Proven visualization techniques to make the most of your life

Woman concentrating by a lake at sunset - visualize, create, heal - visualization. Healing Arts Institute of South Florida.
Written by David Davenport – Contributing author Healing Arts Institute of South Florida
Image by Canva

In a previous article, we discussed how your thoughts affect how you act and how those actions create your environment. In other words, the way you think is directly responsible for building your life and your reality.

There’s one catch, however. It isn’t enough to be able to think your way into a new life. You must visualize a “new you” and feel the positive emotional consequences of your thoughts.

Thinking leads to acting. Acting leads to feeling.

Feeling reinforces thinking. Think. Act. Feel. Repeat.

But we came across a bit of a problem. What if you desperately want to change your thinking, but you still feel weighed down by negative emotions? This is what I called the think/feel paradox. You need to feel positive emotions to form a new way of thinking. However, the reality you are experiencing makes that very difficult.

You want to think differently to experience emotions that reinforce those thoughts, which lead to new actions that will change your life.

Today, we will talk about techniques that can help you to break the think/feel paradox. You can be free from the kind of thinking that is preventing you from realizing your true potential.

Visualization is the way forward.

When you produce visual creations of thoughts, events, and emotions in your mind, the same parts of your brain will activate as if you were performing the actions. Visualization is a form of mindfulness training. 

Your brain will activate in the same way while either visualizing an event or while you experience an event first-hand. You read that right.

Athletes are trained to visualize every action in detail before their performance. This exercise will train their mind to react quickly and appropriately without much thought when the time is right. In other words, they are programming themselves to think and act in a specific way. And with victory, they experience feelings of success which reinforces and rewards more of this thinking. 

Top athletes and performers will even use failure to motivate themselves to persevere until they achieve success.

Visualization can help you practice challenging scenarios in a safe and consequence-free environment to help you gain the confidence you need.

Technique: Visualize your goals

Purpose: To associate positive feelings with pursuing new goals and to gain confidence before attempting new activities.

What to do:

  1. Assume a comfortable meditative position. You can choose to sit or lie on your back.
  2. Close your eyes and begin deep-belly breathing.
  3. Visualize a goal that you want to accomplish. The goal can be anything you want, don’t limit yourself to what you believe is “realistic”. After all, limiting beliefs may be holding you back from your true potential.
  4. Focus firmly on this goal. Imagine how, where, and which whom this goal can be achieved. These places and people can be real or imagined. The idea is that you practice a mindset where you are succeeding in your goal, and you can begin to formulate feelings of success from achieving those goals.
  5. In this meditative space, it is impossible for you to fail. If limiting beliefs or negative thoughts creep in, practice using positive affirmations and mantras. Don’t try and suppress those negative thoughts, as that will only make them more persistent. Visualize those negative thoughts slowly fading away as you introduce healthy positive associations.
  6. Visualize the accomplishment and happiness you feel from achieving your goal and remain as long as you like. Continue to breathe deeply.
  7. When you are ready, slowly return from your visualized scenario. Inhale deeply and open your eyes. You can return to this space any time you feel overwhelmed by stress, self-doubt, or negative thoughts.

Technique: Guided imagery

Purpose: To practice visualizing positive scenes and outcomes. This technique can lower stress and boost your mood.

What to do:

  1. Assume a comfortable meditative position. You can choose to sit or lie on your back.
  2. Close your eyes and begin deep-belly breathing.
  3. Visualize a place where you feel relaxed and content. This can be an actual place or somewhere that you have imagined.
  4. Imagine as much detail about your scene as possible. Describe to yourself what the sights, sounds, and feelings are. Use all your senses to imagine yourself as if you were there. Continue breathing and move around your imaginary space. Continue to describe every detail of your environment. The more detail you add, the more effective the technique.
  5. Visualize the peace and serenity you feel from being in this space and remain as long as you like. Continue to breathe deeply and explore.
  6. When you are ready, slowly return from your visualized space. Inhale deeply and open your eyes. You can return to this space any time you feel overwhelmed by stress, self-doubt, or negative thoughts.

There is one caveat to consider.

While visualizing, focus on how you want to achieve your goals. Do not concentrate only on the final success. 

You will be tricking your brain into thinking that you are already accomplished if you only visualize the final success.

You want to be motivated enough to create your new life rather than convincing yourself that you have already achieved it without putting in the work.

Final thoughts

While these techniques are extremely powerful on their own, it is a good idea to enact these methods with the help and guidance of a trained therapist and mental health professional. The caring and professional staff at Healing Arts Institute of South Florida will be able to help guide your through the most difficult parts of your journey.

Contact us today to learn about more visualization techniques and the life changing benefits of therapy. Come and set up your first appointment!

Thank you for reading, and don’t forget to check back each week for a new and interesting article.

We are all wishing you hope, health, and mental well-being… Have an amazing week!

Citations:

Adams, A. J. “Seeing Is Believing: The Power of Visualization.” Psychology Today, 3 Dec. 2009, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/flourish/200912/seeing-is-believing-the-power-visualization.

Clarey, Christopher. “Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training.” The New York Times, 22 Feb. 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html.

Globokar, Lidija. “The Power Of Visualization And How To Use It.” Forbes, 3 Mar. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/lidijaglobokar/2020/03/05/the-power-of-visualization-and-how-to-use-it/?sh=2f14c3b06497.

O’Brien, Irena. “Why Visualization Doesn’t Work to Make Your Dreams a Reality.” The Neuroscience School, 7 Apr. 2020, neuroscienceschool.com/2019/06/20/why-visualization-doesnt-work-to-make-your-dreams-a-reality.

Raypole, Crystal. “5 Visualization Techniques to Add to Your Meditation Practice.” Healthline, 28 May 2020, www.healthline.com/health/visualization-meditation.

Change the destructive mental programming that’s shaping your life

Black chains breaking - Change the destructive mental programming that's shaping your life - Healing Arts Institute of South Florida
Written by David Davenport – Contributing author Healing Arts Institute of South Florida
Image by Canva

Have you ever just stopped and wondered about how your life came to be the way it is?

For better or worse, the life we have is a running tally of all the decisions that we have made up to this point. Some of those decisions may have been out of your control, but the result is still the same. Your life is your life.

The question is, are you happy with your current path? If not, can your life path be changed? Is it even possible to change your life?

The proverbial mid-life crisis is no longer exclusive to the over 40 crowds but is beginning to introduce itself decades earlier to people who are trying to find greater meaning.

Here’s a secret… The way you think affects the direction of your life path. If you want to change your life, this is where you should start.

Your thoughts construct your reality.

Don’t believe me? That’s alright, most other people don’t either – that’s the problem.

The way you relate to people and your environment are all stored by neural networks that are arranged in your brain and which come to consciousness as thoughts. In other words, your environment shapes your thoughts. Your brain in turn regulates these thoughts, personality traits, and beliefs which are then presented back to your environment in the form of communication and… decisions.

Your thinking creates your environment

So, if you are unhappy with your environment and want to change it, how do you start? Do you change your life to be able to form new thoughts, or do you change your thoughts to eventually bring about a new environment?

The answer is yes, to both.

You wake up each morning and generally follow the same routines. You go to work and interact with the same people, then come home and unwind in the same way. Every day you do this, you are programming and reinforcing your mindset to expect more of the same. Your environment and routine will activate and stimulate specific regions of your brain which confirm your thinking.

It’s you that continue to create and reinforce this life.

Now ask yourself. If you perform the same acts every day and reinforce the same mindset every day, how can you expect anything to change if you don’t do anything to disrupt your routine?

Producing change requires that you learn to think beyond your current circumstances and environment. Yes, I realize that’s a very tall order, especially if you feel stuck and unhappy.

But here’s the thing. The more you continue to feel stuck and unhappy, the more likely you are to make decisions and create circumstances to support and reinforce that unhappiness. It becomes self-fulfilling.

This is not mysticism, it’s psychology.

What can I do to break the routine?

Before we move on to how to break this mental programming and install a new one, you need to accept two uncomfortable facts.

  1. You must take responsibility for the direction of your life. It may not be your fault, and it may not be fair, but that’s the reality of it. You must take responsibility and take charge. Once you realize that you are in control, changing direction will not seem nearly as daunting.
  2. You must be willing to accept feelings of being uncomfortable. Change can be scary, and there will be days when you just want to go back to the way things were. This is where you want to work with a trusted mental health professional to help guide you in your journey. Someone who can help you see the path ahead more clearly.

I’m ready for a change! Now what?

There are two important components to enacting the change you want to see in your life. Learning and repetition. If repetition got you to where you are today, then learning and repeating a new way of thinking will get you to where you want to be.

If you want to break the programming that is keeping you stuck, you must first learn to think differently.

There is a direct correlation between the way you think, how you act, and the way you feel.

(THINK -> ACT -> FEEL)

Your thoughts lead to actions, which result in feelings. We want to experience feelings of happiness and success to reinforce the thoughts that lead to happiness and success. It’s not enough to just think good thoughts, we need to feel what the result of those thoughts would be. That’s the secret and the key.

When you feel the way you think, you begin to think the way you feel. It’s the same reinforcement as mentioned before but in a positive life-affirming way.

The think/feel paradox

The greatest barrier to change is that even if we want to think differently, we still feel the same!

If thoughts are the language of the mind, then your feelings and emotions must be that of the body. Your thoughts and emotions must agree for you to enact the change you desire.

Moving forward requires that you “become” someone new. You must remind yourself every day of who this new person is and what they want. Most importantly, you must FEEL it. Slowly, this will begin to make changes in the neural networks your brain develops. As this happens, your thinking will change. As your thinking changes, so will your environment and the people you attract to it.

Techniques for change

Make sure to read next week’s blog post where we discuss powerful techniques to help you through the think/feel paradox. Thank you for reading and have a wonderful week!

Next, read these interesting related articles from the Healing Arts blog:

Citations:

“How Changing Your Story Can Change Your Life – Dr. Joe Dispenza on How to Reprogram Your Mind.” YouTube, uploaded by Dr. Joe Dispenza, 26 Apr. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdaNcYDo5sg&list=WL&index=2.

Ruffino, Megan. “The Think, Feel, Act Cycle and How We Can Use It to Be Happier.” Happiness Is a Decision, 25 Aug. 2020, happinessisadecision.com/the-think-feel-act-cycle-and-how-we-can-use-it-to-be-happier.

Shaffer, Joyce. “Neuroplasticity and Clinical Practice: Building Brain Power for Health.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 7 1118. 26 Jul. 2016, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01118

Never ignore your intuition. It might save your life.

Never ignore your intuition. It might save your life. - Healing Arts Institute of South Florida
Written by David Davenport – Contributing author Healing Arts Institute of South Florida
Image by Canva

You likely have experienced a situation where you found yourself questioning your own feelings. Something doesn’t quite feel right. You can’t explain it, but your stomach is in knots, and you can’t shake the feeling that something is very, very wrong.

You try to put your finger on what is bothering you. Everything seems fine – but you know it isn’t.

Suddenly with a shrug of your shoulders and quick dismissive rationale, you push aside any unpleasant thoughts and go about your day.

Intuition is far more than a “gut feeling”.

Think of intuition as your mind’s way of fast-tracking conclusions based on experience.

Your brain processes an enormous volume of information all throughout the day. While you are walking, imagine how difficult it would be to be actively in control of every single muscle that is involved each time you take a step. Your mind would be so occupied with the basic function and control of your body, you would have very little time or energy left to think about anything else.

Intuition and the subconscious

To solve this overload of information, your brain has a system for processing and utilizing information. This system allows you to spend time thinking about higher-order cognitive tasks – like what you’re going to wear at your best friend’s birthday party next week.

But your subconscious mind doesn’t just process and compute baseline physical functions. From the moment you were born, your mind has been soaking up information all around you. It processes that information and returns a result based on your experiences and environmental conditions.

Sometimes your brain tells you that you are close to danger, but it won’t tell you this in words. It tells you by raising the hair on the back of your neck. Your mouth begins to feel dry, and a sense of nervousness begins to set in.

Think of intuition as your mind’s way of fast-tracking conclusions based on experience. It often manifests as vague but difficult to ignore inclinations. If your mind is telling you something is wrong, you should disregard this warning at your own peril.

My intuition is telling me something is wrong, but I don’t know what

This can happen when your perception of reality and your environment conflicts with your beliefs and observations of the people around you. It’s much easier to rationalize unpleasant feelings rather than getting to the root cause of them.

There can be several reasons why you are feeling this way, some of which include:

  • Your mind has found a disconnect between your beliefs, your self-perception, and the reality of your environment. In other words, things seem to be “off” because the way things are, are not what you believe they should be.
  • You are experiencing a manipulative tactic often employed by narcissists called gaslighting. This is when people intentionally convince you to disregard your own feelings and observations. They try to convince you that you are “going crazy”.
  • You have experienced past trauma that is activating your fight-or-flight response. People who are recovering from severe trauma are often hyper-sensitive to situations that are not necessarily dangerous. Trauma victims are often in a near-constant state of being hyper-alert.

Of course, there can be many other reasons as well. Regardless of why your intuition is sending you these signals, the underlying reason must be discovered before you will begin to feel better.

Learn to trust yourself

Whatever the reason may be, it is important to listen to your intuition and figure out why you are experiencing a disconnect between what you believe to be true and what you are perceiving as reality.

If you are in a toxic and abusive relationship, listening to your intuition can help you take the first steps you need to get out of that relationship before it gets worse. If your intuition is sounding the alarm due to underlying trauma, you need to discover what that is before chronic depression and anxiety take hold.

Paying attention to your intuitive emotions can literally save your life. Learn to trust yourself and ask for help if you are experiencing strong feelings of doubt or uncertainty.

What if I’m not sure what to do next?

Nobody should be expected to figure all of this out on their own!

A trained mental health professional can help you discover what your intuitive senses are trying to tell you. They are trained in the language of the subconscious and can help put words to what your mind is trying to say.

Healing Arts Institute of South Florida trains and employs only the most client-centered therapists. Our highly caring staff will guide you through your journey to self-actualization and fulfillment.

Take the first step now to becoming the person you were meant to be – contact us to speak with one of our amazing therapists.
Your journey starts with us today!

Read these related blog articles from Healing Arts Institute:

Citations:

Abramson, Kate. “TURNING UP THE LIGHTS ON GASLIGHTING.” Philosophical Perspectives, vol. 28, 2014, pp. 1–30. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26614542. Accessed 9 Aug. 2021.

Bergland, Christopher. “Unconscious Memories Hide in the Brain but Can Be Retrieved.” Psychology Today, 17 Aug. 2017, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201508/unconscious-memories-hide-in-the-brain-can-be-retrieved.

Myers, David G. Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. Yale University Press, 2002. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1nq71s. Accessed 9 Aug. 2021.

Squire, Larry R, and Adam J O Dede. “Conscious and unconscious memory systems.” Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in biology vol. 7,3 a021667. 2 Mar. 2015, doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a021667

Train you brain to shut down stress quickly (Part II)

Electrical signals of an active human brain - Train your brain to shut down stress stimulating the Vagus nerve - Healing Arts Institute of South Florida
Author: David Davenport – Contributing writer Healing Arts Institute | Image by Canva

In our last blog, we talked about how the Vagus nerve and various components of your nervous system can affect your level of stress. We also touched upon a few simple suggestions to help you control an overactive fight or flight response.

Today we’re going to introduce you to an exercise that you can practice every day. Performing this exercise will help activate your Vagus nerve and reduce your sympathetic nervous system’s influence.

Doing this exercise is not a substitute for working with a highly trained mental health professional. But it will give you another tool for overcoming feelings of intense anxiety.

How to perform the exercise

  1. Sit upright in a comfortable position. This can be on the floor with your legs crossed or sitting in a chair if you are at work. Make sure that your spine is straight, and your chin is pointing downward.
  2. Take a deep belly breath until your lungs feel full. Focus on pulling down on your diaphragm to bring in as much air as possible.
  3. Slowly exhale until you have removed as much air from your lungs as you can.
  4. As you exhale, bring the palms of your hands together, pointing your fingers up towards the sky, and begin to press your palms together with as much effort as you are able.
  5. Hold your breath in this position. Continue to press your hands together for as long as you are able.
  6. Concentrate on pressing your palms together and try to avoid bringing air into your lungs until the sensation to take another breath becomes too uncomfortable to maintain.
  7. Relax your hands and inhale deeply.
  8. Slowly exhale and allow yourself to recover.
Exhale while firmly pressing your palms together for as long as you are able. | Image by Canva

How often should I do this?

When starting, you should approach this exercise carefully, especially if you have any cardiac or respiratory challenges. You should consult your doctor before trying this exercise, or any activity that might put stress on your heart or lungs.

If you’re new to this technique, start by performing this exercise three times a day. Slowly add more iterations as needed up to three iterations three times per day.

Why does this exercise work?

A common response to being in a state of panic is rapid breathing. As we discussed in Part I of this series, your body prepares to enter a state of fight or flight. Your rate of breathing will begin to increase to prepare for intense physical stress.

Although your brain is in a panicked state, you normally are not fighting or running from anything. You’re just very nervous. A side effect of rapid breathing is the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) in your bloodstream. Every time you exhale, you are breathing out more CO2.

Your body measures CO2 in your blood with receptors that are part of your carotid artery, located on either side of your neck. The brain uses this measurement to monitor the condition of your body, when it senses that there is low CO2, it reinforces the conclusion that you are in a panicked state and reacts accordingly.

What do you think will happen next? That’s right, more sympathetic nervous system activation.

This exercise encourages you to refrain from excessive breathing which raises the CO2 concentration in the blood. Your carotid artery chemoreceptors register this change in blood chemistry and your body reacts by activating the Vagus nerve, inducing a parasympathetic offset to fight or flight.

In other words, holding your breath will help signal to your body that there is no need to run or fight. Everything is fine, we can relax now!


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Citations:

“Carotid Body Chemoreceptor – an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics.” Science Direct., 2009, www.sciencedirect.com/topics/immunology-and-microbiology/carotid-body-chemoreceptor.

Jewell, Tim. “How to Train to Hold Your Breath Longer Safely.” Healthline, 7 Feb. 2020, www.healthline.com/health/holding-your-breath.

Meuret, Alicia E et al. “Hypoventilation Therapy Alleviates Panic by Repeated Induction of Dyspnea.” Biological psychiatry. Cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging vol. 3,6 (2018): 539-545. doi:10.1016/j.bpsc.2018.01.010

Sato, Kohei et al. “Differential blood flow responses to CO₂ in human internal and external carotid and vertebral arteries.” The Journal of physiology vol. 590,14 (2012): 3277-90. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2012.230425

Train your brain to shut down stress quickly (Part I)

Electrical signals of an active human brain - Train your brain to shut down stress stimulating the Vagus nerve - Healing Arts Institute of South Florida
Author: David Davenport – Contributing writer Healing Arts Institute | Image by Canva

In this two-part series, we are going to look at how and why your body enters ‘stress mode’ and how you can train yourself to prevent feeling overwhelmed by anxiety.

We have talked about stress before in previous articles, but today we will be discussing the role of the Vagus nerve in controlling stress in particular. The human nervous system is fairly complicated. It is divided into several subsystems, each of which controls a different component of our physiology.

When we say that we are feeling ‘nervous’, what we’re really saying is that there is some part of our nervous system which is activating. Sometimes it becomes so active, that it interferes with our normal daily lives. Not good!

Our two main nervous system categories are the somatic system and the autonomic system. While the somatic system is in charge of voluntary body movements (like muscle control), the autonomic system helps us control all the other things we don’t usually think about.

This includes things like heart rate, dilation of blood vessels, the release of perspiration, and digestive functions.

It is the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for developing our nervous jitters, so let’s talk a little more about what that is and how training the Vagus nerve can help you calm your nerves.

What makes up the autonomic nervous system?

The autonomic system is divided into two components.

The sympathetic nervous system controls what you normally hear referred to as the “fight or flight” response. You can think of this as pre-installed survival software that activates when your brain thinks that you are in danger.

The parasympathetic nervous system helps to calm the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and controls the “rest and digest” functions of your body.

These two systems are in opposition to each other – balancing each other out in a yin and yang harmonious equilibrium.

So, what about the Vagus nerve? How does it help calm me down?

The Vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve and is one of the longest nerves in your entire body. It extends from your brain stem all the way down to your abdomen. It helps to regulate your digestive functions, and it even brings sensory information from your organs back to your brain for processing.

When the Vagus nerve activates it signals the release of acetylcholine (ACh), a neurotransmitter that binds to nicotinic and muscarinic receptors telling your body that it’s time to ‘rest and digest’.

Jittery nerves come with additional side effects

It is possible to become so accustomed to stress that you ignore those jittery signals your body is giving you. That doesn’t mean that you are immune to the effects of stress, just that you are no longer sensitive to recognizing the signs.

Chronic dry mouth, stomach pain, and fatigue are important signs that you are in a state of “fight or flight”. These are good indicators that you need to stimulate your Vagus nerve to offset these unpleasant and harmful side effects of being in distress.

Luckily, we have been learning how to do this for quite a while. Here are some simple things you can do to help stimulate your Vagus nerve and stop stress from becoming too overwhelming.

Meditative breathing

Purposeful breathing helps your mind focus on your body’s current state of being. While concentrating on your breathing, scan your body for signs of tension, discomfort, or pain. Breathe deeply from your diaphragm. Scan your body for these signs as you work your way from head to toe.

You may notice a slight increase in saliva beginning to form in your mouth after starting this exercise. This is because your Vagus nerve is activating your “rest and digest” response.

Pay attention to the biorhythms of your body

Your body will let your know what it needs and when it needs it. Often times we ignore these signals because we are busy, in a rush, or distracted by daily obligations and routines.

It is important to sleep when you are tired, to eat when you are hungry, and to relax when overworked.

It is not uncommon to feel angry or nervous when your body has not been provided with enough nutrition. Sometimes a little snack every now and again could make all the difference.

Laughter really is the best medicine

Taking the time to find something that will make you laugh or smile while engaging in stressful work will help stimulate your rest and digest response. This will help keep you calm and relaxed. Have you ever experienced nervous laughter before? Sometimes when we are confronted with an anxiety-provoking situation that flips our fight or flight mode to the on position, we start to laugh. That’s not accidental.

Your body is experiencing a sudden rush of anxiety, and your mind is subconsciously attempting to lessen the impact.

Sometimes watching a few cute animal videos on YouTube is time well spent to help you to smile, laugh, and get back on track.

It is important to note that these techniques are not meant to mask or avoid the problems that are causing your anxiety. Feeling calmer and in control will help you to work with a trusted mental health professional so that you can find the root cause.

Read next week’s blog where we discuss additional techniques to help you get a grip on your nervous impulses.

Citations:

“Parasympathetic Response: Train Your Nervous System to Turn off Stress: Anxiety Skills #11.” YouTube, uploaded by Therapy in a Nutshell, 14 June 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FpKpW0EhYo&list=PLbPJLaLL5_ENqax0xTBoEGV5mxNmkseHQ&index=46

Sigrid, Breit, et al. “Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, vol. 9, 2018, p. 44, doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044.

Tindle J, Tadi P. Neuroanatomy, Parasympathetic Nervous System. [Updated 2020 Nov 15]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK553141/

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – A Look Into What It Is And How To Treat It

Written by David Davenport – Contributing author Healing Arts Institute of South Florida

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is far more common than you think, and chances are you may have experienced it at some point in your life.

On average, half of the U.S. population will experience at least one severely traumatic experience in their life. About 8% of the total population will develop some form of PTSD because of either directly being subjected to trauma or having witnessed it.

In any given year, more than 8 million adults will be suffering from PTSD.

That’s a lot of people.

As we wrap up Mental Health Awareness Month, we are going to talk about what PTSD is, how your brain copes with trauma and the things we can do to treat it. If you think you may be suffering from PTSD, you are not alone.

Weirdly, PTSD is the result of your brain trying to protect you from danger.

What is PTSD?

Weirdly, PTSD is the result of your brain trying to protect you from danger. When you are in a situation where you feel that you are under threat, your brain activates your sympathetic nervous system. You may have heard this referred to as a fight or flight response. This system tells your body to prepare itself to escape whatever is threatening you:

  • Adrenaline hormones course through your body, telling your muscles and organs that you are getting ready to experience a demanding physical ordeal.
  • Your heartbeat increases to pump more blood through your arteries so that your muscles have enough oxygen to run from what is threatening you.
  • You begin to sweat so that your body can keep cool as it exerts itself.

The problem is nothing is chasing you and nobody is attacking you. You may be alone and perfectly safe yet feel as if your life is in imminent danger.

This sensation can envelop you without warning and at any time. There is no hiding from it.

You begin to panic, scream, lash out, and cry…

You are in a fight for your life – at least that is what your brain is telling you.

Your brain is trying to protect you from danger, but it has become a little confused about when that danger was an actual threat.

People who suffer from PTSD are constantly reliving their ordeal of trauma, trying desperately to outrun terrifying memories that they cannot figure out how to escape.

The Effects of PTSD on the Brain

When you experience trauma, certain memories can be filed away in long-term storage to help remind you to never repeat that experience. It’s a survival mechanism.

Sometimes the brain overreacts, and you may end up experiencing those memories many times over. Even though you are not in any real danger, your brain is unable to tell the difference between a real and a perceived threat.

PTSD has a dramatic effect on the Limbic system of your brain which is responsible for long-term memory formation as well as fear learning and emotional response. While several structures comprise the Limbic system, the amygdala is the structure thought to be responsible for activating fearful and anxious emotions. Under situations of extreme stress, terror, or shock the Limbic system can become too active and store fear responses in long-term memory which hinder the quality of life and social connections with others.

A part of your brain which normally helps to regulate and calm the Limbic system is called the Pre-Frontal Cortex (which we’ll abbreviate as PFC). This part of your brain is responsible for rational thought and is generally able to tone down the activation of your amygdala. In a neurotypical brain, these two structures balance one another, but in a PTSD brain, the emotional Limbic system runs rampant.

Interestingly, a third structure is involved in emotional regulation which connects to both the amygdala and the PFC. It’s called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). It can influence emotional regulation depending on which neural system has more influence.

Relationship between the PFC, ACC, and Amygdala in PTSD - Healing Arts Institute

In other words, the ACC can help your rational-thought processes regulate the Limbic system if your PFC has strong functional connections to it. But it also means that the opposite is true. If your over-active amygdala develops atypical functional connections to the ACC, it can be more difficult to regulate emotions.

The altered performance of functional connections from the amygdala to the ACC has been observed extensively in at-risk youth. Many of these kids experience violence at home and at school, which over time instills long-term fear learning and the development of PTSD.

Who is Susceptible to PTSD?

Anyone who has personally experienced or who has witnessed a terrifying and traumatic event can develop post-traumatic stress disorder. People who are subjected to consistent stress over long periods can also develop PTSD even if they have never faced a particularly shocking event that is normally associated with trauma.

Victims of child abuse and domestic violence often describe symptoms and show signs of PTSD from long-term and sustained stress.

Some people who suffer from PTSD describe feeling guilty that their suffering is not worth the time and attention to treat. They compare their experiences with the experiences of others and decide that their trauma is not worthy of recognition.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Trauma is very personal. If it matters to you, then it matters. Period. You should never feel as if you must justify that to anyone, not even to yourself.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to the Rescue

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a treatment method that engages the rational thought structures of your brain to overcome and regulate your emotions. Remember the Pre-frontal cortex (PFC) that we talked about earlier? It teaches you how to think through your thoughts and emotions in a logical and structured way rather than remaining subservient to emotions and fear.

When your PFC makes strong connections with the ACC and Limbic system, it becomes easier to overcome and control the irrational fear responses of PTSD. This takes time and a lot (and I mean a lot) of practice.

Some medications can help ease symptoms, but medication alone is not a cure. Medical studies have shown that a combination of medication and CBT in treating PTSD is far more effective than either one alone.

Overcoming PTSD is a long and hard road, but with the help and guidance of a trained therapist, anyone can learn to control and even defeat their PTSD symptoms.

Citations:

American Psychological Association. “Clinical Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Adults.” American Psychological Association, Mar. 2017, www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/cognitive-behavioral-therapy.

Gold, Andrea L et al. “Amygdala-prefrontal cortex functional connectivity during threat-induced anxiety and goal distraction.” Biological psychiatry vol. 77,4 (2015): 394-403.

Marusak, H., Thomason, M., Peters, C. et al. You say ‘prefrontal cortex’ and I say ‘anterior cingulate’: meta-analysis of spatial overlap in amygdala-to-prefrontal connectivity and internalizing symptomology. Transl Psychiatry 6, e944 (2016).

“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic, 6 July 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967.

Stevens, Francis, et al. “Anterior Cingulate Cortex: Unique Role in Cognition and Emotion.” The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, vol. 23, no. 2, 2011, pp. 121–25. Psychiatry Online, neuro.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/jnp.23.2.jnp121.

“VA.Gov | Veterans Affairs.” U.S. Deprtment of Veteran’s Affairs, 2021, www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_adults.asp.

“What Is PTSD?” American Psychiatric Association, 2020, www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd.

Making Sense of an Unexpected Death: Losing a Friend

Sunset over a mountain top - clouds over the horizon. Death and grieving.
Written by David Davenport – Contributing author Healing Arts Institute of South Florida [Op-ed]

For anyone who has ever experienced an unexpected or sudden loss of a friend or loved one, I hope this story finds you well.

There are so many emotions and conflicting thoughts that are involved with experiencing the death of a close friend or relative. It becomes even more difficult to process when feelings of guilt and a sense of missed opportunity looms over their memory.

Recently I received a call from a long-time friend. We had known each other since college, and he was part of a group of inside friends who helped to define my college years. The five of us would hang out and have the kinds of conversations that would make even a veteran sailor feel uneasy.

My friends were a defining part of my younger years.

Admittedly I was a bit of a latecomer to the group, but I like to think of my inclusion as a much-needed upgrade.

The day came when we all graduated. Years passed, and we slowly drifted apart in the way that life tends to impose. We moved away. We spoke less and we lived our lives.

The Call

I answered the call with excitement, so happy to hear from my friend. We hadn’t spoken in almost three years. I wanted to know how he was doing and how his children must have grown! Business must be doing well, and I’m sure his wife must be overjoyed after having their fifth (yes, fifth) child.

When he spoke it was with the same enthusiasm and heartfelt joy that I’ve become accustomed to hearing, except… it wasn’t. I knew something was different this time in his tone, even though he tried as best he could to hide it.

He went silent for a moment. That moment felt like an eternity and I sat down not knowing what to expect. I only knew that whatever was coming next would not be good.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Something is wrong.”

He sat silent for a few moments trying to find the right words, hesitant that in doing so it would make what he was about to say all too real.

“Chris died last night.” He said without any further explanation.

I felt nothing. Of course he was mistaken, and I was going to get to the bottom of it. My medical training immediately took over and I began collecting a detailed history of events. With each answer I received, my heart sunk further as the reality of what had occurred formed a very clear picture in my mind.

His passing was not the result of a sudden tragedy or unexpected event. My friend was sick for a very long time. Years even. His cause of death was likely due to internalized struggles that he attempted to suppress with alcohol. A lot of alcohol.

He never told any of us.

It was my fault…

I had suspected on occasion that he may have been struggling with depression, but never to the extent that it would eventually take his life. I only ever received second-hand updates from others in the group.

He had everything he ever wanted, at least as far as any of us knew. At least as far as I knew.

It had been more than twelve years since I had seen my friend, and almost as long since we had spoken.

It had been so long that he almost didn’t seem real to me anymore. He had become another happy memory of my youth when life was far less complicated.

Three months before his passing, he called me out of the blue. I almost couldn’t believe it was him. He seemed happy. I asked how he was, and he said everything was going well. He was lying.

He invited me to come out and see him, meet his wife and spend some time with him. It didn’t seem practical considering how busy things were at the time, and I didn’t have the first clue that things were as bad as they were. I didn’t know that he was calling me from the hospital.

I know now that this was his way of reaching out and saying goodbye. He was a man of few words.

I slowly began to fill with a sense of dread. It was heavy and cold – almost palpable. That dread slowly turned to anger.

Why didn’t he tell us? We were his friends! He could have said something – I COULD HAVE DONE SOMETHING!

It was MY FAULT that I didn’t reach out, I was as guilty as the disease that took him…

The disquieting ebb and flow of guilt and anger were all I could think about.

Making sense of what happened

Slowly with time, more rational thoughts began to prevail. How could I possibly blame myself for his decisions? I will always feel partially responsible for not reaching out, but that is my burden to bear.

Ultimately, he felt that his demons were his and his alone to vanquish and I am learning to respect that decision. I do not have to like it, but I do have to accept it.

My friend left us on a Saturday night. He closed his eyes and found peace after falling asleep one last time. He now has more important things to do and has left the rest of us to continue the work of our daily lives.

Tomorrow, I will wake up grateful for having taken that first breath in the morning. I will be grateful for having had him in my life.

I will try to do more. To live more. To be more compassionate to others, and to listen more than I talk.

Chris was my friend.

I will miss him.

Written by David Davenport: Contributing author Healing Arts Institute

If you suspect that someone you know is struggling with depression, reach out to them. If you are struggling with depression, seek help. You will never find the answer at the bottom of a bottle or with substance abuse.

There is never any shame in asking someone for help.

Crisis textline: Text CONNECT to 741741 for help with depression (24 hours / 7 days a week)

Lines for Life: Alcohol help line 888-923-4357 (24 hours / 7 days a week)

Read our blog article on re-kindling your motivation when you are feeling depressed.

Five Simple Reasons Why You Should go to Therapy Today

Therapy - Healing Arts Institute of South Florida - Woman holding a smartphone and looking up and to her left.
Written by David Davenport – Contributing author Healing Arts Institute of South Florida

I am going to go out on a limb and say that there has been at least one time in your life that you have thought about going to therapy or seeking out a therapist. For some reason, we’ve stigmatized the entire process of seeking help for mental health challenges, and so we don’t go.

Let’s consider for a moment just how ridiculous that really is.

Your brain is an organ just like your heart, lungs, or kidneys. Aside from regulating all your autonomic and voluntary functions, it is responsible for processing all the sensory information around you.

That beautiful breeze you feel on a cool day? That’s your brain telling you that sensation against your skin is pleasant.

That sense of dread you begin to feel as a looming deadline approaches? That’s your brain telling you that ‘danger’ is on the horizon and you better act accordingly.

Unlike other organs, your brain is also responsible for regulating something that carries a strong social attachment with it – behavior.

Sometimes are brains overreact or become ‘injured’ through the experience of traumatic events throughout our lives. Sometimes we are born with neural connections or neurotransmitter imbalances that make it difficult for our brains to function in the ways we want them to.

That’s not our fault, and it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed about.

Why do we view mental health differently than physical health?

If we sustain injuries from a car accident, we wouldn’t feel ashamed to get help from a doctor. We would seek treatment and feel better for having done so.

Why then are we ashamed to ask for therapy when it comes to healing our brain? I propose that we are ashamed because the most obvious ‘defect’ has to do with our behavior.

Not only do we spend our whole lives adjusting our behavior to the liking of others, but it also causes us significant discomfort to suggest that our behavior and worldview may be flawed.

I get it, it’s scary.

We are ashamed because the most obvious ‘defect’ has to do with our behavior.

Luckily for us, May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Healing Arts Institute wants to help you #BreakTheStigma of mental health therapy!

Let’s go over five simple signs that you should watch out for, and why you should consider starting a relationship with a therapist today.

You are feeling tired throughout the day – even with a whole night’s sleep.

Feeling tired despite having had plenty of rest may be a sign of stress overload. Even if you don’t feel overwhelmed, micro-stressors can accumulate over time. This can lead to mental burnout and emotional distress which will translate into fatigue, stomach pain, muscle aches, and head pain.

Feeling tired is a sign that your body is struggling, and the core cause of that struggle may actually be from an emotional or mental source.

You want to be alone more often than you normally do.

It’s completely normal for people to want to be alone, in fact, many people find social interaction to be pretty draining. That’s actually alright.

However, if you are the type of person who derives energy from being around friends and family, you want to watch out for patterns that have you spending more time by yourself. Spending too much time away from others can lead to isolation and depression.

You may want to use therapy to explore why this shift in behavior has occurred, and whether there is an underlying reason for it.

You are feeling overwhelmed by situations you are normally able to handle.

Sometimes there are just too many things happing at the same time. Work, family, relationships, and finances can create stressful conditions that can make anyone feel like it’s just too much to handle.

Over time you can begin to feel as if you are being worn down little by little. The situations you used to be able to juggle successfully are becoming more difficult for you to deal with and you’re not sure why.

If you are starting to feel as if life is becoming a little too hard, it is a sure sign that you may need some guidance as to how to balance your mental and emotional state of mind.

You no longer care for the people or things that used to make you happy.

Feelings of apathy toward people or activities that used to bring you joy are a sign that your mind is attempting to remove itself from an emotionally stressful environment.

Even if you don’t feel particularly stressed, a slow and creeping lack of motivation is an indicator that something may be wrong. Don’t ignore what your thoughts and emotions are trying to tell you.

You are beginning to experience feelings of hopelessness, that life may not be worth living.

In circumstances of extreme distress, it is possible to spiral down into some pretty dark thoughts that likely don’t have a strong basis in reality. 

Once you begin to think that you don’t have a future, it can lead to negative thought patterns which can make it extremely hard to function in your daily life. Even worse you may even begin to have thoughts about harming yourself or someone else.

These are all signs that your mental and emotional state of mind is out of balance. Therapy can help correct it.

There is nothing wrong with asking for help, and you do not have to wait until things get bad before you do.

Start a healthy relationship with a therapist that you trust today.

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It’s Remarkable – Your Subconscious Mind is Always Talking. Stop and Listen.

The Subconscious Mind - Young girl is floating on the ocean late at night with a full moon on the horizon.
Written by David Davenport – Contributing author Healing Arts Institute of South Florida
Image by Canva

You may not be aware of it, but there is so much more happening in your mind than you realize.

Your brain functions as an extremely complicated computer, taking in information, processing that information, and then providing you with a conclusion. Your brain is managing enormous volumes of information every single day, and all of it is being filtered through the lens of your experiences and belief systems. 

In a way, you can think of your brain as computing hardware. This hardware needs to be given instructions about how to function, in other words, it needs a software operating system.

Continuing with this tech-based analogy, I want you to think about what it is like to use your computer or smartphone. While you have a broad range of apps that you can choose to use (consciousness), there are many other processes running in the background that you do not directly control (subconsciousness).

Much like your computer, the apps you chose to run (actions and behaviors) will affect the programs running in the background (subconscious thoughts and beliefs.). The opposite is also true. Your subconscious thoughts will affect your actions and behaviors.

Our background software is always processing information and sending back output. We just have to listen to what it is telling us.

Your brain is like a computer

Like any computer your brain needs input, and this data comes in many forms:

  • Your immediate surroundings and environment.
  • The people you interact with.
  • The actions you take, and activities that you participate in.
  • Sensory information such as smell, touch, sight, taste, and sound.

All this input is processed continuously whether you are aware of it or not. Truthfully, let’s be thankful that we aren’t aware of all of it. Can you imagine how difficult life would be if we had to make conscious efforts to move every single muscle every time we took a step? Every time we took a breath? Every time we swallowed and digested food? There would be no room to process higher thoughts. All our mental energy would be focused on physiologic survival.

Similarly, many of our emotions are processed through subconscious channels. This allows us to focus on more pressing and immediate thoughts and actions.

Our background software is always processing information and sending back output. We just have to listen to what it is telling us.

Feeling uneasy around certain people or situations

We can be quick to dismiss uneasy ‘gut’ feelings when being introduced to certain people or situations. We might minimize this feeling as being the result of social anxiety, nerves, or perhaps personal biases. However, these feelings are coming from somewhere. Our past experiences and the conclusions we reach from those experiences can shape our perceptions of future interactions.

That ‘gut feeling’ you have maybe your unconscious mind warning you that you are about to repeat something unpleasant from the past. You may be picking up on signals that are similar enough to previous experiences to where your brain is registering a warning not to do it again.

You should listen to that inner voice when it is telling you that something is wrong. The next time you get that unsettling feeling when you encounter a person or situation, listen to what it is telling you.

Having recurring dreams

There are still debates among medical scientists and psychologists as to why humans (and seemingly other mammals) dream when they sleep. On the surface there does not seems to be an obvious evolutionary advantage or purpose to dreaming.

It is not until we open ourselves to the idea of subconscious processing that we begin to formulate a possible explanation for why we dream. 

Dreams may reflect our internal state. They may be a way for our minds to sort through and untangle complicated thoughts and emotions that we experience throughout the day. Recurring dreams may hold clues as to why we feel the way we do or may even reveal emotional dilemmas that we were not aware of. 

Dreams may be amusing, bizarre, joyful, or even scary. If you are having the same dreams over and over again, it may be your mind’s way of trying to communicate with you.

Experiencing an unexplained feeling of clarity

Have you ever suddenly felt an almost euphoric feeling of peace, relief, or gratitude? If you have, it could be a message from your subconscious. Under stressful or uncertain circumstances, we may make decisions that we are uncertain about. We may doubt ourselves and our ability to do the right thing.

Our subconscious mind can process information much faster than our rational conscious mind can. But sometimes there can be a delay in our emotional state, especially in times of stress and uncertainty.

New information received by your subconscious mind can result in new emotions, but we are not always in sync as to when that update occurs. 

Think of this emotional state as being anti-anxiety.

If you ever suddenly feel as if everything is going to be okay, embrace it. It may be your mind’s way of telling you that you have made the right choices. 

Recurring thoughts

Much like recurring dreams, recurring thoughts can indicate a desire to finalize an unresolved emotional block. Some thoughts can be negative and intrusive and may require the help of a therapist to help you resolve them.

Don’t ignore recurring thoughts, especially if they are hindering your personal or professional life.

Allowing your subconscious mind to better communicate with you

Practicing mindfulness can help your deeper consciousness process and communicate new information. Many of our negative emotions and intrusive thoughts are from our suborn reluctance to listen to what our consciousness is trying to tell us.

Read more about Mindfulness here and associated breathing techniques here.


Citations:

Bargh, John A, and Ezequiel Morsella. “The Unconscious Mind.” Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science vol. 3,1 (2008): 73-9. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6916.2008.00064.x

Carey, Benedict. “The Subconscious Brain – Who’s Minding the Mind?” The New York Times, 30 July 2007, www.nytimes.com/2007/07/31/health/psychology/31subl.html.

Martinez-Conde, Susana. “Subconscious Sight.” Scientific American Mind, vol. 19, no. 2, 2008, pp. 48–53., www.jstor.org/stable/24939848. Accessed 3 May 2021.

Psych2Go. “6 Signs Your Subconscious Is Trying To Tell You Something.” YouTube, uploaded by Psych2Go, 31 July 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrJ0mN-l5AI&list=PLbPJLaLL5_ENqax0xTBoEGV5mxNmkseHQ&index=43.

Breathing Techniques that Will Dramatically Improve Your Life

Woman laying back on sofa, breathing deeply, wearing headphones.
Written by David Davenport: Contributing Author Healing Arts Institute

Did you know that you can literally change your state of mind, body, and focus by learning how to breathe properly?

I know, I know…

You’ve been breathing for as long as you can remember, and I shouldn’t be telling you how to live your life. But trust me, this is for your own good.

Last week we talked about mindfulness and how it is important in reducing depression and anxiety. Mindfulness training helps to bring your mind into the present moment. Breathing is an extremely important component of mindfulness, and so this week we are dedicating a whole article to do just that.

The calming effect from deep breathing is not mental, but rather has a physiological explanation.

The science behind how and why we breathe

Our breathing is regulated by a mostly automated process that allows us to bring oxygen into our bodies and release carbon dioxide. We need the oxygen to help our bodies produce a much-needed energy molecule called ATP, and we breathe out the carbon dioxide by-product from that very process.

Unlike other automated systems, we can take control of our breathing. In the past, you’ve likely been told to breathe deeply when you are getting a little worked up. You may have even caught yourself taking deep breathes when you are feeling nervous or angry. The calming effect from deep breathing is not mental, but rather has a physiological explanation.

When you breathe in deeply, you are pulling down on your diaphragm muscle. That action sets off a chain of events that stimulates an extremely important nerve—the Vagus Nerve. This is the nerve that is responsible for your ‘rest and digest’ state and works to calm you when your sympathetic nervous system has become too active.

In other words, learning about deep breathing techniques will help you to invoke the systems of your body that can turn off your fight-or-flight mode. This is what is meant by ‘belly breathing’.

This is how you can begin to achieve a more mindful state.

Let’s learn a few techniques that can help you calm your nerves and become more focused.

Woman standing with hands on chest, breathing deeply.

Diaphragmatic breathing technique

The diaphragm is the primary muscle used in breathing. It is located just below your ribcage and contracts in a motion that pulls downward. When it does, your chest cavity expands allowing for more air to come in.

So, to get the fullest breathes possible you want to pull down on your diaphragm.

  1. Sit up straight or lie on your back.
  2. Place one of your hands just below the ribcage (where your diaphragm is), and the other hand on the upper part of your chest.
  3. Breathe slowly through your nose and envision your diaphragm being pulled down towards your feet. Let your belly extend, paying attention to the feeling of your hand moving outward with it. The hand on your chest should remain still.
  4. Hold your breath for a few seconds.
  5. Slowly exhale through your mouth, again paying attention to the feeling of your hand as it slowly moves back to its original position.
  6. Wait a few seconds before taking another breath and repeating the process at least 3 times.

Once you are comfortable with practicing diaphragmatic breathing, there are some things you can do to make the technique even more effective.

4-7-8 technique

  1. Place your hands in the position for deep breathing as mentioned above.
  2. When inhaling, slowly count to 4.
  3. Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
  4. Exhale for 8 seconds, making sure to push out as much air as you can.
  5. Repeat at least 3 times.

Once you are comfortable doing this, you can incorporate the next step:

Upper chest ‘roll’ breathing

  1. Position yourself for deep diaphragmatic breathing and go through 10 cycles.
  2. On cycle number 11, concentrate on filling your upper chest with air after you have extended your belly as far as you have been able. You should pay attention to the hand on your chest rising as you do this. As you inhale, your belly hand should rise, then your chest hand should rise.
  3. As you exhale through your mouth, your chest hand should lower followed by your belly hand.
  4. Repeat several times and perform a body scan as discussed in our mindfulness article.

Deep breathing can help you become more focused, reduce stress, lower anxiety, and has even been linked to reductions in processes that produce pathological inflammation. Once you incorporate these techniques as part of a routine, you will be on your way to experiencing the benefits of a more mindful life.

Citations:

Gerritsen, Roderik J S, and Guido P H Band. “Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity.” Frontiers in human neuroscience vol. 12 397. 9 Oct. 2018, doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397

Harvard Health Publishing. “Learning Diaphragmatic Breathing.” Harvard Health, Mar. 2016, www.health.harvard.edu/lung-health-and-disease/learning-diaphragmatic-breathing.

Moore, Keith, and Arthur Dalley. Clinically Oriented Anatomy. 4th ed., Philadelphia : Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1999.

“Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation | Michigan Medicine.” Michigan Medicine: University of Michigan, 2020, www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uz2255.