June 30, 2016

Happiness is Biochemical

"Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and like Teflon for positive ones," says Rick Hanson (1, p. 41).  When we briefly notice positive experiences they slip away the way a fried egg slides out of a Teflon-coated pan.  However, the stone age brain we inherited is wired to quickly store negative experiences that may be threats.  A brain scan study found a part of the brain called the amygdala was activated faster when people saw fearful faces than when they saw neutral or happy faces (2).  Twenty-four hors later, subjects remembered more fearful faces than neutral or happy faces when shown the photos again.  When information is tagged as negative the amygdala tells the brain to immediately send that information to long-term memory (1).  

My goal for being happier is NOT to turn into a bubbly person who does not feel angry or sad. 
My goal is to balance the good and bad.  Surprisingly being happy does not require a positive attitude.  It requires concrete action.  Meditation has a positive affect on mood (3,4), but requires disciple and time.  Here are two simpler actions can change the brain.

Take 5 seconds to enjoy a happy moment (1).  I try to notice happy events I did not plan, like the parking spot I got that was close to the entrance of a crowded grocery store the day before Christmas.  Lately I have been enjoying a shower.  Sub-freezing temperatures have finally arrived so a warm shower rehydrates my dry skin and relaxes my cold muscles.  I have been standing still for 5 seconds after I get out of the shower to enjoy this luxurious feeing.  When you are happy the brain releases dopamine which builds a more richly detailed positive memory.
For me, noticing multiple brief episodes of happiness has a cumulative effect that affects how I feel at the end of the day. 

Sleep = more happy memories.  Sleep depravation produced a 19% loss of negative information, but a 59% loss of positive information (5).  Sleep deprived subjects also recalled more negative words (e.g. cancer) than positive words 24 hours after they saw the list.  This difference occurs because of the different way these two types of information are stored.  Positive memories stay in short-term memory until a part of the brain called the hippocampus sends them to long-term memory as we sleep.   

June 25, 2016

Reheating Food Safely

Warning: Using a microwave requires safety awareness

The problem with family or friends leaving a dish for a stroke survivor to heat up in the microwave is that the thumb knocks the lid off when you pick up a dish one-handed.  Heating uncovered food in the microwave makes a mess. 

When I take a hot dish out of the microwave my sound hand is protected by a hot mitt and my hot mitt is protected by plastic wrap.  You might wonder why a stroke survivor would use plastic wrap when it gives people with two good hands a run for their money.  Before I started using plastic wrap I had to wash my hot mitts repeatedly.  The mitt would get dirty when I slid my thumb into the dish so I could get a firm grip on the edge.

Go on-line to see the  "food wrap box."  It cuts the plastic wrap in one blow when I shut the lid.  Stretching the wrap over the dish is easy too.  I place the box next to the dish.  As I pull the plastic wrap out, the weight of the dish holds the food wrap box still.

Using plastic wrap also means I do not need a food strainer.
I use a hot mitt on my sound hand to hold he dish over the sink to let the water drain out.  The arrow is pointing at a flap of plastic wrap that is open.  I did not do this.  The water did it for me.
I lose a couple of pieces of small food now and then, but keeping my sound hand safe while handling hot dishes is priceless.

June 16, 2016

Accepting that a Chronic Disease Never Goes Away Is Not Enough

I can lose what I have worked so hard for when problems become worse.  I have to decide if I am willing to go into battle or I am going to give up and let myself slip into decline.  Stopping regression requires the willingness to act again and again without having therapists around to help.  I think a problem is solved and then it's not.  Here is one example.

Several months ago my central pain suddenly became intolerable at night.  Central pain is constant pain created by damage to the brain.  Symptoms include constant burning, pain caused by normally non-painful stimuli, shooting or electric shock-like pain, muscle cramps, stinging, tingling, or a pins-and-needles sensation.  These abnormal sensations are usually localized to one body part, especially the hands or feet.  I have a constant burning sensation in my hemiplegic foot.

Taking Tylenol and raising the sheet off of my foot used to help me fall asleep.  In the photo I placed a ball outside the covers to show you what the ball under the covers looks like.  The ball creates friction so it stays put and keeps the covers off the end of my big toe all night long.  When these two strategies were not enough to help me sleep I added a 3rd strategy.
(3) Gel packs heated in a microwave oven.  WARNING: Gel packs heat up very quickly and are deceivingly cool at 1st touch.  I heat the gel pack for only 25 seconds on High because a stroke took away my ability to tell the difference between hot and cold in my leg. To safely remove the gel pack from the microwave and transport it to my bedroom, I put it on a stiff paper plate.  I place the gel pack NEXT to my foot. The gentle heat gradually extinguishes the burning sensation in my foot so I can fall asleep.

Neurologists have known about the extinction phenomenon for decades.  Two sensations can sometimes cancel each other out.  This is why you rub a painful body part that has bumped into an object.  Ben Gay cream works because it has Capsaicin which produces a mild burning sensation that cancels the awareness of muscle pain.

June 3, 2016

Adaptive Garderning After a Stroke

All anti-depressants do not come in a pill.  When I started gardening in my twenties, I discovered the joy of putting my hands in dirt and watching plants grow.  So I am very glad I found a way to garden after my stroke.  However, I do not remember the tricks I discovered last year so this spring I took photos at each stage and described ALL OF MY TRICKS.

At first I pulled plants loose from the soil when I pulled them out of their containers one-handed.  I learned to let the plants dry out a little.  The roots release more easily if the soil is dry.  The photo shows a child size spade that I slide down the sides of each container to loosen the roots.  

I use a big plastic pot that is lighter than clay and does not dry out quickly.  After I partially fill the pot, I put a ring on top of the dirt.  I made this ring out of a disposable plastic cutting board.  The ring keeps plants away from the rim, gives me something to lean the 1st row of plants against, and lets me see if I have filled the pot to the right level.  A small cup gives me good control when I fill the narrow space between the edge of the pot and the ring.  Then I arrange the flowers inside the ring, making sure the plants are touching each other so they will grow into a thick ball of foliage that prevents water evaporation.  Once I get the plants where I want them, I drop fistfuls of dirt in the small spaces between the plants.  I leave the ring in the pot until I am done.

Watering compresses the soil so the roots make good contact with the soil.  I use my hemiplegic (paralyzed) hand to hold the watering can still so it will not tip over as I fill it with the hose. 
I use the garden hose to wash off the dirt I have spilled on my concrete patio. 
I transfer the pot to a bench that sits next to the chair that I sit in to watch the sunset as I drink a cup coffee.  I also get to see beautiful flowers every time I come home.                            P.S. Rebecca, you only need five 4-packs.