is the foundation of your wellness. Without the appropriate amount of solid sleep, you are not healthy. Appropriate meaning at least 7.5 hours. Any less, you’re kidding yourself.

“Sleep is for the weak”

When I was younger, I used to say and to some extent believe that “Sleep is for p***ies.” I prided myself on being able to function pretty well on 3-5 hours of sleep a night. I still went to work and school. I had a physical labor job as a farm worker and a mental labor job as a proofreader for a newspaper. I was getting As at college. Who needed sleep?

I was also, of course, a raging alcoholic who drank 10 cups of coffee a day and suffered from severe anxiety and moderate depression, sometimes unable to leave the house and always unable to stomach myself.

But what I was doing was working. And if there was a problem, sleep wasn’t it.

I always thought one day I would read something about psychology in one of my books and something in my head would click and I would be better.

Now I recognize that mental health has much more to do with physical health than I was ever willing to admit.

The Wrong Question

Parents of young children, and particularly infants, are always focused on the question: How do I get my kid to sleep? There’s an entire industry around getting babies to sleep at the right times or more often or in the right place.

From the No Cry Sleep Solution to the Extinction Method, parents are certain that if they can get their babies to sleep on a certain schedule, then their health will return. Their instincts are pointing them in the right direction but not at the right person.

Don’t worry about how to get your children to sleep. Worry about how to get enough sleep yourself, and the rest will follow.

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Schedule It

Eight hours in bed does not mean eight hours of sleep and you know it.

When you want to make sure you accomplish something, you need to make time in your schedule. For sleep, you need to be realistic about how much you actually get in an hour. This waxes and wanes with different developmental stages, but you have a rough idea what that means.

If you have a child under 18 months old, you should be blocking off at least 10 hours to get 8 hours of sleep. This number can go up to 12 if there is a sleep regression, teething, night terrors, or if you’re dealing with two or three children.

The cost of not sleeping cannot be overstated. You’re more likely to get cancer. You’re more likely to get Alzheimer’s. To scream at your children, to lose your sex drive, to suffer from depression. You’re more likely to get into a car accident and to forget what you went into the fridge for. You’ll look older, you’ll gain weight.

You might think you’re losing time by dedicating 12 hours a day to sleeping, but you’re wrong. You’re gaining time. Each hour is much more effective.

Especially important is to get into bed early. Because of circadian rhythms, each hour you spend in bed before midnight is worth two after midnight.

If you aren’t sleeping, it is because you don’t prioritize it. You are capable of figuring out how much time you need to feel well-rested and be at your best. If you decide to prioritize other things over your sleep–watching TV, late night conversations–that is your choice, not your child’s fault.

Side Effects

If you are sleeping, so will your kid. While babies will still wake up, they’ll be put to sleep quickly. They won’t be woken up by you stumbling around the house.

Older children won’t be so intrigued by what is going on in the living room that they pretend to sleep but sneak up to the door to see what’s happening.

As the lights will be off since everyone is sleeping, the whole house will have improvements in their circadian rhythms.

Your sleep is your children’s sleep. You are giving them information about what to do at night and you are teaching them how to value sleep.

Making it Easier

Whether room sharing or bed sharing, co-sleeping is the biological norm for humans. Our babies expect to be with and near us at all time. Though it may be convenient, we are not only parents during the daytime. We are parents at night, too.

Baby and mama net more hours of solid rest when they co-sleep. While this sleep is lighter, cosleeping families report enjoying better sleep for the whole family.

The Takeaway

I highly suggest safe co-sleeping, but whatever you choose to do, realize that your baby or child doesn’t have a sleep problem. You do.

 

Too Much on Your Plate

My boyfriend wanted a finger foods dinner so baby could enjoy everything with us. We had sundried tomato/rosemary ham and cheese roll ups with avocado, cucumber tomato salad, stuffed mushrooms and zucchini, and apple slices with peanut butter. Plus lobster tail because it was on sale. Tasty.

We gave Zander (9 months old today) a bit of everything. He was having a wonderful time, then he started losing it all of the sudden. What was going on?

I took everything off his table and wiped it down. He calmed down. From there, I placed one thing on his table at a time and he enjoyed everything.

This was another ringing endorsement of simplicity for little ones. Of course, one could argue he is used to simplicity so he responds better to it, but I think he is a calm, content baby at least in part because there is never anything crazy going on around him.

There is a good deal of research indicating that clutter and busyness lead to stress. If research found otherwise, we would all be suspect of it. Intuitively, we get that too much outside feels like too much inside.

Simplicity for our children is not where the trend should end, though. All of us need to simplify, and not just for our children’s sake. Simpler environments, simpler schedules, and simpler relationships help our core remain steady.

For children, this means limiting their options, not taking choice away. We have four books for Zander. I give him two to choose from each day. I want to give him choices and responsibility where ever I can. To truly do that, I have to respect where he is developmentally.

How To Stop Yelling

angry-argue-argument-343.jpgVisualizing Behavior

Do you want to keep your cool when life isn’t going your way? Do you wish you didn’t bark at the kids when they’ve done something you dislike?

Visualization can help.

Visualization helps us improve our performance. Long-touted as an essential tool by athletes and professional musicians, we now know that positive thinking is not the reason that people feel they perform better with these techniques. Visualization is effective because thinking about practicing a skill changes the brain as if you had actually practiced the skill.

This is fantastic news if you struggle with any skill in your life–not just physical ones. Using visualizations can help you overcome social anxiety, make healthy choices, and best of all, keep calm during stressful times.

Instead of picturing yourself kicking the perfect touchdown into the goal (sports isn’t my thing), you can picture yourself responding with composure to life’s hiccups.

“Negative” Visualization

I tend on the negative side of things. I tend to worry more about very bad things happening than hoping very good things will. I tend to want to diminish my worst behavior and ignore whether my best behavior gets better. This is a default, not a recommendation–but there is something to be said for paying close attention to your liabilities.

While I visualize smiling each day while I do my exercise, I spend more time visualizing reacting better in my worst situations. Better still, I try to focus on being the kind of person who responds rather than reacts.

Try to think of a single, concrete situation that you respond poorly to. Do you yell whenever a glass of milk is spilled? Do you shut down whenever your child says unkind words to you? Do you hide if the house gets too loud? Just start with one thing.

And then picture yourself responding to that situation in the ideal way.

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Imagining Imagining

For some of us, that is impossible. Calmly reacting in a threatening situation isn’t “who we are”. We can’t even come up with a fantasy world where that would happen.

So–and I know this sounds silly, but trust me–imagine that you can imagine yourself responding perfectly. This worked for me.

I could not imagine being the kind of person who could give an uninflected “Yes” or “No” to questions that start with, “Did you remember to…?”

But I could imagine a theoretical world where I could imagine that possibility.

And now, at least some of the time, I am that kind of person. I’ve spent a minute or two for months picturing Amelia effortlessly saying, “No, I didn’t remember. I’ll do that tomorrow,” or “Yes, I did!” without any resentment in her voice.

Try to use visualization to improve your behavioral floor–the worst of your reactions. Practicing in the moment is often too hard because the reason you react so poorly is that you are hurt, scared, angry, or sad. Being removed from the situation allows us a safe place to exercise our self-control.

 

How to HEAL (With a Challenge)

Hardwiring Happiness


Hardwiring Happiness is a book about taking your everyday experiences and using them to build inner strengths. When you have certain characteristics like self-compassion and curiosity, you can call upon them during times of frustration and difficulty–but more importantly, they serve you well in everyday moments. Learning to appreciate the small things your partner does, pulling back on an argument with your child, and taking courageous steps towards accomplishing your goals all become easier when you have a wealth of inner resources.

How it Works

If you have a passing familiarity with pop neuroscience, you know the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together.” Your brain is an association machine and when we make associations, we learn. In his book, Dr. Rick Hanson calls upon you to use the brain’s knack for association to resource yourself–to H.E.A.L. the parts of yourself that are wounded and thrive in your daily life.

Metta meditation asks you to cultivate compassion. You do this by focusing on your heart, repeating the same phrase, and being aware of what compassion feels like in the body. The sustained attention to the emotion helps it grow and fill you up.

Hardwiring Happiness is asking you to apply the same general practice to your other inner strengths.

(In the Alert Authentic Mindful Group on Facebook, we are doing a 21-day challenge inspired by Dr. Rick Hanson’s book. Hardwiring Happiness. Please join us!)

Why You Should Do It

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Dr. Hanson spends the first part of the book going over some of the science and answering the question Why we want to learn the skills he is going to teach us in the second half of the book.

Our brains have a negativity bias. This is in our evolutionary past *not* noticing a pretty flower is okay; *not* noticing a tiger means death. Hardwiring Happiness is not about ignoring tigers. There are and always will be negative things in our lives that we need to pay attention to–and actually, some experiences that feel bad are good for us in the long run.

That does not mean that we should ignore the positive or leave it to our brains to notice it. We want to help our minds pay attention to the lightness and the dark–to quit giving undue attention and power to the negative.

The Human Default

Our world is vastly different today than in our evolutionary past. For our ancestors, serious stress was related to serious stress. Tigers, fear of banishment, and snakes. Sadly, our brains cannot tell the difference between these very real threats to our lives and too much traffic on the highway. We have so many stressors today, including but not limited to the intense and frequent technology stress that we get from renewing our Facebook page. Stress reactions used to be occasional but they are now frequent. Our bodies are now in a constant state of reactivity which is not good for our health, mental or physical.

Responsiveness, as opposed to reactivity, used to be our norm. There weren’t lions around every corner. In social situations, we were less knee-jerk and more of the present and open.

This book will help give you the tools to return to that state or responsiveness by paying attention to the positive around us and turning mental states into neural traits by helping strengthen the bonds between neurons that focus on the beneficial in your daily life.

The Method

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Follow this simple acronym: HEAL

H: Have an experience

E: Enrich

A: Absorb

L: Link

Have an experience: This is the easy part. This month, some experiences will just crop up during the course of your day; some you might have to create for yourself.

Enrich: Think of moments when you naturally feel complete. People often have them on vacation or during the holidays–they look around at their family members and their surroundings and are overwhelmed with gratitude.

You can create this kind of feeling by taking time out of your day to enrich positive experiences. While it may not envelop you in the way it does when it comes naturally, you can make it a much bigger part of your life.

Absorb: This step will often happen at the same time as enrich. As you are making the experience bigger and more embodied, visualize it sinking into you. Maybe you like the idea of gold dust sinking into your center; or maybe you want to picture electricity pulsing in your brain and creating your experience. Whatever it is, try to make the beneficial feeling more apart of you.

Link: One of the reasons that our memories of the past are so bad is because each time we recall them, we can modify them. We can use this little quirk of our brain to heal parts of us that are hard to handle.

When you “link,” you hold the positive experience in the forefront of your mind and call up a negative experience–holding it on the sidelines. Over time, this will gradually make those parts sting less.

HEALing is not about denying the negative in our lives, just paying the beneficial its due. 

(Please join us! We are already on day 4 of our challenge!)

If you have the time, listen to Dr. Rick Hanson go over some of the concepts on his podcast.

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babies are people

Babies Are People

Because they don’t talk. Because we support them. Because they need so much. Because we are all they have.

It is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to remember that our babies are people too. They have their own needs, wants, and struggles.

Difficult Times

My partner experienced this recently when he kindly offered to take our four-month-old son for a while so could relax.

Our four-month-old sleep-regression-and-developmental-leap-having son.

He was not the easiest he has ever been.

My boyfriend remarked in his wisdom that he could see how people sometimes forget that babies are people.

My boyfriend, obviously, is not alone in this. We had spoken about it. I have had that feeling. We all have that feeling.

Little Baby “Thoughts”

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While we’ll never know exactly what babies think—although that’s not quite the right word—I try to put myself in their shoes. I try to think of having a pain and not knowing how to resolve it. I try to think of being alone and not knowing if I’ll ever see anyone again. I try to think of needing help, and the people I care for most withholding.

Of course, my son’s thoughts are nowhere close to this coherent. Babies are people, too, but he has just come out of creature mode. He is just waking up to the world. His emotional system is just coming online, and he can begin to respond with reactions other than fight, flight, freeze or faint.

But even without the cognition, the important thing is there. The feelings are there.

And to me, they sound very difficult and very frustrating.

No Theory of Mind

I try not to go in the other direction, either. There are people who prescribe far more cognitive abilities to children than they have. I probably tend on this side, though I can usually catch myself.

Infants don’t have a theory of mind—they don’t know that you’re making choices and thinking thoughts different and independent from theirs. They don’t understand your motivations.

When my son is uncomfortable or in pain, I sometimes wonder if he is thinking, “Why won’t you just solve this? You’re so big, so strong. You can do so much. Please make this pain stop.”

But he doesn’t think that. He just feels: “I don’t want this!”

As he ages, he may start assigning blame. It will have to do with his temperament, and the sort of culture we set up in our household. Whether he blames me, himself, the world, or realizes that there is no need to sign blame, our ideas and attitudes towards are discomfort are going to have some effect on him.

Being Present

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But for now, my goal is just to remember that he is a person. He is not an inanimate objects that I can force my desires on, and he is not a full grown adult prescribing malintent. He’s neither a manipulative psychopath trying to pull from me every resource that I have nor plant requiring just a bit of water and a touch of sun.

All that I can do is respond consistently to his cues. This doesn’t mean perfectly, and this doesn’t mean immediately. It means recognizing that he is trying to communicate his needs and wants to me and responding to them sensitively.

Sometimes, he will cry while he is in my arms, but if he is with me, he will be fine. And if I can see him and stay with him there without demanding he feel some other way, then I will, too.