Monthly Archives: May 2017

Make Your Brain Younger

As our life expectancy continues to increase, one of the biggest fears for our senior citizens is that they may physically live longer than their brain functions.

This thought is being fueled by numerous press reports about the  increase in Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

Dementia is generally relates to loss of cognitive function.  Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia, but there are many others like senile (aging) dementia and dementias associated with other neurologic disea

The good news is that the evolving neuroscience shows that there are things we can do to preserve and even enhance our cognitive ability through the life span.

The concept of neuroplasticity shows that our brains can recover after injuries and strokes as well as, in some cases, improve brain function in the face of chronic neurologic disease.

In my book, “30 Days to a Better Brain,” I outline the mind, body and spirit approach to preserving and enhancing cognitive function as practiced at Canyon Ranch.

As we age, we have learned the value of healthy eating and remaining physically active through the life span. Each of these factors is an essential variable in overall health to include brain health and cognitive vitality.

We also know that if we don’t stay physically active, our muscles will atrophy and as we weaken, we lose our ability to actually participate in life activities and we become more vulnerable to falls and injury.

The brain also needs continuing challenges to stay vital as well and to prevent atrophy from minimal activity. So the brain needs a “brain gym”, that is, new information and challenges that give your brain a workout so that brain nerve cells are challenged and preserved and new brain neural networks are made to capture and store the new information.

No matter your age, even centenarians can benefit from learning new things, from a new language to playing a musical instrument or simply staying socially engaged with active stimulating conversation.

Dr. Richard Carmona is the 17th Surgeon General of the United States and president of Canyon Ranch Institute. He is the author of “30 days to a Better Brain.” 

Helping Kids Cope With Anxiety

From starting school to fearing rejection by friends, anxiety and worry are expected components of child development. We all worry from time to time, and kids are no different.

Teaching children coping skills to deal with their stressors and worries is like teaching other skills. How do we teach dental hygiene or how to read? We can start by creating a plan, modeling the steps by showing them and practicing the task together, and gradually children will practice the technique independently.

How do we teach children to cope? We do so with intention and on purpose. Here are some suggestions for helping kids cope with anxiety:

Do validate. While a parent’s instinct may be to jump in and solve the problem, first take a moment to validate that certain situations or experiences are indeed scary. Helping kids make sense of their emotions includes helping them feel them. Anxiety is normal – it’s even good for you. It may help to start out by saying things like: “I can see why that situation makes you nervous. Sometimes I get nervous when I have to… (e.g., meet a new person, speak in front of an audience, try something new).”

Don’t offer general advice statements. Although it’s important to validate and empathize when a child is feeling anxious, offering general advice statements such as “Don’t worry” or “You’ll be fine” may feel invalidating or even dismissive. Learning to cope with anxietyincludes helping kids learn how to get specific about their experiences. Try: “It sounds like you’re pretty worried about failing this upcoming math test, and I know how important it is to you. Let’s see if we can come up with a plan…”

Do work with kids to understand the problem. Fear and anxiety are emotional responses to threat and perceptions of danger. Our brains naturally react to environments we perceive as dangerous. When we sense “danger” or “threat,” our bodies get activated to fight, flee or freeze. When we feel anxious, it’s a signal that there is perceived threat; it is a signal to act. Before we can problem solve, we must understand the problem. Anxietyand stress include feelings, thoughts and behaviors; in turn, problem solving includes helping kids learn how to identify and understand that how they think is related to how they feel and determines their actions:. Try: “What’s the worst that can happen if you take that test? What will happen if you don’t take the test?”

Do practice problem-solving/coping. Teaching kids to cope with anxiety, stress or worry includes teaching them to problem solve. Helping kids learn how to identify and understand the problem is key. When dealing with stress or anxiety, kids can learn to identify a problem, come up with a plan and execute the plan. Think about how often we have to utilize this sequence in our daily lives. When kids feel anxious, they may have trouble seeing options. Teach kids to recognize their anxious thoughts and self-validate, and also practice labeling feelings, thoughts and behaviors, or avoidance:

  • “When you feel nervous, what does your body feel like?”
  • “Do you get shaky? Or jumpy? When you have worries, do you feel like you have butterflies in your stomach?”
  • “It sounds like you’re worried that it will be a disaster? What do you think will happen?”
  • “What are the chances that you will fail the math test? What is the worst that can happen if you do fail?”

For anxious bodily reactions:

  • If your body is feeling anxious, slow down and take some deep breaths.”

And then team up and brainstorm some things they can do:

  • What can you do to prepare for the oral report in front of your class? You can create a slide presentation or use flash cards. We can practice in advance at home. You can ask the teacher for help.”

Don’t encourage avoidance. While avoiding a situation that makes us nervous is an option for temporary relief, it does not work very well and serves to keep anxiety going in the long term. Avoidance deprives kids of potentially learning that outcomes are not always as bad as we predict and discourages them from practicing coping skills. Rather, it’s helpful to coach kids to approach scary situations gradually and encourage them to approach, rather than avoid.

Do model your own stress management skills. Often, parents try to hide their worries or share their worries without sharing their coping steps. Just as children may learn how to tie their shoes by observing adults in their lives, parents can model coping and problem solving. What do parents do when they’re stressed? Talk it out. “When I get nervous, I take some deep breaths and then make a to-do list. If I’m stressed about a problem at work, I write down my worries, talk to a friend and then come up with a plan.”

For many children and adolescents, anxiety may become so severe that it interferes with healthy development. Some potential red flags include:

  • Chronic stomach pains or physical symptoms when worried.
  • Frequent requests to leave and/or be picked up from school, or multiple trips to the school nurse.
  • Withdrawal from peers or social activities (e.g., clubs, parties, teams).
  • Excessive clinginess and/or reassurance-seeking questions that are asked repeatedly.
  • Sleep or eating disturbances.

For these children, parents may consider further evaluation. Fortunately, anxiety disorders are treatable and may be helped by a type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy. For more information, visit:

  • Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology
  • Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies
  • Anxiety and Depression Disorders Association of America

The Importance of Mental Health Days

Earlier this month, Madalyn Parker, a Michigan-based web developer shared an email interaction with her boss in which he supported her need to take off work to focus on her mental health. While mental health issues are not new, only recently has acceptance of these issues grown. It’s because of the stigma that still surrounds mental illness that this tweet was so widely discussed.

Adults, like Parker, may use their sick days to focus on mental health. However, young people aren’t generally able or encouraged do so, even when they need a day off.

Childhood and adolescence are more challenging than adults may acknowledge. In addition to navigating everyday growing pains, young people are juggling friendships, schoolwork and extracurricular activities. It seems that today’s youth have more to manage than kids did in years past and face even more pressure to succeed.

Many children and teens struggle with mental health conditions. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 5 kids ages 13 to 18 have a mental healthdisorder. Often, mental health issues are minimized and young people are essentially told to “get over it” or that their struggles are just a part of life, and they’re left to deal with them on their own.

Opening a discussion about mental health early on teaches young people that it’s OK to feel overwhelmed and ask for help, to take care of yourself and to say that you aren’t feeling your best emotionally. Addressing mental health worries means better school performance and less physical illness. Taking a mental health day can help improve focus, performance and overall mental strength. Having more candid conversations about mental health issues will also help reduce stigma and increase acceptance.

Here are some signs parents should heed that children might need to take a mental health day:

  • They are physically present but not engaged.
  • They are more emotional than usual, easy to anger or tearful.
  • They get frustrated more easily than usual.
  • They appear depressed or are isolating themselves.
  • They start avoiding school and schoolwork.
  • They aren’t interested in being social or doing anything they love.
  • They are overwhelmed and need that day to focus on a project or studying for a test. Be mindful that this isn’t more than a day or two. More than that may be indicative of a bigger problem. If you have concerns that a child may be dealing with a mental health condition, such as depression or an anxiety disorder, make sure they see a mental health professional.

A mental health day needs to be about re-energizing and focusing on relaxing and regrouping. Whatever that looks like to your child should be encouraged, within reason. If your child needs to focus on that project and feels that will help her manage anxiety, let her. If he needs to sleep on and off all day, that’s fine. Maybe your child wants to spend the day with you, just connecting and being around you; encourage that if you can.

The reality is, it’s not just about recharging on a single mental health day. It’s about developing healthy stress management skills every day. The more positive experiences your child has, the less likely he or she will be to become overwhelmed. Here are some other ways parents can help kids develop these skills and be more resilient:

  • Encourage kids to do things they love outside of school. Finding opportunities to do things they enjoy and be with friends and family will boost their spirits and equip them to better manage when they face challenges.
  • Teach them how to take care of their physical health. Parents should stress the importance of getting regular exercise, and do so themselves to lead by example. Also, work as a family to eat healthy. Food can have a negative impact on your mood, so try to incorporate positive choices. When kids don’t feel well physically that will impact how they feel mentally.
  • Talk about mental health. Encourage kids to talk about their concerns. Validate that feeling anxious and sad is a typical part of life. Be available to them when they need to talk about how they are feeling.
  • Set limits so your child isn’t overextended. Kids don’t know how to do this themselves. If you notice that your child is doing too much, talk about how to cut back and find downtime.
  • Take time off as a family. It needn’t be a huge amount of time. For example, you might make sure the house is quiet for a few hours and focus on self-care.

It’s easy to think that by allowing your child a mental health day you are treating them as fragile or coddling them. The truth is, we all need mental health days. When we are struggling to manage the day-to-day ins and outs of life, we just need to hit the pause button sometimes.

If we can shift our way of thinking toward promoting self-care, we teach our young people that it’s OK to stop and take a breath, and that taking care of themselves is vital. This lesson is one that can only serve them well throughout their lives.

Is Your Child Drinking and Smoking in the Summer

There are many reasons I love the summer. One, in particular, is having the opportunity to work with my high school and college patients during a time of year when they’re less stressed, more relaxed and often open to making needed emotional shifts that they’re too anxious and overwhelmed to focus on during the school year.

But while this more relaxed time has its benefits, there’s a downside as well: Research has consistently found that kids are much more likely to try alcohol and drugs for the first time during the summer months. For those teens and young adults already interested in alcohol, marijuana, other illegal substances or prescription drugs, the summer is an invitation to party. They have no academic obligations, and for many, the summer is spent with very little structure or adult supervision. Even for kids that hold a job or who have some form of structure, there is plenty of downtime after work and on the weekends to relax, which for a great many includes drinking alcohol or doing drugs.

I am learning more and more about drinking on the beach, partying at the park and smoking or vaping during sleepovers. The warm weather makes it particularly easy to partake because there is no need for an indoor space – making it far less likely that kids will be caught by adults. Boredom and peer pressure are also contributing factors to teens using alcohol or drugs. They spend much more time with their friends in the summer doing absolutely nothing. Except for the serious athletes, there are no summer sports, and most other activities are suspended.

As a parent, it can be difficult to assess whether your child is using alcohol or drugs, especially if you are at work and they are without supervision most of the day. Even if you’re home, it’s not practical to keep older kids under a parent’s watch at all times. Nevertheless, it’s important to be open to the possibility that your child is using alcohol or drugs, if you can’t imagine your child would do so. I have seen countless parents in my last 26 years of practice who have insisted that their child would never do that, and then the teens of said parents tell me all their war stories.

Regardless of your suspicions, you must do your very best to limit your child’s access to alcohol and drugs. There are a few ways to do this. Note that almost all of these strategies work throughout the school year as well:

  • Keep all medications safely stowed away so that they can’t be easily accessed by your kids. Be particularly careful with anti-anxiety medications, pain killers and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medications.
  • If you give your child money, keep track of how much you are giving them and how quickly they spend it. Most teens get their money for alcohol and drugs from their unknowing parents who think it’s being spent on food. Watch credit card bills, too. Sometimes kids will pay for a meal for all their friends, and then their friends will give them cash. All parents see is money spent on food. If the bill seems high, question your child.
  • Give your child chores or activities to do to keep them busy throughout the week.
  • Request that at least some evenings and weekends be spent with family, and schedule activities your teen will enjoy, such as going to the beach or out to dinner at a restaurant they like. Offer to bring a friend along.
  • Pay attention to how late your child stays out at night. For kids under college age, you can set a reasonable curfew and be up when they get home to see if they seem sober.
  • If you are suspicious, it’s within your bounds to limit sleepovers at other people’s homes.
  • Pay attention to how your child’s clothing and room smell. It’s not always possible to detect drug or alcohol use this way, but sometimes it is. In addition, check pockets when you do laundry. Many parents find clues to drug use forgotten in a pocket.
  • Check on your child at night before going to bed yourself. I repeatedly hear from high school and college students that they use marijuana at night, alone, before bed to just “chill out.” There are some who would argue that this is no different than having a drink to relax at night. But, until your child is 21, this is still illegal in all states in the U.S. And under no circumstances is it OK for your teen or young adult to be drinking alone in their bedroom.

The summer is a wonderful time for kids and parents to decompress and get ready for the next school year. However, this shouldn’t include letting even teens run free. A great deal of harm can come from kids drinking and using drugs regularly in the summer – and it could be the start of an addiction.