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How To Help Your Brain Recover From Grief

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What does it really take to be resilient? Emily Rapp Black finds out.

In early 2013, my son, Ronan, died of Tay-Sachs disease, a rare neurological disorder with no treatment or cure that slowly destroys the brain. He was diagnosed at 9 months old and lived for another two years. During the last six weeks of his life, no longer able to swallow liquids, he received Pedialyte through a skinny tube in his nose. Two years later, I stood in a drugstore, staring at a shelf of Pedialyte, unable to reach for a bottle even though my young daughter, Charlotte, needed extra hydration during a nasty flu. I felt dizzy and disoriented. I had a vivid memory of Ronan: the warmth of his chubby body…and then, after he died, heavy as the newly dead. Taking a few deep breaths, I reminded myself: Charlotte is not dying. This is a different baby, a different life. You are safe and loved.

Somehow I pulled it together, made my purchase and drove home. I felt uneasy, ridiculous. When would I get over the trauma of losing Ronan? “You’re the most resilient person I’ve ever met,” a friend once told me. Was I? I’d always thought resilience was a kind of strength, but my episode in the pharmacy was one of many in which I felt anything but strong. What is resilience, really and truly? I wondered. And as I started to dig for answers, I found that it’s more dynamic—and collaborative—than I had expected.

I contact licensed marriage and family therapist Linda Graham, author of Bouncing Back and an expert on the neuroscience of human relationships. When I tell Graham about the drugstore incident, she’s not surprised. She describes it as a classic post-traumatic stress response. “Will it always be like this?” I ask. No, she assures me. “We’re learning how to work with the plasticity of the brain to rewire memories of traumatizing experiences,” she says.

Graham’s clinical work reflects a paradigm shift in how we think about recovering from trauma. From birth, feelings of confidence and stability (as we bask in praise for taking our first steps, as we’re comforted after making a mistake) translate, over time, into resilience—a belief in ourselves and our ability to succeed. But even if such early confidence wasn’t instilled, and even if our resilience is later challenged, we can change. “Our brains are trainable,” Graham explains. “At any stage of life, we can create new pathways with every thought and emotion.”

In her practice, Graham encourages people to choose exercises that will help heal the psyche and the soul, thereby training themselves to transform a moment of criticism into one of self-acceptance. You can reframe a distressing event by remembering a time when you were confident and open. Say you mess up royally at work and are chastised by your boss. Rather than obsess over it, you should recall the praise you’ve received in the past and how good it made you feel, then remind yourself that this one error is not a testament to the sum of your skills. Graham refers to these as “Sure I can!” moments that replicate the feeling a child has when attempting a new skill.

Without realizing it, I had done this during my panicky moment at the drugstore. Yes, I had stood there frozen, recalling the dread and helplessness of caring for a terminally ill child, but I also thought of my current life and its many joys. Graham tells me that I had reconditioned the feeling of collapse into one of security. Of course, it hadn’t felt like that. I had always thought I would get to a point where I was “over” the trauma. Turns out, I was wrong. Cultivating resilience is unrelated to the clichéd notion of time healing all wounds; overcoming is not the end goal. Instead of moving on, it’s about living with what has happened. A resilient person is emotionally and psychologically flexible enough to allow the effects of a traumatic episode into her life, to “receive the shattering,” as Graham puts it, and use those effects for healing. This means accepting the feelings of despair, but also remaining open to the possibility of love and connection.

Graham believes that finding someone—a partner, a sibling, a parent, a friend—who unconditionally loves you and asking that person for support is essential to developing the secure attachment necessary for recovery. While Ronan was dying and my marriage to his father was ending, I sometimes felt that I might die, too, of sadness. I experienced what Michaela Haas, PhD, author of Bouncing Forward,calls “the rattling of one’s core beliefs,” a deeply uncomfortable part of trauma that can build resilience. Although I had always known that life could be unfair, I never thought it would be so cruel as to rob my child of his life. I was adrift; I taught my college classes in an almost hypermanic state, wrote constantly, and exercised compulsively. I pushed hard at my life as if it would save Ronan’s, and it was when I became exhausted that I finally reached out for help from friends, from family, from a therapist. I talked and cried and raged with them, and they listened to me and held me and wept with me. Only then did I feel as though my life would continue after Ronan’s had ended—and that I might even be happy again. This shift mirrors the one Graham encourages her patients to consider: “Instead of ‘You can do this,’ the thinking shifts to ‘You are big enough to hold this.’” I grew to believe that Ronan’s death would not undo me.

Now, three years after the death of my son, I am madly in love and relishing every moment of parenting a budding little girl. I am often surprised by this big life, and yet I was ready for it. I tell Graham that just moments after Ronan died, I felt a shameful sense of elation: Nothing will ever be this hard again, I thought. Not the death of my parents, not my own death. I’m heartened to hear her say that this is normal, and, in fact, a sign of resilience itself.

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10 changes you make in your 30’s.

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Many people spend their 20s getting some unhealthy behaviours out of their system — like sleeping until 2pm on Saturdays and spending all their disposable cash on new kicks.

But your 30s are an ideal time to cement the habits that will help you achieve personal and professional fulfilment for the rest of your life.

To give you a head start, we sifted through recent Quora threads on this critical life transition and highlighted the most compelling responses.  TOP ARTICLES1/5READ MOREWoman with dementia punched in the facewhile wearing badge saying ‘I have Alzheimer’s please be patient’

Here are 10 lifestyle tweaks you can make in your 30s to lay the foundation for lifelong success:

1. Stop smoking.

If you’ve started smoking, stop immediately, suggests Quora user Cyndi Perlman Fink.

While you can’t undo the damage you may have already incurred from smoking, research suggests that those who quit before age 40 have a 90% lower mortality risk than those who continue.

2. Start going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day.

It might be tempting to use the weekends to recoup your sleep debt, but Nan Waldman recommends you hit the hay and wake up around the same time every single day.

If you oversleep for even a few days, experts say you risk resetting your body clock to a different cycle, so you’ll start getting tired later in the day. Avoid a lifetime of sleep issues by sticking to bedtime and wakeup routines whenever you can.

3. Start exercising regularly.

“Try to move yourself as much as possible,” says Alistair Longman. “It doesn’t matter if it’s walking, cycling, running, weightlifting, hiking, swimming — as long as it involves some movement.”

In the later half of your 30s, you start losing muscle mass, so it’s especially important to exercise at this time. But remember to choose physical activities you really love, since you’re less likely to continue exercising if you dislike your workouts.

4. Start keeping a journal.

“Journal your life! Your written records will entertain and endear in your future,” writes Mark Crawley.

Even if you’d prefer to keep your musings to yourself, putting your thoughts and feelings on paper can help you deal with stressful events.

(Getty)

5. Start saving money.

“Building the habit of saving early means you’ll continue it further down the line,” says Cliff Gilley.

It might seem like your golden years are a lifetime away, but the earlier you start saving, the more time your money has to accrue interest.

6. Start pursuing a life dream.

“Don’t delay pursuing your life goals,” writes Bill Karwin. “Want to buy a house? Have kids? Write a book? Pick one of those life goals and get started. What can you do between now and the end of the year to embark on one of them?”

7. Start learning to be happy with what you have.

“If you are content with what you have, you will have a happier life,” says Robert Walker.

It’s really about gratitude: Research suggests that appreciating what you have can increase happiness and decrease negative feelings. Perhaps that’s why Oprah Winfrey kept a daily gratitude journal for years.

8. Stop thinking you need to satisfy everyone.

“After I reached 30, I stopped feeling the need to please everyone. You can choose your friends and contacts more carefully,” says Kevin Teo. In particular, Teo realised he wasn’t obligated to be nice to people who were unfriendly toward him.

Whether you decide to whittle down your Facebook friends to a mere 500 or simply hang out more with the people who make you happy, it’s important to invest your time and energy wisely.

9. Stop comparing yourself to others.

“If you are unable to do some things in life compared to your siblings and friends, then please be at peace with yourself,” advises Mahesh Kay. “Don’t be harsh on yourself.”

As one psychotherapist writes, constantly peering over your shoulder to see what others are doing doesn’t help you accomplish your goals. You’d be better off spending time thinking about what you want to achieve and evaluating your progress on those fronts.

10. Start forgiving yourself for your mistakes.

“Forgive yourself your mistakes. We all make plenty of them. Don’t dwell on the errors of the past — learn from them, let them go, and move ahead,” writes Liz Palmer.

One social psychologist says that self-compassion (the ability to forgive yourself and learn from your mistakes) is the key driver of success. That’s likely because people who practice self-compassion see their weaknesses as changeable and try to avoid making the same errors in the future.

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Sobering Up: In An Alcohol-Soaked Nation, More Seek Booze-Free Social Spaces

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A national trend of boozeless bars is cropping up nationwide to create social spaces without the hangovers, DUIs and alcoholism culture. It’s part of a new push for sober options.

ST. LOUIS — Not far from the Anheuser-Busch brewery, Joshua Grigaitis fills a cooler with bottles and cans in one of the city’s oldest bars.

It’s Saturday night, and the lights are low. Frank Sinatra’s crooning voice fills the air, along with the aroma of incense. The place has all the makings of a swank boozy hangout.

Except for the booze.

Pop’s Blue Moon bar, a fixture of this beer-loving city since 1908, has joined an emerging national trend: alcohol-free spaces offering social connections without peer pressure to drink, hangovers or DUIs. From boozeless bars to substance-free zones at concerts marked by yellow balloons, sober spots are popping up across the nation in reaction to America’s alcohol-soaked culture, promising a healthy alternative for people in recovery and those who simply want to drink less.

Joshua Grigaitis puts out nonalcoholic drinks on a Saturday night. From boozeless bars to substance-free zones at concerts marked by yellow balloons, sober spots are popping up across the nation, promising a healthy alternative for people in recovery and those who simply want to drink less.

A cooler is filled with bottles and cans at Pop’s Blue Moon bar, which hosted boozeless Saturday nights in January, offering hop water, nonalcoholic beers and drinks infused with cannabis-derived CBD. (LAURA UNGAR/KHN)

“We evolved as social creatures. This is a good trend if you want the experience of companionship and social culture but don’t want the negatives,” said William Stoops, a University of Kentucky professor who studies drug and alcohol addiction. “It can help people make better choices.”

A federal survey shows nearly 67 million Americans binge drink at least monthly, meaning women down four drinks during a single occasion, men five. Midwestern states have some of the highest binge-drinking rates in terms of both prevalence and intensity, putting millions of people at risk.

Research links excessive alcohol use to fatty liver, cirrhosis and cancers of the breast, liver, colon, mouth and throat as well as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, dementia, anxiety and depression. Nearly half of murders involve alcohol, according to studies. Drinking kills about 88,000 people annually, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. Such diseases and social ills cost the nation an estimated $249 billion a year.

Even one drink a day is unhealthy, said Dr. Sarah Hartz, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. “If you’re going to drink, know it’s not good for you.

If you or someone close to you is struggling with issues mentioned in this story and you would like to connect with others online, join USA TODAY’s “I Survived It” Facebook support group. For help with a drinking problem, check Alcoholics Anonymous, Smart Recovery or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s helpline at 800-662-HELP.JOIN THE GROUP

For Grigaitis, 41, who also goes by Joshua Loyal and is co-owner of the bar, tying all his fortunes to alcohol was “weighing on my soul” after 20 years in the business. He cut way back on his own drinking and began holding boozeless Saturday nights in January, offering hop water, nonalcoholic beers and drinks infused with cannabis-derived CBD.

“I love everything about the bar business — except the alcohol,” he said. “The nonalcoholic beverage movement is a growing group. I’m making a decision to choose this and I’m proud of it.”

Chris Marshall, who founded Sans Bar in Austin, Texas, in 2015, got sober in 2007 and was working as a counselor when a client shared how difficult it was to navigate the social world without alcohol. The client’s relapse and subsequent death was his call to action.

Sans Bar held a national tour this year with pop-up events in St. Louis, Portland, Ore., and Anchorage, Alaska, and opened a permanent location in Austin. It draws a largely female crowd all along the sobriety spectrum, from those in recovery to the “sober curious.” People gather for hours to sip handmade mocktails, talk, dance and listen to speakers and sober musicians.

“If you closed your eyes on a Friday night, you’d think you were in a regular bar,” he said. “This is not about being sober forever. This is about being sober for the night.”

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