Quick - What does a lemon taste like?

I know what a lemon tastes like. Tell me something else instead:

What just happened inside your mouth?

David Hoffeld asks another one: Want to know what your brain does when it hears a question?

His article from the website FastCompany.com explores the neurological consequences of hearing a question. Questions temporarily hijack the brain. Did you immediately think about lemons? First, serotonin is released, causing the brain to relax. Next you get a hit of dopamine. The question takes over your thought processes while you think about the answer. The technical term is instinctive elaboration.

The hijacking doesn't last forever. The person who was asked the question can choose to ignore it, can argue against it, can go off on a tangent - though for people with ADHD or bipolar disorder, a question that interrupts our train of thought may cause us to derail.

But Hoffeld cites a number of research studies that document when you ask somebody whether they are going to do something, you increase the probability that they will do it - buy a car, vote in an upcoming election, even donate blood.

Questions not only alter your perception. They can even alter your chemistry. Chances are, when you read the lemon question, you started to salivate.

Hoffeld is a business guy. He has a book, The Science of Selling. It uses neuroscience, social psychology, and behavioral economics to teach a more scientific approach to sales. That's his interest in instinctive elaboration, getting people to buy things or ideas.

Me, my interest in instinctive elaboration is more about mental health:

  • What are the questions I might ask that tell you I care and seek to understand?
  • What are the questions that shut you down?
  • What are the questions that help you sort through your thoughts and feelings?
  • What are the questions that could interrupt an anxious spiral?
  • Would the game of Trivial Pursuits help my family dance around the emotional landmines of somebody's upcoming surgery?

Questions work their magic by engaging the brain. A recent Twitter thread asks, Therapists, what's your favorite question to ask clients?

That's my favorite part of therapy, my therapist's opening gambit. It brings me into the room and puts me to work. It takes the muddle of my brain and begins the sorting process.


I am thinking of other applications, too. What questions could help with emotional regulation? Building trust? Priority setting and problem solving?

So, what's your favorite question?

photo of lemon by Ivar Leidus, used under creative commons license

Why Writing Bar Tales of Costa Rica is Good for my Mental Health

Mindfulness


Mayo Clinic describes mindfulness as a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you are sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress.

For some of us, these meditation exercises, "close your eyes, focus on your breath..." are difficult, frustrating, and stress inducing. Particularly for people with a trauma history or ADHD, mindfulness can be a land mine.

For others, the whole enterprise sounds like woo-woo mental health. Add some essential oils and affirmations - who needs therapy or, God forbid, medication?

But there's more to mindfulness than nonsense.

The same Mayo Clinic article identifies several mindfulness practices. Three could be taken as basic concepts:

  • Pay attention
  • Live in the moment
  • Accept yourself

How does that work out irl - in real life?

Let me tell you about my recent five week stay in Costa Rica. First, the back story:


Prozac Monologues

My first book, Prozac Monologues, began with a hypomanic episode during an earlier trip to Costa Rica. I wrote a series of comedic monologues in an effort to not be mindful. The monologues danced around the memory of a recent Prozac-induced traumatic experience. It began with a bizarre thought, and moved on to some other weird stuff: dissociation, thought broadcasting, paranoia, and the like. 

Years later, once I was correctly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I added edgy essays about that experience and everything I learned about bipolar disorder while trying to figure out what the hell happened to my brain. Like many memoirs, Prozac Monologues is a hybrid of my story and my issue. Sheila Hamilton's podcast, Beyond Well, captures it. Here's the linkIt's also a great read and now available on audio.

Bar Tales of Costa Rica

So what about Bar Tales of Costa Rica? My second book is exactly what the title promises: the stories I heard while sitting in bars in Costa Rica. That sounds like a very different book. Am I a genre hopper?

Yes and no.

via GIPHY


Bar Tales is about a milieu, a place and the people in it. It is not about mental illness. There are passing references to my own. But that's not the point. No references to research. No descriptions of recovery strategies. Stories heard in bars - it's a very different book.

Still, it is a sequel. It picks up where the monologues left off. In the first book, my wife Helen and I thought about moving to Costa Rica. Several months later, we did buy a little house in Playas del Coco. Didn't quite move there, but we spend several weeks there every year.


That's where I continued to work on Prozac Monologues. It's also where I gathered my bar tales, most of them at my sister's hotel and restaurant, the Pato Loco, which means "crazy duck." Other sites included El Bohío (referenced in the first book), Pacifico Beach Club, Coco Palms, and Soda Navidad.

You could call the second book a segue to the first. I turn a corner. That would be a right turn that leads me out of my neighborhood Los Canales, on to the Boulevard de Iguanas, and over to a whole new cast of characters: Patricia, Bruce, Andy, Sydney, Monique and André. Bar Tales is about their stories.



So why is this book good for my mental health?

As I am polishing these tales for publication in the spring of 2024, I spent several weeks in Coco for research. Research.

I wasn't sitting in bars, gathering tales - though inevitably a couple got added to the collection. This time I was gathering sensations. Physical sensations.

Trauma and Sensations

Sensations - these are at the heart of my mindfulness technique.

  • The person who has experienced trauma sometimes gets stuck in the past, reliving a loop of troublesome sensations. And let me tell you - being suicidal, as I was, is traumatic.
  • Or, in the face of current strife and stress, that person might dissociate - disconnect from present anxiety by going numb.
  • Or, based on deeply rooted thought patterns about bad things that happened in the past, the person faces the future with dread, anticipating - and pre-experiencing - a repeat of negative experiences.

Each of these are ways that we lose or escape the here and now. I think of here and now as my worst subject.

The thing is - here and now is where joy lives.

Let me repeat that.

Here and now is where joy lives.

So my research, gathering sensations, experiences in the present, kept me anchored in here and now.

And it filled me with joy.

What color are the rooster's feathers? - bronze head and breast, black legs, wings of teal and red.

What sound do the geckos make? - chk, chk, chk. How about the howler monkey? muffler dragging on concrete!

What do mangoes smell like when they are sitting in the field near my house in the hot sun? - like a fortified sweet wine.

What does carne en salsa taste like? Beef stewed in a rich vegetable sauce with hints of smoke when Juan cooks it all day in an iron pot over a wood fire under the mango tree.

What does it feel like to walk in the surf? Caressing waves, then grit in my sandals.

I walked around town with my phone in my hand, making voice memos, describing these sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations. My mind fixed on the present, there was no room there for regrets about the past or anxiety about the future.

Health Benefits of Mindfulness

Mindful meditation has been demonstrated to reduce anxiety, depression, stress, pain, insomnia, and high blood pressure.

There are many ways to do mindfulness. A review of literature published in Clinical Psychology Review, Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health, summarizes the context of mindfulness practice in its Eastern and Western versions and its application in a variety of psychological treatments.

What I offer here is one simplified self-help practice for addressing panic and anxiety, a disciplined version of what I called my research:

Focus on your environment.

  • Name five things that you see right now
  • Name four sounds that you hear
  • Name three things that you feel
  • Name two things that you smell
  • Name one thing that you taste
Yeah, don't get hung up on remembering whether it's three feelings or three smells. I don't remember the order of the sensations and made it up.

The point is to redirect the catastrophizing brain, to pull it into the here and now. Remember - here and now is where joy lives.

This practice isn't the cure all to my mental health issues. And I doubt it will cure yours. But it gives our poor brains, exhausted by the three alarm fires that usually occupy them, a break. It turns down the temperature and lets a different input in.

And that's a good thing.

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