Sunday, December 22, 2013

exSPIREment: Meditate, episode 2

It's been 2 weeks since I had my first post about this month's exSPIREment to meditate every day.  I've enjoyed this journey so far, though I do admit to skipping 5 days already.  I've been keeping an Excel file to log my pre- and post- meditation feelings and blood pressure/pulse in addition to the type and duration of meditation.  I've tried a variety of meditation styles.  Here are some examples: 

Each person will have a meditation style that suits him/her best.  For myself, I've learned that lying down does not work for me.  The one time I tried (while listening to a recording of a body scan), I fell asleep (rookie mistake!).  When I sit cross-legged on the floor, my legs and feet get tingly, so I switched to sitting onto 2 stacked pillows on the bed.  For part of my Christmas present (we exchanged gifts early), Nick got me a meditation cushion filled with buckwheat!  This is so much better than sitting on pillows!  I tried it last night for the first time- I feel more stable, have better posture, and am able to maintain the same position for a longer time without adjusting.  Through my practices, I've also learned that I focus better with my eyes closed.  The OnDemand Qi Gong video I tried did not fulfill my goal of relaxing, though I did like the concept of mindful movement in general.  When I set a timer and sit in silence, I find myself wondering how much time is left and then when the alarm goes off, it startles me (even when it is set to something soft like chimes).  I've typically been meditating in the evenings, but I did try one morning after exercising; I was tired.  Through my practices, I think I've been getting quicker at being able to settle into a meditation session.  My mood is generally more positive after a session; however, my blood pressure/pulse does not seem correlated.  

I put my skills to use this past week as I prepared for my thesis proposal (PhD candidacy exam) on Tuesday.  I was especially anxious on Monday.  That evening, I meditated for 20 minutes (seated, focusing on my breath and positive energy).  My pre-meditation blood pressure and pulse were especially high, likely because of my anxiety.  After my meditation session, my systolic pressure dropped by 10 mmHg, my diastolic dropped by 3, and my pulse dropped by 18 beats.  This was the one time I felt that my meditation had a significant influence on my blood pressure (though I was still anxious after my meditation session).  

A week prior to my thesis proposal, I had watched this TED Talk on body language and how it influences your feelings:

On Tuesday, the day of my proposal, I was fortunately not as nervous as the day before.  To ensure confidence for my afternoon's presentation, I periodically assumed a power pride position (arms in the air in a V-shape, as if I just crossed a finish line), which I had learned about from watching the TED talk.  I only held the pose for maybe 30 seconds each time, but I did it multiple times throughout the morning and one final time about 20 minutes before my presentation.  It sounds silly, but seeing myself in the mirror in this position did make me feel like I was strong, confident, and ready.  Something must have worked because in the end, my thesis proposal went well, and I am now a PhD candidate! 

As I continue my exSPIREment for the rest of this month, I'm going to try incorporating mindful moments into everyday activities rather than simply setting aside a specific time of day to be mindful.  

What's your favorite meditation style?  
How do you reduce anxiety and increase confidence?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

exSPIREment: Meditate, episode 1

In October, for my first exSPIREment, I tried reading the newspaper every day.  From that experience, I improved my knowledge of current events and have since downloaded the NPR app, to which I listen as I walk to work; I particularly like the 10 minute newscast that is updated every hour and gives short blips for the main headlines.  Staying up-to-date on national and world events is a new addition to my lifestyle to help me improve as a person.  Now, it's time to embark on my next journey...

On Sunday, December 1 (also the 6 month mark of my marriage!), I commenced on my second exSPIREment: to meditate every day for the month of December.  This comes at perfect timing, seeing that I will be proposing my PhD thesis in the middle of the month (less than 1.5 weeks away now!), and I'm going to need to stay level headed to get through it successfully.

I've long been intrigued by mindful practices.  Indeed, this is not my first time undertaking meditation as a daily routine- I have gone to various workshops and classes on meditation over the years.  I even once participated in a 21 day meditation challenge through One Yoga Philly; however, I have not yet made meditation a part of my lifestyle.  The objective of this exSPIREment is to 1) define the personal benefits I gain through consistent meditation practice and 2) identify how I can incorporate meditation into my lifestyle. 

Newspapers, magazines, online articles- you can find articles touting the benefits of meditation almost anywhere you look.  I chose to search on PubMed for the real research articles to decide for myself how beneficial meditation may be.  For once, it seems that journalism has only moderately blown the benefits out of proportion: meditation and mindfulness-based practices have been suggested as an effective treatment for various psychological problems (particularly to reduce anxiety, depression, and stress), a method to assist smoking cessation, a practice to decrease chronic pain, an adjuvant treatment for patients with neurodegenerative diseases, a way to "slow down" time, a method to improve sleep quality and cognitive function in older individuals, a practice to improve autobiographical memory specificity, etc. 

Meditation has both acute (immediate) and chronic (long-term) effects: one study showed an acute relaxation response and improved reaction time and long-term improvements in IQ and stress.  Meditative practices produce real physiological changes.  For example, MRI imaging of the brains of Parkinson's patients who underwent 8 weeks of mindfulness based intervention had increased gray matter density in the regions of the brain thought to be important in Parkinson's.  Increased regional gray matter in the brain has also been seen in healthy subjects that underwent 8 weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction. 

Although many studies show benefits of meditation or mindfulness training, taken together, the findings across multiple studies are inconclusive.  A review the effects of mindfulness training on cognitive abilities concluded preliminary evidence for enhanced cognitive functions but that more high quality studies are needed.  The American Heart Association released a statement that meditation is not recommended in clinical practice to lower blood pressure, due to lack of evidence; however, transcendental meditation may provide mild benefits.

I hypothesize that 

  1. Acutely, meditation will lower my blood pressure and pulse (quantitative), indicative of a relaxation response, and improve my mood and focus (subjective). 
  2. Chronically, meditation will improve my ability to handle stress (subjective).
To test these hypotheses, I will keep a log that details my pre- and post-meditative states.

Join me in meditating this December!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Oct-Nov exSPIREment: Read the Newspaper, episode 4

Two days ago, on October 31, I completed my first exSPIREment to read the newspaper!  In this self-study, I set out to read the Wall Street Journal every day for the month of October.  I chose the Wall Street Journal because Nick's business school tuition includes a weekday subscription to the newspaper.   

Results and Discussion

For the 31 days of October, I estimate I missed reading on 7 days due to various reasons (the newspaper wasn't delivered, time management, I just didn't want to, I didn't find an online source to read over the weekend).  I hypothesized that reading the newspaper would 1) improve my knowledge of politics and world events, 2) improve my ability to navigate the newspaper and skim articles, and 3) teach me something or inspire a new idea.  All 3 of my hypotheses were supported... within just the first week!  By the middle of my exSPIREment I was tired of reading the newspaper.  It took too much time and I found myself skimming more and more.  By the end, I completely skipped the middle sections of the newspaper and solely focused on the main section that includes national and international news. 

As predicted, my pitfalls included identifying a consistent time of day to read, convincing myself to read the articles that at first bore me, and settling on an alternative to read on the weekends.  Surprisingly, I was not overwhelmed by the wealth of information in the paper (probably because I just ended up skimming or skipping a majority of it); however, I was extremely overwhelmed when I tried to read online alternatives.  

I've identified pros and cons of reading the Wall Street Journal as my main source of news.
  • Pro: A paper news source has a limited amount of information (unlike an online source, where one can keep clicking indefinitely), so I do not feel overwhelmed.
  • Con: The Wall Street Journal has a marketplace/finance/economic spin on all articles, something I'm not too interested in. 
  • Pro: A paper news source allows one to easily skip articles he/she doesn't want to read (unlike a television or radio program, where one must listen through the entire segment).
  • Con: A paper source does not have the most up-to-date, ground-breaking news (unlike an online, television, or radio source).
  • Pro/Con: The Wall Street Journal is not a local newspaper, meaning I am spared the dreadful daily tragedies happening right in Philly; however, that also means I am not aware of important community news and issues.
  • Pro: A paper news source is portable. 
This was the method I developed on 
  1. Read the "What's News" column on the left side of the front page.  This section is essentially an annotated table of contents.  It gives a 1 sentence description of the main articles and where they can be found in the paper.  Mentally note the ones that sound interesting/important/relevant.  For me, this is the most useful part of the paper.  In just a few minutes, I am able to get a general idea of the main events.
  2. Review all articles on the front page of the paper.  This does not necessarily mean read each in depth.  Instead, read the title and a few sentences from each article.  There's a reason (though maybe not always a great reason) they've made the front page of the paper.  
  3. Flip through the remainder of the main section (A).  In general, the main section is laid out beginning with U.S. News, then World News, then Opinion.
  4. Go back to step 1 and read any articles you made mental note of.
  5. Flip through the remaining sections of the paper.  Read titles and if anything strikes you, read the first paragraph.  In general, the Wall Street Journal is pretty good at putting the key piece of news in the first couple sentences of the article.  If you're compelled to learn more, continue reading, if not then move on.
  6. Continue until satisfied.
Caveat 1: If you only read the titles and first paragraphs of each article, know that you are only getting the "conclusion" and missing any details that may indicate how valid this "conclusion" is.  If you read the entire article, you will be able to make a more informed decision for yourself on the pieces of information worth taking away and what is fact versus opinion.

Caveat 2: All news is biased.  Even if you read each article thoroughly, know that every story is told from a certain perspective.  Not everything that is presented is a fact.  Opinion is inherently intermixed because which facts are presented is a choice made by the writer/editor.  Everything you read/hear must be taken with a grain of salt.  You must be a critical reader and take away only what is valid.     

Future Directions

Throughout this month of November, I will attempt to establish new habits based on the findings of my exSPIREment.  Specifically, I feel that I do need to continue to incorporate some form of the news into my daily life; however, I'd like to search for alternatives to the Wall Street Journal.  Other forms of news include television news programs, radio, phone apps, online newspapers/magazines, or other hard-copy newspapers.  I am open to suggestions!  Ideally, I would be able to multi-task being informed by the news with another daily task (e.g., walking to/from work or exercising).  

How are you informing yourself of local and world events?     

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

We All Fall

Once a year, my advisor holds one-on-one "strengths-weaknesses" meetings for everyone in the lab.  We are supposed to come prepared with a list of our individual perceived strengths and weaknesses, those of the lab, and those of our advisor.  It's a meeting that I think most of us dread going in (candid discussions can be really awkward) but are pleasantly surprised by coming out (it's not actually as bad as we envision it will be). 

Well, my first year of this, I sat down nervously, heart pounding (as usual), with my list in front of me.  I recited what I had prepared (mostly trying to avoid eye contact) and then waited for my advisor to respond with his thoughts.  He told me

My strength is that I fail.  Gracefully.

He said it a little bit nicer than that, but the gist was that I had several projects go wrong and somehow I hadn't quit and my morale wasn't demolished.  (Oh, to be a young, enthusiastic grad student.)  Perseverance. 

That comment has really stuck with me.  I didn't quite make it through the 5 stages of grief-- there was no denial; after all, I had definitely failed multiple times-- but my internal response to this comment has come in stages.  At first, I was kind of disheartened (I've been here for over a year, and my most notable strength is that I fail?) but as that feeling dissolved, it was replaced by acceptance and understanding.  Not everyone fails gracefully.  

Now to be honest, I hate failure.  There are few things I hate more.  I think this is part of the reason that I don't see myself as a full-time researcher for a career-- too much failure.  With as many self-help, business management books I've read and TED Talks I've watched, I "know" that failure is the key to success and growth.  But still, my knee-jerk reaction to failure is to cry.  Of course, I tend to learn something from my failures, but in the moment, it sucks.  I'm working on improving that.  

Ironically, this was a strength of mine in gymnastics as well.  Only, literally.  Our coach used to tell us that if we fell, we had to make it pretty.  Act like you mean it.  Pose.  Pose.  Pose.  Smile.  I took that to heart.  

My strength was that I fell.  Gracefully.  

Oh, and did I fall.  On beam, on floor, on bars.  Pose.

The first time I went skiing with my friends in high school, they ditched me to hit the slopes, and I was left on the bunny hills with my friend's dad.  When I was finally ready to move to a green circle, I was so terrified of falling.  It was such a stressful experience.  Stressful because I didn't want to fall.  It wasn't so much that I was afraid of getting hurt, but more the fact that a fall meant that I failed.  Of course, inevitably, I fell.  My friend's dad told me it was the most graceful fall he had ever seen on a ski slope- a kind of one-legged twirl in an arabesque with an arm in the air, gently settling on the ground.  Skiing.  Pose.

And then in 8th grade I tripped over my own feet doing the shuttle run for the Presidential fitness test.  Shuttle run.  Pose.  In front of my entire class.  Epitome of an awkward middle-schooler?  I think so.  One leg propped, hand in the air with pretty fingers.  Yes, that was me.

Oh, those dirty four-letter F-words.


We all fall.  We all fail.  But the story doesn't end there.  That's only where the story begins!  Too often we focus on that fall.  On that failure.  Really, the climax to the story is how you pick yourself back up.  How you pose.  How you cope.  What you do next.  That's where your true strength is.  If you never fail, you'll never know how strong you really are.  I'm grateful to have an advisor recognize that strength.  

Check out this video that's been shared on Facebook by a few of my gymnastics friends.

Do you fail gracefully?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Pearl Earring

A funny thing happened to me yesterday: I was rewarded for following through.

As I brushed my hair in the morning, I noticed one ear was missing its pearl stud earring.  I pretty much always wear earrings- when I sleep, when I shower, when I exercise.  Honestly, I think my ears look funny without them.  I hastily glanced around the bathroom floor but didn't see anything shimmer.  "Oh no, it must have fallen down the drain while I was showering," I thought to myself.  "I guess that's going on the Christmas list."  I was pretty bummed.  I've had these simple earrings for about 5 years, and they were one of my few pairs that still had both of their backs (impressive, I know).  Plus, pearls match every outfit.

As I was showering, I made a mental list of the few chores I wanted to complete that evening.  Specifically, I planned to do 1 load of laundry, put away dishes, and try (for the second time) cleaning the shower tile grout with bleach.  The bleach helped significantly last week, but the grout was still dingy in several spots, so I decided to try again.  

You see, when I come home from lab, I normally konk out on the sofa.  I find it hard to motivate myself to do anything productive (hence the reason I switched to morning workouts).  Yesterday, before even letting myself sit down, I popped in a load of laundry and started spraying down the shower.  As I let the bleach sit, I emptied the dishwasher.  Then, it was time to scrub and rinse the shower.  For this, I grabbed the scrub brush and gloves located in a bucket under our bathroom sink.  Wait, what's that nestled in the rag in the bucket?  

My earring!  

I have no idea how the earring got in there; the bottom of our sink is open (it was designed so that a wheel chair could fit under it), but the bucket is normally completely under the sink so that it can't be viewed without looking underneath the counter.  Maybe it's chance.  Maybe it's a small smile from God for following through.  I dunno.  All I do know is that there is no way I would have found that earring if I didn't follow through on my planned chores.

For once, I completed all my evening chores!  And in return, I got back my earring (and the satisfaction of having motivated myself to do something productive).

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Oct-Nov exSPIREment: Read the Newspaper, episode 3

I'm just over two weeks into my exSPIREment to read the newspaper every day.  At this point, the novelty has worn off, and it is an obligation.  I feel like I am reading the same things over and over, and maybe it is just particularly frustrating in light of the repeated articles on the government shut down and the circular negotiations that seem to be taking place.  I find myself completely skipping the Marketplace and Investing sections to more thoroughly read the main section.  I still have not found an adequate online source for my weekend reading (this past weekend I happened to stumble upon the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal in a hotel).  All that said, I do know that reading the newspaper has improved my knowledge of current events.  I just wonder whether I could be getting this information in a more efficient manner.  I'm not sure the whole reading-and-walking thing is the greatest idea as I'm going into work in the morning.  

Does anyone know of any news streaming apps that I could listen to as I walk to work?   

Find all episodes of the newspaper exSPIREment here.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Oct-Nov exSPIREment: Read the Newspaper, episode 2

Today marks the 9th day in the journey of my first exSPIREment to read the newspaper every day.  To recap where I left off:

The objective of this exSPIREment was to improve my knowledge of current events.  I hypothesized that reading the newspaper every day would 1) help me feel more comfortable participating in discussions about politics and world events, 2) improve my ability to navigate a newspaper and skim articles, and 3) teach me something new or inspire a new idea.  

So far in my journey, I've encountered 3 themes:

The Wall Street Journal presents one perspective

I decided on the "methods" of this proposed study based on available resources.  The Wall Street Journal is delivered to our door every weekday morning; therefore, I chose to read the Wall Street Journal.  Nothing to it.  Except... there is a lot to the Wall Street Journal.  It's a pretty dense newspaper that is obviously written for a readership interested in finance and business, neither of which is my forte.  Apart from its main section on top national and international news, WSJ also has "Marketplace," (really?) "Money & Investing," (yawn) and "Personal Journal" (my fav!) sections, along with some other sections that come and go.  Even the top national/international news is told from an economic twist (doesn't help that the main story since I've started reading has centered around the U.S. economy and the government shut down).  Maybe WSJ was not the best place to start for a novice newspaper reader, but go big or go home, right?  This paper really lays out numbers and stats, so fortunately I'm a numbers girl.  That engineer in me kind of loves some of the dryness of the articles.  Other times I get bored.  Regardless, I must keep in mind that the Wall Street Journal presents just one perspective of the news, as does any source of "news."  They say there's two sides of the story and then there's the truth.  The stories that WSJ chooses to report and the way that they choose to present those stories are unique to this newspaper (just as they are unique to any other news source).  The researcher in me strives to read critically, take away as much valuable information as I can, and stay honest with myself about the biases and limitations.

I'm really turned off by politics (and other things)

Thankfully, the Personal Journal is the very center section; otherwise, I'm pretty sure I would never read the "important" stuff.  The goal of this exSPIREment was to improve my understanding of current events.  So far, I think I have made a few small improvements.  Whereas in the past, I would have had no idea why the government shut down or maybe I wouldn't even realize it was shut down (except for PubMed telling me with every article I search that they are maintaining their website with minimal staffing), at least now I know it's because some of our elected officials seem to be acting like stubborn little brats.  In all seriousness, I do feel like I have a better grasp of some important current events, including the negotiations underway with Iran.  I'm not expert.  I don't claim to know all the facts or even most of the facts.  Actually, I really know very few facts or probably no facts.  But, I at least am aware of these situations.  Awareness is a huge step away from apathy.  

I do not force myself to read the paper like a book, from cover to cover.  Quite simply, I don't have time for that.  But I do make sure I at least catch all the headlines before letting myself find the articles that actually pique my interest.  I normally just glance through the titles of the articles in the Marketplace and Money & Investing sections.  I allow myself to not be interested in the politics and economics, but I do force myself to at least get an idea of the important stories.  If I let myself do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, instead of displaying some discipline and self-control, I'd be eating ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and reading only articles about exercise.  Ironic, I know.         

You cannot predict inspiration

I thought after my first few days of reading I had down the general layout of the WSJ, only to find out come the weekend, that *surprise* they switched things up.  It was actually a breath of fresh air, knowing that I wouldn't know what would be in the newspaper each day.  I have found some hidden gems in WSJ.  To highlight, I've come up with a potential Christmas present idea for someone based on something I saw in the paper.  Today featured an entire section on Education, which was awesome (given that when I graduate with my PhD I want to teach at a university).  Yesterday, I was able to ask Nick his thoughts on the JAL contract with Airbus and what that means for Boeing.  I get excited when I see someone quoted or referenced from University of Michigan or University of Pennsylvania (which is actually somewhat frequently).  Opening the door each day to see the WSJ sitting there is a lot like the anticipation of opening up a present.  You never know what may lie inside or what little story will inspire you.      

In terms of my hypotheses, I have not yet participated in any discussions about politics or world events, I do feel that I am beginning to navigate the newspaper better, and I have learned many new things and been inspired several times!  

In terms of my expected potential pitfalls, I have had some trouble identifying a consistent time of day to read.  I have tried browsing the headlines while walking to work and then reading in the evening.  So far this seems to be the best method.  As I mentioned above, I do struggle convincing myself to read the articles that bore me, so rather than fighting it, I just get the headlines and a general concept of the story.  I don't read everything.  The worse part was trying to read a digital paper on the weekends.  Talk about information overload!  I started at the New York Times, but after simultaneously opening several tabs, I quickly reached the 10 articles per month limit without realizing.  I'll try something else this upcoming weekend.  Suggestions welcome.

How are you getting your news?

Find all episodes of the newspaper exSPIREment here.