December 19, 2014

The Lazy Gal’s Way to a Consistent Meditation Practice

The Insight Timer app is available in both a free and deluxe version

The Insight Timer app is available in both a free and deluxe version

Many of us are aware of the myriad of benefits associated with a regular meditation practice, among them improved stress management, clearer thinking, and increased capacity to focus.  I am well-aware of these benefits myself having attended an 8-week course at the University of Minnesota in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction  and lectures by the mindfulness guru, Daniel Siegel.  I have extolled its virtues in presentations and recommended it to clients.  Nothing could be better for the brain.

Have practiced meditation consistently myself?  No.  Absolutely not.  My practice has been scattered at best usually because I think I am going to get around to it during the day but I seldom do.  What’s more is I am exactly the kind of person who would benefit from a regular meditation practice- high energy, often overextended, somewhat distractible.

Recently I rediscovered an app I’ve had on my phone for quite some time- the Insight Timer. Like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, I have had the answer to my inconsistent meditation practice all along.   Here are the advantages:

1. I can meditate anywhere.  At least in the winter, it means another 15-20 minutes in my warm bed.  I meditate right when I wake up.

2. The app automatically logs my time so I can see how long I have meditated and on what days.

3.  There is a an opportunity to journal a few thoughts afterward.  This is a delightful bonus because journaling was also something I intended to do but never did.  I can write down a few thoughts usually when I am at the peak of mental clarity.

4.  My iPhone is always with me so I have all I need to to meditate at any time- a chiming bell and a way to record my thoughts.

Any meditation is good.  Consistent meditation is better.  For the first time in my life, I actually know the difference.

Isn’t It a Diagnosis?

medical-chart-iconHave you ever taken an assessment tool, such as an emotional intelligence “test”  and were completely shocked, depressed, or mildly annoyed at the results? Or have you taken an assessment tool and had the opposite reaction? “Hey,  I’m pretty well- adjusted, intelligent or savvy!”  Or maybe you’ve taken a survey and the results don’t seem to quite fit.

When using such tools, a question that comes up frequently t is, “Isn’t this a diagnosis?”  In fact, sometimes this assumption forms the rationale to dismiss the value of assessment tools altogether which is a very big mistake.

Recently I was part a workshop team, certifying individuals in the use of a new assessment tool called the Intentional Leadership Audit that identifies leadership priorities, strengths and blind spots.   Along with the new assessment, there were connections made between leadership priorities, an individual’s psychological type (as identified by the MBTI ™ or other Jungian tool), and the EQi 2.0, emotional intelligence instrument.

In one of the case studies, it was revealed that the subject had a low score on the impulse control subscale of the EQi 2.0.   As a group, we then discussed the possible implications of low impulse control for a leader.  During the discussion,  one of the participants asked, “Isn’t this a diagnosis?  Isn’t this just what you are?”

It is common for people to assume  assessment tools have diagnostic implications, much the way medical tests point toward a condition that has to be treated.  Such is not he case.  Assessment tools, particularly self-reporting assessment tools, mainly serve the purpose of outlining what appears to be an individual’s mindset.  This can be affected by both inherent or default temperament as well as a myriad of other factors coming from personal experiences.  Hence, while much of our approach to living is fairly consistent, much of it is also malleable because our brain is adaptable and responds to the demands placed upon it.  We can all change and broadly,  this is how we do it:

1. Some sort of dampening down of the usual mind map has to take place, one of the most effective ways being through immersion .  So for example, if you were going to learn a new language, ideally you would have to eliminate as much use of the  native language as possible so the new language could build resilient neuro-connections in the brain.   The brain doesn’t like competing stimuli. That is why language immersion programs seem to work. Similarly, if you were relying on your sense of touch to get around in a dark room, you would immediately switch to your preferred mode of sight to get around if the light switch was turned on.  In other words,  the preferences that were present  first take precedence but if they are greatly attenuated, then new pathways can develop.  .

2. A deliberate or mindful monitoring of behavior can create a self-awareness and over time, a resilient change in the brain can take place. Choosing to consistently respond or act in a new way  can bring about these changes. Either through self-driven intent or the coaching  guidance, the brain can adapt to the demands placed upon it.

Assessment tools are a starting point to identify what appears to be the lay of the land.  After clarifying the results with a client, they can be immensely helpful in finding a starting point to structure goals and objectives.   Anything is possible as the brain is most definitely capable of significant change.  It is vitally important to know the fluid nature of assessment tools and the valuable information they can provide.


Keeping Your Brain Razor Sharp

The brain and gut are intrinsically related.  A happy mind is a happy gut and a happy gut is a happy mind.

The brain and gut are intrinsically related. A happy mind is a happy gut and a happy gut is a happy mind.

My great aunt grew up on a diet of fatty meat, dumplings and potatoes. Vegetables were usually cucumbers doused in bacon grease. She smoked for 80 years and loved her scotch. When she was in her mid-90’s, she collapsed at a casino and was admitted to the hospital. After a few tests, she insisted that she be taken home or else she would call a cab. She had a dinner party on Friday night. She was released. On Friday, she went to the party, enjoyed herself as always, and died Saturday morning in her bed in the house she had lived in for decades.

Except for the exercise she got enjoying herself, she defied all the laws of what we now know as the standard guidelines of health:  Exercise, no smoking, moderate alcohol, and a diet of fruits, veggies, and lean meats. This aunt of mine was lucky and she probably had resilient genes. Maybe she also had less overall stress than the typical person has today.

Current research shows that small but measurable declines in brain function begin in our 20’s.  In the age 85+ population, 40% show signs of Alzheimer’s disease.   Anxiety is common in developed in countries and the lifetime risk for significant depression is 20%, whereas 100 years ago, it was 1%. It’s been suggested that stress, lack of sleep, obesity, lack of exercise contribute to declining brain health.

How do we keep our brain razor sharp?

Here are 5 tips:

1.  Exercise.  Regular exercise improves circulation, increases pulmonary capacity and lessens anxiety and depression.  What’s more, exercise produces BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) which creates new brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus, which is  critical to memory functions and spatial navigation.

2. Keep inflammation in check.  Inflammation can come from infections, injuries and poor dental health.  What has emerged lately is the role of excess weight, poor lifestyle, and lack of sleep in the onset of the inflammatory process.

3.  Reduce or eliminate sugar.  There is an emerging evidence that sugar is a significant cause of chronic inflammation. Seventy percent of our immune cells are in the digestive system.  Anything that irritates these cells, irritates the immune cells including those in the brain.

4.  Watch for food sensitivities such as gluten intolerance. They also disrupt the intestinal immune system, ultimately affecting inflammation in the brain.  If your digestive tract feels unwell after eating something, your brain probably isn’t happy about it either.

5. Supplement with omega 3 capsules or eat food rich in omega 3 such as salmon and flax.  Not only will they insulate the nerve cells with high quality fat, they also reduce inflammation.

The brain and belly are intrinsically connected.  Not only are they connected by immune cells, the vagus nerve directly connects the two organs.  Therefore, an additional benefit for eating well is that your “gut feelings” are likely to be more clearly interpreted by brain.  A happy brain is a happy belly and a happy belly is a happy brain. More on that next time!



Emotion: Who Needs to Know About it Anyway?

What is your current state of mind?

What is your current state of mind?

Emotions are a tricky subject for me.  For much of my life, I have believed what many people have thought about the nature of emotion: that emotions require too much time, they lead to loss of control, and only a restricted set of emotions are acceptable.  In addition, who among us was taught how to to accurately define our own emotional state?  Note the emphasis.  Very often someone else is telling us how we currently feel, should feel, or not feel.  Think about it for a moment.

I had a couple of interesting experiences recently that brought home the degree to which I need to develop this area of my psyche.  First, I became certified in the EQi 2.0. As part  of the certification process, I had to take an emotional intelligence test. It consists of 15  subscales that measure areas such as optimism, flexibility and stress tolerance which were very high scores for me.  Definitely on the lower side were my scores for emotional awareness and emotional expression.  In fact, they were as low as 37 points below my top scores.  That’s quite a gap in EQi-speak!

Meanwhile, I attended a presentation on emotional awareness at a recent ICF conference.  A list of 224 adjectives, describing various emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant was given out.   For the next week, I experimented with trying to accurately describe what I was feeling when I felt a stirring in my body or my gut (often the first sign that an emotion is happening).   I could barely do it!  Certainly many of us can describe vague or broadly felt emotions like happy, angry or sad.  But it’s this nuanced description of how one is feeling that isn’t so easy. Try it sometime.  I can send you the list!

Yet it is been shown that suppressing emotion, the physical feeling actually leads to more of the emotion we are trying to quell.  Moreover on FMRi studies, the limbic system, the place in the brain where much of our emotional is wired,  seems to be further aroused the more we try to wrestle it down.  So why do we do it?  My first guess is that it was conditioned out of us early on in our lives.

Nevertheless, there is much benefit to becoming better at accurately describing our emotional state.   Name it to tame it is one way we can do this and it has indeed been shown on fMRI that the limbic system will calm down when we name how we are feeling.  However, I would like to offer up this reason:  When we accurately define an emotion, we open a door for a solution or a remedy.

For instance, if we are confused or uncertain, we can seek clarity.  If we are feeling vulnerable, we can seek safety. If we feel overwhelmed, we can ask for help or lighten our schedule.  However, if we experience all of these as the same state- let’s say “upset”, then our doorway out is not very clear.

You can do a similar exercise with positive emotions.  Happy is good but grateful connects an experience with gratitude.  Do you need to thank someone? If you feel adventurous, seek an adventure.

On a final note, for those of us who prefer a different word rather than “emotion”, I like to use “state of mind.” Yes…that makes me feel comfortably in tune with myself indeed.


-Coaches can ask questions that leverage the state of emotional awareness to set goals and problem solve.
-emotional awareness can also be seen as “knowing one’s current mindset.”

Diving and Surfing in the Age of Information

Brain_coralDiver brains and surfer brains are different.  The diver brain thinks deeply and can hold a line of thought for an extended period of time, generally without distraction. Imagine going deep beneath the surface, studying and thinking about the surroundings, carefully maintaining attention.   There are no cell phones, Google, or RSS feeds to interrupt the experience.  In contrast, the surfer brain skims the surface, taking in data and making rapid decisions and judgments about the data.  Stimuli are coming from all directions and the brain has to constantly decide if it is relevant or not.  Much like surfing, it is exciting but the brain quickly fatigues.  Moreover, surfing absolutely precludes the possibility of deep thinking.

In recent weeks, I read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, who sets up the argument that our brains, due to their neuroplastic nature, adapt to the demands of the environment.  He outlines the changes that likely occurred in the brain as a result of moving from the oral traditions of managing information, to the first methods of recording information on stones and papyrus, to the invention of the printing press and now the Internet.  As information management evolved, some cognitive processes were strengthened and some were weakened.  Today’s brain is a surfer brain but how do we manage information so we can also deep dive?

In the Brain Rules, John Medina addresses attention.  What engages the brain and what distracts it?  He states bluntly that the brain cannot multi-task and he tells the story of his son trying to write a paper for school with 11 other windows open including 2 instant messaging screens!  Each time he has to shift attention, his brain has to engage, disengage, and re-engage somewhere else. This sequence has to occur every time attention is shifted. Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to complete a task and he makes up to 50% more errors in the process!  What’s more, this is an exhausting process.  I wonder how long a surfer could actually surf if he had an endless wave?

So what’s the best brain for the age of information? The answer is both. However, it’s important to know what is approach is called for in a given situation. One does not put on an oxygen tank when he plans to surf and one does not go without one if he plans to dive.   The key to all of this is developing awareness around the different demands that each situations calls for.  Do you have a blog to write?  Then it’s probably a good idea to close the other windows on your computer and turn off your cell phone.  Do you need to research something quickly?  Then Google is your answer, not the stacks at an old university library.

Much of what we do is habitual so we aren’t always aware of whether or not we are using the best approach to get the job done well.  However, a little self-awareness in this area can really pay off!

*This article was featured in Mind Matters, my monthly blog at ICF MN.

Exercise Your Future Self

road-sign_futureThe notion of describing and revisiting the future self as a way to achieve goals is well known and a cornerstone of effective coaching practice.    However, what human tendency are we counteracting when we call on the future self to step in?

The human inclination toward viewing small rewards now as more desirable than a greater distant reward is apparently hard-wired into us.  For instance, we might purchase an attractive item in the moment even though our goal might be to pay down our credit card debt.  Known as temporal discounting, it appears to have been programmed into us by evolution when threats to survival compelled us to take whatever we could get in the moment.

It is often been said that our evolutionary self is not very well suited to living in the world today.   Our ancestors apparently walked 5-10 miles per day but very few of us approach that amount in a week let alone a day.   The area of the brain known as the amygdala was designed to detect deadly threats and put into the motion the fight, flight or freeze response.  Yet the amygdala kicks in when we are about to do something as threatening as speaking to a group of people.   Our world has evolved but in general, we have not.  It seems that one critical way to achieve our goals is to be aware of our humanness!

So how do we counteract these maladaptive tendencies?  Call on the prefrontal cortex, easily my most favorite structure in the brain!  Thoughtful decisions to choose a long-term goal over an immediate reward are rooted here.   The so-called future self calls on the prefrontal cortex to define and remind us of what we really want in the long run, not what is calling to us in the moment.   But like muscles we build in the gym, we need to exercise this area of the brain so that it is strong and available to us when we need it.   That is why the future self exercise is so important and why it needs to be revisited during the coaching process.

Interesting research.  Experimenters showed that if individuals were shown a computer simulation of themselves aged several years, they were more likely to put money into a retirement account.   If we can help a clients clearly define what they want for themselves in the future, they are more likely to make choices to help them get there.

Coaches: What techniques do you use to help your clients get in touch with their future selves?  Clients:  How often do you think of yourself in the future?

This article was written for and featured in the Catalyst MInd Matters blog at ICF MN


Uncover Your Potential: Sleep. Sleep Well.


As coaching professionals, we are always looking for ways to enhance the process of helping others uncover their personal potential.   We strive to expand the possibilities through visual coaching, body-connected coaching and mindfulness among other methodologies    And yet, we may be overlooking a powerful way to increase the capacity to think clearly and consider multiple perspectives.   It’s sleep.

How well are you sleeping?  How well is the client sleeping?  Recently, I attended a seminar called The Ever-Changing Brain.  I was struck by the impact of sleep deprivation on every aspect of our lives.   The presenter, John Preston, Psy.D. wasn’t talking about just doing time in our bed.  He was talking about the deeply restorative type of sleep that affects our ability to regulate our emotions, solve problems, and go through our day with energy.  What happens to willpower when fatigue is present?

It isn’t the number of hours spent in our bed either.  Researchers say we need 7-9 hours but the quality of sleep is critical. Apparently, slow wave sleep is the type of sleep that we need.   If we don’t get quality sleep,  we experience an increase in irritability and lack of focus.  Cognition and problem solving is reduced.  Pain thresholds decrease.  Extended sleep deprivation can result in depression.

Here are some factors that adversely affect deep, restorative sleep:   Caffeine, alcohol, late nights with a bright computer screen, tranquilizers and some sleeping pills.   A hot room can also interfere with slow wave sleep.  Sleep apnea, which is another topic altogether, is probably the biggest enemy of restorative sleep.

So what can you do to enhance sleep?   Dr. Preston had these suggestions:

1.  Get regular exercise (but not before bed!)

2. Avoid computer screens and other bright sources of light at least an hour before bed.

3. Sleep cool.

4. Calm evenings.

5. Avoid substances that interfere with slow wave sleep (as above).

So next time you have a client who feels frustrated, stuck or overwhelmed, you might just inquire how they are sleeping.  It might be one of the single most powerful ways you can enhance the coaching outcome.

Ann C. Holm

Written for my column, “Mind Matters” in The Catalyst at MN-ICF.


Five New Minds for the New Year

Five minds brainPerhaps you have heard of Howard Gardner, best known in educational circles for his theory on multiple intelligences.  Gardner asserted that there are eight intelligences: linguistic, logic-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic.  As coaches, we tap into these to help clients discover new perspectives.   For example, body-centered coaching is quickly becoming an area that many coaches are interested in developing.

But did you know that Howard Gardner recently outlined 5 “new minds” that will be required for the 21st century?  These new minds, as defined by Gardner include:

  1. The Disciplined Mind – A mind that can concentrate, hold attention, and understand in-depth.  In the digital world, the temptation is to take in snippets of information rather than to learn deeply.  However scholarship is a prerequisite to new ideas.   As Gardner stated, “You can’t think outside of the box until you know what the box is.”
  2. The Synthesized Mind- A mind that can blend and compare concepts. Cognitive flexibility.
  3. The Creating Mind- A mind that can create new ideas. The willingness to make mistakes en route to new discoveries. Imagination!
  4. The Respectful Mind- A mind that can understand the perspectives of another especially those who are from a different culture.
  5. The Ethical Mind- A mind that does not confuse resourcefulness with cheating.

When I learned of these new intelligences, I was struck by how important each of these is to coaching and the coaching relationship.  Hence, I have reworded these new intelligences in the vernacular coaches typically use:

  1. The Disciplined Mind- As coaches, can we listen deeply?  Concentrate?  Hold our attention for the client?
  2. The Synthesized Mind- Can we dance in the moment with the client?  Blend ideas?  Be flexible?
  3. The Creating Mind- Isn’t coaching all about discovering new territory?
  4. The Respectful Mind- We are called as coaches to take the perspective of the client without judgment.  The less we have in common with the client, the more we need to be mindful of this.
  5. The Ethical Mind- As coaches, we operate under a code of ethics.


Coaching truly is a 21st century profession.  As we begin 2013, how will you use these new intelligences in your practice?

Written by Ann C. Holm for MCA Minnesota

The “What the Hell Effect”

It’s Halloween time so why not talk about one of the ways an individual can be insidiously derailed from a long term goal.    Let’s say your goal is to lose 20 pounds so you decide that you will restrict yourself to 1500 calories per day.

One day you go out with your co-workers  after a long day and everyone orders drinks.  Then appetizers.  At this point, you have broken through your daily calorie count.  What do you do?

A)  You stop right there and switch to drinking club soda and passing on any more food.

B)   You decide to keep eating and drinking because you have already blown your diet goal for the day.

If you chose “B”, you have done what many people do once they have fallen short of a goal.   They figure “Oh well,  I’ve already missed my goal so I might as well chuck it for the day.”   There is a real term for this in the psychological literature and it’s called, “The What the Hell Effect.”  Our minds get tricked into thinking that a goal that is blown a little is actually a goal that might as well be blown a lot.

Rather than fall slightly short of a goal and make some progress, the entire goal can be thrown out the window!  Unfortunately, this often leads to falling further behind the intended goal.  The goal might be to not spend the $100 bill in your wallet.  Once it’s “broken” though, you are much more likely to spend more of the $100.  Doing this repeatedly can add up!

Awareness of this natural tendency goes a long way toward avoiding it’s effects.  Another way to get around it is to pre-plan how you will behave if you do fall short of your goal.  Will you trend toward trying to stay as close as possible to the intended goal?  Or will you let yourself go figuring, “Oh what the hell!  I’ve already blown it!”  One will keep you on track.  The other may very well derail you.  The “What the Hell Effect” is a sneaky, sneaky saboteur.