Friday, 20 May 2016

Scientists Are Following Their Gut

Whenever I’m nervous, frightened or upset, my stomach is the first place to feel it. My appetite disappears and I find that I’m subconsciously clutching my abdomen. It’s a pretty common reaction.

And how often have you felt  a “gut reaction” that something was good or bad, or been told to “follow your gut”? It seems we’ve always known intuitively that there is a connection between our stomach and our brain. And now, scientists have begun to find physical evidence to back our intuition.

We’ve known for a long time that we all have bacteria in our stomach that helps us to digest our food. But this microbiome, as they are collectively known, also appear to have a connection with our mental health and personality.

And the effect is not just one way:
The scientists found that the brain has a direct effect on the microbiome, creating and changing not only our gastrointestinal functions, but our immune reactions as well. 

At the same time, those microbes in the stomach create substances , such as the neurotransmitter serotonin, that have a direct effect on the brain functionsUp till recently, it was thought that only the brain could produce neurotransmitters.

Now so far, these experiments have all been carried out on mice. But they’ve also used microbes from humans, and I’ll have more on that in a moment.

First, let me tell fill you in on some of the background experiments:

Because the microbiome in our gut is produced from exposure to lots of microbes in the environment, the scientists raised some mice in completely sterile conditions. They then took some of the microbes from a shy and anxious mouse, and introduced them into the gut of the sterile-raised mice. The sterile-raised mouse became shy and anxious.

They tried several variations of the same experiment, and each time, the mouse receiving the microbes took on the behavioral characteristics of the donor mouse.

 Then it got even more interesting:

The scientists took some of the microbes from a human who suffered from anxiety and depression, and exposed them to the sterile-raised mice.  The result was the mice quickly began to show symptoms of depression and anxiety.

One implication of this is that they can change the nature of the microbiome in order to change the behaviour of our brain.

 So the scientists began to experiment with this on mice that were suffering from intestinal leaks, and also were showing repetitive behavior and were shy and uncommunicative with their fellow mice.

They treated these mice with anti-inflammatory bacteria (Bacteroides fragilis) and the results were amazing. Not only did the leaky gut problem resolve, but there was also a marked reduction in the repetitive behaviour and the mice began to spontaneously interact more with the other mice

So, although research is at an early stage, scientists seem to be making speedy progress. This is good news for anyone suffering from gastrointestinal disorders and/or behavioral or mental health issues.

And it also verifies our own human intuition. Clutching my abdomen whenever I’m upset, albeit subconsciously, has a sound scientific basis.
(This blog was first published in Jan 2016 at

Monday, 11 January 2016

Turning Weekdays into Weekends

You might not think that an experiment was needed in order to find out that the majority of people prefer weekends to weekdays. But that is exactly whatpsychologists have done. [1]

Why do we prefer weekends?  Well, because that’s when we can spend time with the people we like best, doing the stuff we don’t have time to do during the week.

And they found that it’s not just employed people either that prefer weekends. Unemployed people also likeweekends [2] for the same reasons. And they can also do these things without the feeling that they maybe should be doing something productive.

And all that got me to thinking:

·         The majority of people appreciate spending time with others at weekends.

·         Appreciation and gratitude are strongly linked to greater happiness.[3]

·         For many people, some of their co-workers are also their friends.

·         So, unless you live and work in complete isolation, why not try to develop a habit of being aware of and appreciating the time spent with our co-workers, friends and family during the week, as well as at weekends? 

I decided to give it a try:

·         I began by filling out the Satisfaction WithLife survey[4], to give me an actual measure of my current happiness levels. I got a score of 23, which is average.

·        Then I set my intention every morning to appreciate the time I spend with other people. Obviously there will be people that I like more than others, but I generally enjoy the company of the majority of people I come into contact with on a daily basis.

I didn’t always remember to be appreciative at first, particularly with those who are not loved ones or friends, but after a couple of weeks it began to become a habit.

As I mainly work from home, some days the only person I actually see is my husband, but by appreciating the time we spend together in the mornings and evenings, it not only made me feel happier, it also strengthened our relationship. And that’s because appreciation is kind of contagious.

So my husband was also feeling happier.

At the end of the first month, I didn’t need the Satisfaction with Life Survey to know that I was happier, but I filled it out anyway, to give me that actual measure again. I was now scoring 32, which is described as “Veryhigh score; highly satisfied”.

Considering that over 70% of people in one of the above surveys don’t like their job, wouldn’t appreciating the time spend with their co-workers make it more bearable?

Now I am aware that it may not be easy, or even possible, to appreciate all of our co-workers, (or even some family members for that matter).  But there is a way of making it easier. And that’s will be the subject of a future blog. So watch this space... 

[1] Ryan, R.M., Bernstein, J.H., & Warren Brown, K. (2010) Weekends, Work, and Well-being: Psychological Need Satisfactions and Day of the Week Effects on Mood, Vitality, and Physical Symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 29 (1) 95–122.

[2] Young, C.,& Chaeyoon L.( 2014). Time as a Network Good: Evidence from Unemployment and the Standard Work Week. Sociological Science. Vol. 1:10–27.

[3] Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Personality & Social Psychology, 88, 377–389.

[4] Diener, E., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., & Griffin, S. (1985). The Satisfaction with Life Scale.Journal of Personality Assessment49, 71–75.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Awe and Alzheimer’s

View of Parliament Buildings from the Grand Palace, Budapest, Hungary

We already know that positive emotions such as happiness, joy or gratitude have a positive effect on our physical and mental health.[1] For example, our immune system is given a boost, and our feelings of satisfaction with life are increased when we feel and express gratitude.[2]

And now, new research has linked the experience of positive emotions in general, and awe in particular, with a decrease in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, among others.[3]

This is of great interest to me personally, because my late father and over half of his seven siblings eventually developed Alzheimer’s disease. So anything that decreases the risk for me is good news.

So what is Awe?

  •         Awe is a positive emotional response to an experience or sensation that is so overwhelming it is impossible to measure or compare to any previous experience or sensation. [4],[5].

  •         Some people experience awe when looking at the Grand Canyon, The Northern Lights or the Pyramids. For others, awe is experienced while sitting quietly in the middle of a forest, looking out at the ocean or staring up at the stars.

  •          Many people who regularly meditate report that they frequently experience a feeling of awe. Others felt awe through profound religious experiences.

But how does a feeling of awe affect our risk of developing diseases such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease, depression or Alzheimer’s?

  •         Well, it’s all to do with proteins in the body, called proinflammatory cytokines, which produce inflammation.

  •        This can have a positive effect, in that it brings blood and healing to an infected or injured part of the body.

  •       But if our body produces too many proinflammatory cytokines, or too often, then it has a detrimental effect:

  •      Stress, anxiety and other so-called negative emotions can result in the production of too many proinflammatory cytokines. And this can result in the development of diseases.

  •  The more often people experience a feeling of awe, the lower their proinflammatory cytokines levels.

         So, positive emotions, and awe in particular, can inhibit the over production of proinflammatory cytokines, and so reduce the risk of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.[3].

Therefore, on my recent visit to the city of Budapest in Hungary, I probably lessened my risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other diseases when visiting the Grand Palace and the Parliament buildings. I have visited several European cities and admired the old and beautiful buildings there, but never have I experienced such a feeling of awe when looking at these buildings.

This recent study on awe and it’s benefits to our physical and mental health was conducted by a team led by Jennifer E. Stellar and also included the Director of the Greater Good Science Centre, Dacher Keltner. Keltner has been called a pioneer in the area of awe and I have no doubt that there will be more studies of this nature coming to the fore in the near future.

1. Fredrickson, B. L. (2003). The value of positive emotions. American Scientist, 91, 330–335.

2. Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Personality & Social Psychology, 88, 377-389.

3. Stellar, J., John-Henderson, N., Anderson, C., Gordon, A. M., McNeil, G., & Keltner, D. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines.Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/emo0000033 

4. Piff, Paul K.; Dietze, Pia; Feinberg, Matthew; Stancato, Daniel M.; Keltner, Dacher ,Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 108(6), Jun 2015, 883-899.

5. Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion 17 (2) 297-314

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Mindfulness with Kindness
Jon Kabatt Zinn defines Mindfulness as "The Art of Paying Attention, on Purpose, Without Judgement to the Present Moment."

But “Without judgement” is sometimes misunderstood as meaning passively accepting, and this is not the case:

We all make judgements between “good” and “bad” without even being consciously aware that we are doing so. For example, the majority of us will judge a kitten or puppy, or a fast and expensive car, as good, and a pile of soiled and smelly nappies/diapers as bad. You may have even noticed a physical reaction just now to the images that those words conjured up. Those reactions are spontaneous and unconscious.

So when we say mindfulness is without judgement, we do not mean fighting those natural and spontaneous reactions. Rather it’s about acknowledging them, with kindness, whether we judge them good or bad. 

And it’s also important to understand that acknowledging without judgement is not the same as allowing an unwanted situation to continue. It is acknowledging that it is as it is right now, and no amount of complaining, whining or self reproach will change that. But that does not mean we cannot plan a way to change things.

In his recent blog in Mindful Magazine, Ed Halliwell suggested using the term Kindfulness, and perhaps it would be a good idea to replace “Without Judgement” with “With Kindness” instead.
And this kindness is really what permeates Mindfulness throughout. Kindness to ourselves whenever we find our thoughts wandering during meditation, kindness to ourselves whenever we get frustrated or anxious about things, kindness to ourselves whenever we forget important stuff or make mistakes.
So paying attention without judgement really means acknowledging everything that‘s going on in our mind, with kindness.

As we practice mindfulness regularly, our self-confidence increases, and we develop not only a greater tolerance and kindness towards ourselves, but also towards the people around us.  And with this greater tolerance and kindness comes greater compassion and understanding. And now we really do have the key to changing unwanted situations; because with compassion and understanding comes greater clarity. We become less reactive and more proactive.

So for example, instead of whining and complaining about, or forcefully confronting our boss, we can approach them calmly and voice our concern or disparity with kindness. We may not get exactly what we want, but the process of change has begun, and our self-confidence and clarity will make it more likely that we will reach some solution eventually.

I have to agree with Ed Halliway when he says that if we lose the kindness from Mindfulness, then it really just becomes a form of attention training.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Positive Thinking, not Magical Thinking

visit my website:

Whenever someone tells me that I've got to face reality, I always ask, which side? Because reality has a positive and a negative. What they really mean is I have to face the negative side. But too many people think that positive thinking means ignoring the negative and pretending all the time that everything is fine.

And that is where the confusion arises:

Positive thinking is more about acknowledging the negative side of a situation and then looking at what you can do to change it. It can also be about looking for the positives within any situation.

Acknowledging the negative does not mean complaining and moaning, and then doing nothing about it. It’s calling it as it is, and then choosing positive action to change it.

If I need a new car, visualizing the new car in my driveway is not enough. The car will not magically appear. Now I know that lots of people will tell you that the power of attraction will cause all sorts of synchronicities and coincidences to occur so that, against all the odds, I will wind up with the new car. And they may be right. But it still will not just appear in my driveway. It still requires some positive action on my part, such as opening a savings account, applying for a bank loan or buying a lottery ticket!

Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't--you're right.” And he was right.

By Hartsook, photographer. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
If you think something is impossible, then there is no motivation to even try.  Positive thinking is acknowledging that something is impossible in the present circumstances, but given the right circumstances, it may become possible.

For example, I could not run a 10 Kilometre race tomorrow, but with proper training and practice, I probably could in three months time. I would need to focus on my goal and be positive in my thinking. If I keep focusing on how unfit I am right now, or thinking about how difficult the training is, chances are, I will not be ready in three months time. Yes, I am unfit and yes, the training would be difficult and it’s okay to say that. Saying it is not being negative, it’s being real. Focusing on it is being negative.

So positive thinking does not mean pretending all is well and ignoring the negative. Nothing changes that way. Positive thinking involves acknowledging the problem, taking positive action to find a solution, and then focusing on the solution rather than continuing to focus on the problem.

And I know that there are some situations that seem impossible to change: But here's a story of how even the most difficult circumstances can contain something positive:

Some years ago, my friend's sister, Elaine (not her real name for privacy reasons) was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Of course, she and her family were shocked and sad, and they went through a period of grieving at first. But then Elaine came to the realization that she was wasting what precious time she had left, so she tried to savour the moments she had with her husband and children. The more she did this, the more she appreciated the life and family she had, and this more positive attitude began to rub off on her family. 

Elaine insisted that they didn't ignore her illness and its inevitable consequences, and that they talked about it whenever they needed to. I remember one day coming into the house with my friend to find Elaine's teenage daughter sobbing on her mother's shoulder. Elaine just held her quietly until the sobbing subsided. We retreated into the garden to give them some space, but after a little while, we were called back to the kitchen where her daughter was making tea. They were talking about how the family were going to cope when Elaine was gone and how it was important to her that they allowed themselves all the time they needed to grieve, but she was adamant that they were not to “wallow in self-pity”.  The conversation moved to reminiscing about the children’s’ early years and before long, everyone was laughing. I will admit that at the time, I found all of this a bit weird.

Some years later I ran into Elaine’s daughter when she was at college. The conversation came around to that day, and she said to me:

“Having my mum dying of cancer was very hard for me, and I still miss her. But the things she taught me during those last months will always stay with me. And I've tried to pass on her positivity to others.”

And then she told me a story:

The year before, her friend’s little brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She told the family the story of how her mother coped, and this family took her words to heart and did their best to savour the time they had with their little boy. They took him to Disney, to football games and tried to have as much fun as possible with him. In fact, the family laughed together more during this time than they ever had before.

 But, this story has a happy ending. The child defied the doctors and eventually made a full recovery from the cancer. And his mother began a local support group for families affected by serious illness.

Both of these stories demonstrate that even in the most difficult circumstances, a positive attitude can make things a little easier to bear.

Both the positive and the negative are realities. Which are you choosing to focus on?

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Taking part in the 100 Day Happiness Challenge

Visit my website

I began the 100 Day Happiness Challenge on 15th December 2014 and finished it on 24th March 2015. I am a generally happy person and appreciate things most of the time, but the challenge was to find something different to appreciate every day, without fail.  And that was what interested me.

It’s easy for me to appreciate the same things day after day, such as my relationship with my husband and my kids, or this wonderful place where we live in the Dublin mountains, or my cat. Finding something different forced me to notice things more, to pay extra attention to my feelings and to actively look for things to be happy about and appreciate. That has to have a positive effect on anyone’s life.

Some days it was difficult to find something to photograph, other days it was difficult to choose just one thing.  My phone is full of photographs that I didn't post. There's a collage at the end of this article of just a few.

There were times when I was just too tired at the end of the day and wanted to go to bed instead of uploading photographs and writing captions. But I noticed as I went along that I had begun to build up a following on this blog and that motivated me to continue. 

Other times, there was stuff going on that was bringing me down, and that was when I found it most challenging. But just looking for something to appreciate often lifted my humour right there and then. 

And there was one day I really couldn't find anything because I was feeling so negative, (My late mother would have said that I got out of bed on the wrong side) so I made that "Yes" poster and hung it behind my computer screen. This worked far better than I expected. Not only that, every time I raise my eyes and see it, it still lifts my spirit and motivates me. 

There are other days that stand out in my memory for being particularly special,  such as the day we first met our newborn Granddaughter. That was also the day I began the challenge so it was a good beginning!

Ever since I was a child, I've loved Christmas Day and this year was particularly special because my youngest daughter was home from the US with her boyfriend, and of course we were joined by my eldest daughter and her fiancĂ©.

And while the sisters were together, we took the opportunity to go wedding dress hunting. That was a lovely day out. I was such a proud mum with my two beautiful daughters! 

The real advantage of taking the challenge is that I have the habit now of looking for more things to appreciate every day.  One of the lessons of mindfulness is that there is more right with us than wrong with us.  We are wired to notice the negative but that’s not very conducive to a happy and successful life. Appreciation re-wires that negative bias so that we notice the positive first. And it’s not just the obvious stuff, like our loved ones and our home; there is positive stuff happening all the time. Taking part in this challenge demonstrated that to me in a very powerful way.

I said at the end of the challenge that I’d continue with in on Instagram. But already laziness has set in. Or maybe it’s just that it’s no longer necessary for to me to photograph everything. I can appreciate it without sharing. But it’s not that I can’t find things to appreciate every day. That bit comes easy now. 

A collage of just some of the photographs I didn't post. Sometimes it was a difficult choice.

Enrol in my Mindfulness Meditation course here for just €12 (US$10) for a LIMITED TIME.  

Enrol in my Mindfulness Meditation course here for just €12 (US$10) for a LIMITED TIME.  

Sunday, 22 February 2015

7 FAQ's about Mindfulness

Visit my Website:

I often get questions from my students, or emails from people who go on my website, asking me about mindfulness and how it benefits them. These are the kind of questions I get asked most frequently. 

If you have any questions that are not here, why not ask in the comments section below? I'll do my best to answer you, or to refer you to somewhere or someone that has the answer.

1. How does meditating improve my life?

Whenever we learn a new skill, we need to practice it. And even when we already have a skill, we need to practice it so to improve it and not lose it. The same is true of mindfulness.

Whenever we practice sitting quietly and paying attention to our breathing, or sounds, we develop the skill of focus, of noticing everything around us, of remaining in the present moment rather than continually living in the future or the past. Then we can bring that skill to our everyday activities.

This is beneficial in that it improves concentration and focus and reduces stress.

2. How is paying attention to drinking my tea or coffee better than using the time to check my emails and plan my day?

Paying attention to one thing while doing something else is a habit we’ve all grown used to. But it means that we are continually either thinking about the future or the past instead of being really aware of what’s going on right now.

But if we can train ourselves to pay attention to the current experience, we began to develop the ability to really see the present more clearly, and to learn from it, rather than having a vague or filtered view of what’s going on. Sometimes we don’t want to look at what’s going on too closely because we are afraid we might see something we don’t like. But if we can stay with the experience as it unfolds, we’re more likely to leave our preconceived ideas and prejudices behind.

So, when you are then planning your day, you are not only doing so with your full focus and concentration, you are also doing so with clearer vision and understanding.

3. I found that the meditation was hard: My mind just kept drifting away. What am I doing wrong?

Great! The good news is that the moment you noticed that your mind had drifted away, you were being mindful.
Just gently bring your mind back to the meditation. You will probably have to do this several times during the meditation.
Some days we have to do this every 5 seconds or less. Other days, our mind will be quieter and we may only have to redirect our attention every minute or so. With practice, we get better and better, but we all will still have days when our attention has the staying power of a two-year-old child.
The most important thing is to stay calm and relaxed about it, and regard the thoughts as part of the meditation, rather than interference.

4. How long will it take before I notice mindfulness making a difference in my life?

Not surprisingly, there is a good deal of variability in how this practice impacts people's lives and when they start to see those changes occur.
That said, it's fairly common for people to report within a couple of weeks of dedicated practice that they were able to meet a situation with a new sense of having choice in how they respond. These are the early signs of developing a degree of freedom from our automatic and habitual tendencies.
Something else to consider: Co-workers, family and friends sometimes notice these changes before we ourselves are clearly aware of them.
5. Is it a good idea to listen to music while I’m meditating?

Music can be helpful in keeping you attentive or it can be a distraction. Sometimes we want the music to entertain us because we’re finding it difficult to stay in the moment.

Really, the aim of mindfulness meditation is to stay in the moment, to be aware of what is happening now within our mind and body and music can be a distraction from that.

I would recommend that you try meditating for short periods (5-10 mins) with music at first, and then lengthen the time as you become more comfortable with it. After that, try meditating without the music, and compare how you get on with and without it.

6. I get fidgety when I sit still for any length of time. What should I do?

We are in a habit of shifting and moving to the body’s demands without even being aware of it.

By bringing mindfulness to this habit, we can learn to quiet the body as well as the mind. So whenever you feel the urge to move, acknowledge that urge but without moving. If it helps, say to yourself (silently) “I want to move”, then go back to the meditation. If the urge returns immediately or you feel you just cannot stay still, then make the decision, mindfully, to move.

With practice, you will be able to acknowledge these urges without having to move. But it’s important not to try and ignore the urge, or push it away. Be aware of them and mindfully decide whether to give to them, or not.

7. I’m enjoying the mindfulness meditation, but I still find it difficult to be mindful in my interaction with others. Will this come with time?

As we practice being mindful in everyday situations it does become easier.  So it’s best to begin with situations that do not involve interacting with others.

Try being mindful while walking, on public transport or waiting in line, for example. Just be aware of your surroundings by using your senses: Look at everything you can around you, listen to all the sounds you can hear, be aware of your body; whether it’s warm or cold, comfortable or uncomfortable. Be aware of your thoughts or any emotions you might be feeling.

As you grow more accustomed to doing this, begin to incorporate mindfulness into your interaction with others: Wait for others to finish their sentence before deciding you already know what they are going to say, listen to what they are saying and take a moment before you speak rather than rushing in. Ask questions and wait for people to answer before making up your mind about their motives.

These things become easier the more we practice them. And remember, have patience with yourself. You won’t always get it right, but you will get it right more often.

Get my Mindfulness Meditation course here for just €12 ($10) FOR A LIMITED TIME!