Review of Carotid and Vertebral Artery Dissection, by Jodi A. Dodds and Amanda P. Anderson

Carotid and Vertebral Artery Dissection

A Guide for Survivors and Their Loved Ones

by Jodi A. Dodds, MD
and Amanda P. Anderson, MS, CCC-SLP

Printed in Monee, IL, January 11, 2022. 261 pages.
Review written February 1, 2022, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review
2022 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #9 General Nonfiction

I can’t even tell you how happy I am that this book exists.

Ten years ago, at 47 years old, I had a cerebellar stroke caused by a vertebral artery dissection. I was in pain with a horrible headache centered in my neck from the vertebral artery dissection more than a month before I had the stroke, but no doctor even thought to check for a dissected artery. Then I had an initial stroke, with sudden room-spinning vertigo — and the Emergency Room did a CT scan, which didn’t catch it, and sent me home, saying the dizziness meant my migraines had changed.

I had a second stroke three days later. That one they did catch, and I was in the hospital for ten days. It wasn’t until two days after my stroke that they thought to check for vertebral artery dissection.

I was sent home from the hospital on coumadin for six months, but they told me I didn’t need physical or occupational therapy and no major deficits. I didn’t understand all the minor deficits that would follow. And when I tried to find out information about recovering from vertebral dissections or cerebellar strokes, I only found information about major disabilities.

What’s more, when my neck pain continued, in the exact place where the vertebral artery dissection happened, my neurologist (ludicrously) started looking for arthritis in my neck! Later, after I’d aggravated the injury lifting too much weight, a neurology intern told me that arteries don’t hurt!

So reading this book ten years after the fact, I feel validated. I had learned on the internet that CT scans only catch 20% of cerebellar strokes when they’re happening. This book told me that CT scans only catch 35% of any kind of ischemic stroke while they are happening, and should never be used to rule out ischemic stroke. (They are good at catching hemorrhagic stroke, so still a good test to run.) I still can’t believe the doctors sent me home when I had that first stroke.

Also, pain for months and years after a vertebral artery dissection is just plain common. I know what that pain feels like — it was intense for the month before the stroke. So when it shows up again, I’m sure I aggravated the old injury, and this book confirms that may well be what’s happening. It also made me less afraid that pain there means a drastic reinjury — they emphasized that your scans can look normal, and yet you may still have pain long after the dissection happened.

I’ve also had dizziness since the stroke, and many vestibular migraines (similar to headache migraines, but with dizziness). This is common for vertebral artery dissection patients even if the injury was discovered before they had a stroke, though I’m sure the deficit in my cerebellum doesn’t help.

In summary, this book didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t figured out from my own experience, but it was oh, so validating! And I very, very much hope some doctors will find it. I’m posting this review in hopes of one more way cervical artery dissection survivors might find this information. I recommend that anyone in that situation purchase this book. You’ll find a wealth of information that will help you understand what you’ve experienced.

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Review of The Oxygen Advantage, by Patrick McKeown

The Oxygen Advantage

The Simple, Scientifically Proven Breathing Techniques for a Healthier, Slimmer, Faster, and Fitter You

by Patrick McKeown

William Morrow, 2015. 352 pages.
Review written August 21, 2020, from a library book

This book took me a long time to read. The author rambles and digresses. But a lot of those digressions are stories of lives who were changed because of these ideas. More are about the science behind the ideas.

The basic theme here is that people get into trouble from overbreathing. That deep breath they tell you to take to relax? The sighs you use to let off steam? Not a good idea.

This book made me wish I were still communicating with my ex-husband, a tuba player. He did some research on hyperventilation syndrome (which can happen to tuba players), and this book bears that out – and gives exercises to counteract it.

This author claims he can cure asthma and increase sports performance. For me, just dabbling in the exercises has cleared up what used to be an always stuffy nose.

An interesting and counterintuitive chapter at the beginning explains that we need to increase our tolerance for carbon dioxide in our blood. I won’t copy the long explanation, but here’s a bit of it:

Think of it this way: CO2 is the doorway that lets oxygen reach our muscles. If the door is only partially open, only some of the oxygen at our disposal passes through, and we find ourselves gasping during exercise, often with our limbs cramping. If, on the other hand, the door is wide open, oxygen flows through the doorway and we can sustain physical activity longer and at a higher intensity. But to understand how our breathing works we must dig a bit deeper into the crucial role carbon dioxide plays in making it as efficient as possible.

The book also talks about the importance of breathing through your nose and not your mouth and the benefits that brings. I’m glad I sleep alone – because I’ve been trying his suggestion of taping my mouth closed at night. I haven’t noticed a dramatic difference when I wake up, but it is true that combined with the breath-holding exercises from the book, I’ve got a lot less nasal stuffiness than before.

I’m not an athlete, so I’m not going to try the exercises that simulate high-altitude training. But I would like the health benefits. He’s got a simple Body Oxygen Level Test (BOLT) score you can use to measure your progress on this. If all he says is true, a higher BOLT score will help your overall physical health.

If any of this sounds at all helpful, the book is worth taking a look! The exercises are not difficult, and if the author is right, they can make a big difference.

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Review of The Upside of Stress, by Kelly McGonigal

The Upside of Stress

Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good at It

by Kelly McGonigal, PhD

Avery (Penguin Random House), 2015. 279 pages.
Starred Review

The same friend who recommended Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct to me also recommended The Upside of Stress. Even though I don’t think of myself as having a big problem with stress, I also hadn’t thought of myself as having a big problem with willpower – so this time, I put the book on hold right away, and was not surprised when it turned out to be outstanding.

We’ve all heard about the dangers of stress. Too much stress is bad for you, right? Well, this book looks more closely at that question. It turns out that if you think stress is bad for you, then it is. But if you focus on the upsides of stress – and there are many – stress can actually be good for you.

So all by itself, reading this book can make you healthier! You will learn about the many positive effects of stress, thus breaking the belief that stress is bad for you, thus ensuring it is not as bad for you.

On top of that, of course, you’re going to be much happier, the next time you’re in a stressful situation, when you start remembering the good it can do you.

Here’s how the author summarizes her purpose after she saw these new studies about stress.

So, my goal as a health psychologist has changed. I no longer want to help you get rid of your stress – I want to make you better at stress. That is the promise of the new science of stress, and the purpose of this book.

I like the way, in both her books, she bases everything on scientific studies.

It’s helpful to know a little about the science behind embracing stress for two reasons. First, it’s fascinating. When the subject is human nature, every study is an opportunity to better understand yourself and those you care about. Second, the science of stress has some real surprises. Certain ideas about stress – including the central premise of this book: that stress can be good for you – are hard to swallow. Without evidence, it would be easy to dismiss them. Seeing the science behind these ideas can help you consider them and how they might apply to your own experiences.

The advice in this book isn’t based on one shocking study – even though that’s what inspired me to rethink stress. The strategies you’ll learn are based on hundreds of studies and the insights of dozens of scientists I’ve spoken with. Skipping the science and getting straight to the advice doesn’t work. Knowing what’s behind every strategy helps them stick. So this book includes a crash course in the new science of stress and what psychologists call mindsets. You’ll be introduced to rising-star researchers and some of their most intriguing studies – all in a way I hope the reader can enjoy. If you have a bigger appetite for scientific details and want even more information, the notes at the end of this book will let you dig deeper.

But most important, this is a practical guide to getting better at living with stress. Embracing stress can make you feel more empowered in the face of challenges. It can enable you to better use the energy of stress without burning out. It can help you turn stressful experiences into a source of social connection rather than isolation. And finally, it can lead you to new ways of finding meaning in suffering.

She ends the introduction with big goals for her readers – and I have to say that this book really does move you in this direction:

Why would seeing the good in stress help in these circumstances? I believe it is because embracing stress changes how you think about yourself and what you can handle. It is not a purely intellectual exercise. Focusing on the upside of stress transforms how you experience it physically and emotionally. It changes how you cope with the challenges in your life. I wrote this book with that specific purpose in mind: to help you discover your own strength, courage, and compassion. Seeing the upside of stress is not about deciding whether stress is either all good or all bad. It’s about how choosing to see the good in stress can help you meet the challenges in your life.

Many of the interesting studies of stress looked at people’s biological response to stress. You’ve all heard of fight-or-flight, right? Well, that’s only one possible response to stress. We find different physiological changes in the different responses.

There are several prototypical stress responses, each with a different biological profile that motivates various strategies for dealing with stress. For example, a challenge response increases self-confidence, motivates action, and helps you learn from experience; while a tend-and-befriend response increases courage, motivates caregiving, and strengthens your social relationships. Alongside the familiar flight-or-flight response, these make up your stress response repertoire.

I think my favorite chapter was titled “A Meaningful Life Is a Stressful Life.” It turns out there’s a strong correlation between high levels of stress and engaging in meaningful activities – which shouldn’t actually be a surprise. But I liked the observation that just thinking about the meaning behind your stress – why you’re doing this – can increase the physical benefits of stress. One of the studies cited just asked students to write about their values – and this simple act let them see meaning for their stress.

Since that first study, dozens of similar experiments have followed. It turns out that writing about your values is one of the most effective psychological interventions ever studied. In the short term, writing about personal values makes people feel more powerful, in control, proud, and strong. It also makes them feel more loving, connected, and empathetic toward others. It increases pain tolerance, enhances self-control, and reduces unhelpful rumination after a stressful experience.

In the long term, writing about values has been shown to boost GPAs, reduce doctor visits, improve mental health, and help with everything from weight loss to quitting smoking and reducing problem drinking. It helps people persevere in the face of discrimination and reduces self-handicapping. In many cases, these benefits are a result of a onetime mindset intervention. People who write about their values once, for ten minutes, show benefits months or even years later.

I also loved this strategy of comparing your stress to what you would go through if you were climbing Mount Everest:

Everyone has an Everest. Whether it’s a climb you chose, or a circumstance you find yourself in, you’re in the middle of an important journey. Can you imagine a climber scaling the wall of ice at Everest’s Lhotse Face and saying, “This is such a hassle”? Or spending the first night in the mountain’s “death zone” and thinking, “I don’t need this stress”? The climber knows the context of his stress. It has personal meaning to him; he has chosen it. You are most liable to feel like a victim of the stress in your life when you forget the context the stress is unfolding in. “Just another cold, dark night on the side of Everest” is a way to remember the paradox of stress. The most meaningful challenges in your life will come with a few dark nights.

Of course this was good to hear while I’m in the middle of my year of reading as many books as I possibly can for the Newbery committee. So worth it! And just remembering that is sometimes all it takes to feel more able to deal with it.

The second part of the book talks about how to get good at stress. Here’s what that means:

Embracing stress is an act of bravery, one that requires choosing meaning over avoiding discomfort.

This is what it means to be good at stress. It’s not about being untouched by adversity or unruffled by difficulties. It’s about allowing stress to awaken in you these core human strengths of courage, connection, and growth. Whether you are looking at resilience in overworked executives or war-torn communities, the same themes emerge. People who are good at stress allow themselves to be changed by the experience of stress. They maintain a basic sense of trust in themselves and a connection to something bigger than themselves. They also find ways to make meaning out of suffering. To be good at stress is not to avoid stress, but to play an active role in how stress transforms you.

She focuses on learning to use stress to help you engage, connect and grow.

When you engage with stress, you realize that your physical response can help you rise to the challenge. That’s the challenge response in action. I love math, and I remember when I had a math test coming up, I’d be excited and ready to ace that test – my physical response helped me think even more clearly. (I thought of this example when she gave an example of an athlete getting ready to compete. That one doesn’t work for me, though it probably works for more people than my math test example.)

Okay, maybe that’s not the best example for everyone. So let me contrast it with getting up in front of a large group to speak. When I was a kid, that used to always, without fail, make me shake uncontrollably. So when I started feeling nervous, I’d then dread getting the shakes – which of course made the shakes all the worse. (This was a problem when playing in flute recitals, since my entire flute would shake.)

As a matter of fact, the first time I did not shake when getting up in front of a big group was when I gave a Chalk Talk as part of a math competition in high school. Yes, my senses were heightened and my heart rate was up. But in this case, since I was absolutely sure I knew what I was doing, it only made me more alert and able to do a good job. Even knowing nothing about mindset at the time – that shows that how I thought about it made a huge difference. You can think of it as nervousness and as proof that you’re inadequate, or you can think about it as excitement and an extra performance boost.

Viewing your stress response as a resource works because it helps you believe “I can do this.” This belief is important for ordinary stress, but it may be even more important during extraordinary stress. Knowing that you are adequate to the challenges in your life can mean the difference between hope or despair, persistence or defeat. Research shows that how you interpret your body’s stress response plays a role in this belief, whether you are worried about an exam, getting over a divorce, or facing your next round of chemo.

Embracing stress is a radical act of self-trust: View yourself as capable and your body as a resource. You don’t have to wait until you no longer have fear, stress, or anxiety to do what matters most. Stress doesn’t have to be a sign to stop and give up on yourself. This kind of mindset shift is a catalyst, not a cure. It doesn’t erase your suffering or make your problems disappear. But if you are willing to rethink your stress response, it may help you recognize your strength and access your courage.

Having stress motivate you to connect is the tend-and-befriend response to stress. As I suspected, the research bears out that this response comes more naturally to women. When you’re in trouble, reach out to your community! Yes, it will help. (This is partly why church small groups are so effective. They give you a group ready to help when you’re under stress.)

The social nature of stress is not something to fear. When you take a tend-and-befriend approach, even contagious stress can be strengthening. As we’ve seen, caring creates resilience, whether the altruism is a response to rescue us from our own suffering or simply a natural reaction to the pain of others. A sympathetic stress response to another person’s suffering can spark empathy and motivate helping, which in turn enhance our own well-being. Furthermore, we shouldn’t be afraid to let others see the truth of our own struggles – especially when we need their support. In many ways, our transparency is a gift, allowing others to feel less alone and offering them the opportunity to experience the benefits of tending and befriending.

The final chapter was about using stress to increase personal growth. Yes! That chapter got me excited. I’ve come out of the worst time of my life – my divorce – and I feel like on the other side I’m much stronger and more resilient. I’ve grown. So this chapter resonated with me.

This wasn’t saying that terrible events aren’t terrible. Just that good can actually come out of them.

But as much as we want to avoid pain and suffering, it’s almost impossible to get through life without experiencing some trauma, loss, or serious adversity. If avoiding suffering isn’t possible, what is the best way to think about the experience? “Given that it’s happened,” Seery asked, “does it mean your life is ruined?” He thinks his work gives a very clear answer. “People are not doomed to be damaged by adversity.”

Here I turn to the belief that God has promised to work all things together for good. The author takes a secular approach, but she’s also saying that bad experiences can be redeemed by how you react to them.

This is a critical distinction, and one of the most important things to understand about how adversity can make you stronger. The science of post-traumatic growth doesn’t say that there is anything inherently good about suffering. Nor does it say that every traumatic event leads to growth. When any good comes from suffering, the source of that growth resides in you — your strengths, your values, and how you choose to respond to adversity. It does not belong to the trauma.

Here are some inspiring thoughts from her final reflections:

For most of its history, the science of stress focused on one question: Is stress bad for you? (Eventually, it graduated to the question, Just how bad is stress for you?)

But the interesting thing about the science of stress is that despite the overwhelmingly accepted idea that stress is harmful, the research tells a slightly different story: Stress is harmful, except when it’s not. Consider the examples we’ve seen in this book: Stress increases the risk of health problems, except when people regularly give back to their communities. Stress increases the risk of dying, except when people have a sense of purpose. Stress increases the risk of depression, except when people see a benefit in their struggles. Stress is paralyzing, except when people perceive themselves as capable. Stress makes people selfish, except when it makes them altruistic. For every harmful outcome you can think of, there’s an exception that erases the expected association between stress and something bad – and often replaces it with an unexpected benefit.

I like this personal observation:

When I committed myself to the process of embracing stress, I didn’t anticipate the biggest way it would affect my everyday experience of life. To my surprise, I started to feel a flood of gratitude in situations I would also describe as highly stressful. It wasn’t an intentional mindset shift; the gratitude just showed up. I still haven’t fully figured out why this was the biggest change for me, but it probably has something to do with what was most toxic about my experience of stress before I embraced it – a habit of resenting the things in my life that caused stress because I found the experience of stress so distressing.

For me, I’m reading this book at a good time – when my main stress is obviously from a good reason, and is very meaningful – being on the Newbery committee and trying to spend every spare moment reading. But I hope when tougher things come along, I’ll remember to look for the upside – and then the upside will actually become greater.

Got any stress in your life? I highly recommend this book.

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Review of All Is Well, by Louise L. Hay and Mona Lisa Schulz

all_is_well_largeAll Is Well

Heal Your Body with Medicine, Affirmations, and Intuition

by Louise L. Hay and Mona Lisa Schulz, MD, PhD

Hay House, Carlsbad, California, 2013. 249 pages.
Starred Review

I always feel a little skeptical about Louise Hay’s claims that different ailments in the body come from attitudes within us. And then I have an ailment come to my attention, and her description of the attitude behind it is spot on. Seems like it can’t hurt to pay attention — and I do find that the affirmations are good for my spirit. It’s not a stretch to think they might be good for my body, too.

This book is co-authored with a medical doctor and scientist. She writes Chapter 1, “Integrating Healing Methods,” and includes some things I’d wondered about, speaking of Louise’s book You Can Heal Your Life:

Time after time, the book made sense, but I could never figure out where Louise got her affirmation system. What motivated her, nearly 35 years ago, to start her “clinical observation study” on the association between human thoughts and health? How could someone with no scientific background or medical training observe client after client, see a consistent correlation between certain thought patterns and their associated health problems, and then write a book that so accurately addresses our health concerns? Her prescriptions worked but I didn’t know why or how. It simply drove me crazy.

So, as necessity — or aggravation — is the mother of invention, I decided to delve into the science behind her affirmation system, mapping out the emotional aspects of illness in the brain and body. And the correlations I found helped me create a treatment system that has guided me through more than 25 years of intuitive consultations and an equal number of years as a physician and scientist.

Here’s the approach they take in this book:

When Louise and I began our discussions about how to create the most useful book for you, we decided to structure it so you could look up the part of your body that is experiencing illness and work from there — just like in You Can Heal Your Life. However, you must remember that people are not simply individual organs bound together, so the illness in one part of your body will generally affect the health of another part. And emotions about feeling safe and secure in your family (first emotional center) also play into emotions about self-esteem (third emotional center). To fully heal, you must look at your life as a whole while giving extra attention to the organ or illness that’s causing you the most trouble. Feel free to flip directly to the part of the book discussing your personal problem area, but remember that you may also find important information about other imbalances in your life by reading through the entire book. Having a complete picture of your strengths and weaknesses can help you create a long-term plan for a healthy life in all your emotional centers.

As you work your way through the book, I’ll help you tap into your body’s intuition surrounding the organs in each emotional center so you can understand the messages your body is sending. But remember, only you can decide what your body is really telling you. This book is a general guide that matches what is commonly seen and what the science mostly supports.

After you have determined what your body is telling you, Louise and I will walk you through healing techniques that address the numerous reasons why we get sick. While we won’t give specific medical advice in this book because good medical advice is unique to each individual, we will provide case studies that give you an idea of some of the basic types of medical interventions to consider. More important, we will lay out affirmations that you can repeat to yourself multiple times throughout your day and behavioral suggestions that you can immediately incorporate into your own life. These tools will help you change your thoughts and habits to create health.

Now, when I read You Can Heal Your Life, what made it seem plausible to me was when I was diagnosed with a gynecological problem with a “non-healing wound” shortly after my husband left me. Coincidence? Or is there something in what Louise Hay says? I also realized that the affirmations she prescribed for that did soothe my spirit.

In this case, I was reading along happily, not feeling it was applying much to me — when I had a scan done to check on my previous vertebral artery dissection. In the same area of my neck but opposite side, they found tissue growth that shouldn’t be there.

Long story short, I did eventually have a biopsy done and learned that it is “Reactive Lymphoid Hyperplasia” — an overgrowth of lymphoid tissue, possibly from infection somewhere else in my body. The important point being that this is Benign and Not Cancer.

However, it was interesting that this was in the same part of my neck as the injury that caused my stroke three years earlier. And a few days after the initial finding, I happened to read the chapter in this book titled “Something to Talk About: The Fifth Emotional Center: Mouth, Neck, and Thyroid.”

Now, the first sentence made me think it didn’t apply to me: “The health of the fifth emotional center indicates how well you communicate in your life.” Communication? I’m good at that.

However, listen to what the authors say particularly about neck problems:

Problems of the neck are often found in people who — even if they have flawless communication skills on a regular basis — become inflexible and frustrated when they are unable to control the outcome of a situation.

Later, they go into more detail in a section particularly about neck problems.

Neck pain, arthritis, and stiffness often come to those people who have amazing communication skills — both listening and speaking. Trying to see both sides of almost any story, they often become ill when their ability to clearly communicate things doesn’t work as they expect it to. When an argument can’t be settled by talking or when something in their lives goes wrong and they can’t control it, they often become aggravated and stubborn, sticking to their opinion and refusing to consider other viewpoints. The frustration that leads to the breakdown in communication often creates illness in the neck….

Once your neck is healthier, some fundamental changes must occur to maintain equilibrium while moving forward. Learning to accept your emotional limitations in the middle of a discussion is one key to improving your neck problems. You do have an amazing skill for intuitively listening, understanding, and making logical arguments. However, you must accept where your intellectual power to reason and communicate ends. When you encounter conflicts that you can’t resolve, don’t push your opinion stubbornly, adding to the frustration of the situation. Instead remind yourself that there are multiple answers to every problem. Realize that your role is only one part of the solution. Finding balance between what you can control and what you can’t and knowing when it is time to walk away from conflict will lead to better health in the fifth emotional center.

Oh my goodness, these things apply to me. In fact, I was hoping they didn’t. But when I told my sister some of what I’d been reading, ready to say I thought they might possibly apply to me — she immediately laughed out loud in recognition!

Yes, this stubbornness is related to my marriage and divorce. I just could not believe that my ex-husband leaving me and leaving his faith was a good thing. I hoped against hope I could pray him back. He showed no evidence of being happy (while I still had contact with him), which just reinforced my view that praying him back would be totally for his good.

Well, I thought by now I’d let him go. I’ve even started dating. However, the fact that these words struck such a chord makes me think the authors are onto something. And again, the affirmations they prescribe for this do feel healing and soothing. I actually adapted the main ones slightly to something that deeply resonates for me: “I love my family and friends enough to let them make their own mistakes and choose their own paths.”

Now, my neck problem affirmations probably won’t strike most of you as hard as they did me. But take a look and see if your own medical problems are held up to a mirror in this book. I try not to go diagnosing, but I do have a few friends with medical problems and what Louise Hay has to say about them is… interesting to say the least. (And since I have a problem with trying to convince other people to do what I think is best for them — I will stop right there!)

So let me close this review by saying I think you’ll find it’s worth a look. And it certainly can’t hurt. What is your body telling you?

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Walk Your Butt Off! by Sarah Lorge Butler with Leslie Bonci, and Michele Stanten

Walk Your Butt Off!

Go from Sedentary to Slim in 12 Weeks with This Breakthrough Walking Plan

by Sarah Lorge Butler with Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, and Michele Stanten

Rodale, 2013. 298 pages.
Starred Review

This is the book I used in 2013 to lose ten pounds and increase my fitness level.

I checked out a copy from the library and liked it so much, I bought my own copy, which I could write in.

This year, I moved to a condo next to a small lake. I wanted to increase my fitness and lose some weight. The beautiful thing about walking is that my beautiful lake was wonderful motivation. (I did stop when the weather got cold and dark. But I plan to start up again in Springtime.)

It’s now been two years since my stroke. I did not have the stroke because of poor fitness, but after having the stroke, I was much less active, and I ended up with pretty poor fitness.

What I like about the program presented here is that they gradually increase the amount of work you do. The first week’s workout has you do 2 to 4 brisk walks for 20 to 30 minutes. You will also do 3 Speed Walks. The first week, the Speed Walks just involve a 2-minute warm-up at an easy pace, followed by 4 minutes at a brisk pace and 1 minute at a fast pace 4 times. You finish up with 3 minutes of easy walking.

As the weeks progress, the amount of time you spend walking at a “fast” pace increases. Since they use descriptions of “easy,” “brisk,” and “fast,” anyone can adapt this program to their own level. About halfway through the program, they add in Challenge Walks, just walking as fast as you can for 15 minutes. They also have you time your walking at the start and at the end of 12 weeks.

Now, I had some interruptions. When I had a month-long headache, I took some time off walking, and had to start back up a few weeks earlier than where I left off. They have some diet advice, which I didn’t pay a lot of attention to. (I was more interested in fitness than losing weight, though I was very happy to lose ten pounds.)

They have tips along the way to help your walking form, and inspirational stories from their test group.

I think this is a great program for people at any fitness level. You can adapt what it means to do “easy,” “brisk,” and “fast” walking to whatever you need it to be.

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Review of The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge

The Brain That Changes Itself

Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

by Norman Doidge, M.D.

Viking, 2007. 427 pages.
Starred Review
2012 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #6 Other Nonfiction

Big thanks to my friend and co-worker Ivelisse Figueroa-Gonzalez for recommending this book to me after I had my stroke.

This is a book about neuroplasticity. We have learned, fairly recently, that the brain can heal from injury; the brain can change its wiring. How we use our brains is important.

Some words from the Preface explain what you’ll find in this book:

This book is about the revolutionary discovery that the human brain can change itself, as told through the stories of the scientists, doctors, and patients who have together brought about these astonishing transformations. Without operations or medications, they have made use of the brain’s hitherto unknown ability to change. Some were patients who had what were thought to be incurable brain problems; others were people without specific problems who simply wanted to improve the functioning of their brains or preserve them as they aged. For four hundred years this venture would have been inconceivable because mainstream medicine and science believed that brain anatomy was fixed. The common wisdom was that after childhood the brain changed only when it began the long process of decline; that when brain cells failed to develop properly, or were injured, or died, they could not be replaced. Nor could the brain ever alter its structure and find a new way to function if part of it was damaged. The theory of the unchanging brain decreed that people who were born with brain or mental limitations, or who sustained brain damage, would be limited or damaged for life. Scientists who wondered if the healthy brain might be improved or preserved through activity or mental exercise were told not to waste their time. . . .

I began a series of travels, and in the process I met a band of brilliant scientists, at the frontiers of brain science, who had, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, made a series of unexpected discoveries. They showed that the brain changed its very structure with each different activity it performed, perfecting its circuits so it was better suited to the task at hand. If certain “parts” failed, then other parts could sometimes take over. The machine metaphor, of the brain as an organ with specialized parts, could not fully account for changes the scientists were seeing. They began to call this fundamental brain property “neuroplasticity.”

Neuro is for “neuron,” the nerve cells in our brains and nervous systems. Plastic is for “changeable, malleable, modifiable.” At first many of the scientists didn’t dare use the word “neuroplasticity” in their publications, and their peers belittled them for promoting a fanciful notion. Yet they persisted, slowly overturning the doctrine of the unchanging brain. They showed that children are not always stuck with the mental abilities they are born with; that the damaged brain can often reorganize itself so that when one part fails, another can often substitute; that if brain cells die, they can at times be replaced; that many “circuits” and even basic reflexes that we think are hardwired are not. One of these scientists even showed that thinking, learning, and acting can turn our genes on or off, thus shaping our brain anatomy and our behavior — surely one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century.

In the course of my travels I met a scientist who enabled people who had been blind since birth to begin to see, another who enabled the deaf to hear; I spoke with people who had had strokes decades before and had been declared incurable, who were helped to recover with neuroplastic treatments; I met people whose learning disorders were cured and whose IQs were raised; I saw evidence that it is possible for eighty-year-olds to sharpen their memories to function the way they did when they were fifty-five. I saw people rewire their brains with their thoughts, to cure previously incurable obsessions and traumas. I spoke with Nobel laureates who were hotly debating how we must rethink our model of the brain now that we know it is ever changing.

The chapters of the book look at different aspects of neuroplasticity. He covers many different things, including stroke recovery; sharpening perception and memory; healing learning problems; stopping worries, obsessions, and bad habits; counteracting aging; psychoanalysis; and even sexual attraction and love.

I can’t emphasize enough how fascinating this book is. I’m not sure if it has direct application to my own stroke, since it hit my balance center, not my higher thinking. (Though I did purchase a balance board after reading this book.) I’ve already recommended the book to parents of children with OCD, and I’ve decided that my guilty pleasure of doing Killer Sudoku at bedtime is actually therapy so I won’t lose my ability to think logically as I age.

And so much of the book, whether practical or not, is simply interesting. Here’s an example:

When it came to allocating brain-processing power, brain maps were governed by competition for precious resources and the principle of use it or lose it.

The competitive nature of plasticity affects us all. There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. If you ever ask yourself, “How often must I practice French, or guitar, or math to keep on top of it?” you are asking a question about competitive plasticity. You are asking how frequently you must practice an activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another.

Competitive plasticity in adults even explains some of our limitations. Think of the difficulty most adults have in learning a second language. The conventional view now is that the difficulty arises because the critical period for language learning has ended, leaving us with a brain too rigid to change its structure on a large scale. But the discovery of competitive plasticity suggests there is more to it. As we age, the more we use our native language, the more it comes to dominate our linguistic map space. Thus it is because our brain is plastic — and because plasticity is competitive — that it is so hard to learn a new language and end the tyranny of the mother tongue.

But why, if this is true, is it easier to learn a second language when we are young? Is there not competition then too? Not really. If two languages are learned at the same time, during the critical period, both get a foothold. Brain scans, says Merzenich, show that in a bilingual child all the sounds of its two languages share a single large map, a library of sounds from both languages.

Another fascinating section speculating about cognitive problems as we age:

Mezenich says, . . . “We have an intense period of learning in childhood. Every day is a day of new stuff. And then, in our early employment, we are intensely engaged in learning and acquiring new skills and abilities. And more and more as we progress in life we are operating as users of mastered skills and abilities.”

Psychologically, middle age is often an appealing time because, all else being equal, it can be a relatively placid period compared with what has come before. Our bodies aren’t changing as they did in adolescence; we’re more likely to have a solid sense of who we are and be skilled at a career. We still regard ourselves as active, but we have a tendency to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are learning as we were before. We rarely engage in tasks in which we must focus our attention as closely as we did when we were younger, trying to learn a new vocabulary or master new skills. Such activities as reading the newspaper, practicing a profession of many years, and speaking our own language are mostly the replay of mastered skills, not learning. By the time we hit our seventies, we may not have systematically engaged the systems in the brain that regulate plasticity for fifty years.

That’s why learning a new language in old age is so good for improving and maintaining the memory generally. Because it requires intense focus, studying a language turns on the control system for plasticity and keeps it in good shape for laying down sharp memories of all kinds. . . . Anything that requires highly focused attention will help that system — learning new physical activities that require concentration, solving challenging puzzles, or making a career change that requires that you master new skills and material. Merzenich himself is an advocate of learning a new language in old age. “You will gradually sharpen everything up again, and that will be very highly beneficial to you.”

The same applies to mobility. Just doing the dances you learned years ago won’t help your brain’s motor cortex to stay in shape. To keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus. That is what will allow you to both lay down new memories and have a system that can easily access and preserve the older ones.

Another whole chapter deals with progress in healing stroke patients. I’m not yet sure how it applies to me, because the effects of my stroke were not immediately obvious. Now they are manifesting as vestibular migraines. Is it possible that working with the balance centers of my brain would begin to rewire my brain? This book raises intriguing questions in my mind as well as revealing lots of answers to questions I had never before asked.

Fascinating reading for anyone at all interested in the brain and how it works.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I write the posts for my website and blogs entirely on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Review of Sacred Choices, by Christel Nani

Sacred Choices

Thinking Outside the Tribe to Heal Your Spirit

by Christel Nani

Harmony Books, New York, 2006. 313 pages.
Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2008, #1 Nonfiction Personal Growth

I’ve been meaning to review this book for a very long time. I first read it in 2007, some time when my life was in upheaval, with the move to Virginia from Germany and taking online classes to get my MLIS degree. I wasn’t getting many books reviewed at that time.

But this is a life-changing and life-affirming book. I reread it in 2009 in order to get that good advice again and also to review it. Since it is my own copy, not a library book with a due date, I still didn’t get around to reviewing it. So here goes! This may not be as long a review as this book deserves, but I do want to bring it to people’s attention.

You can get a taste of the wisdom in this book by reading the many passages from it that I posted on my Sonderquotes blog.

The core concept behind Christel Nani’s teachings in Sacred Choices is that we all have tribal beliefs we aren’t even aware of. They are beliefs, but we think they are the facts of life, the way the world works. They have been handed down to us from our tribe.

Christel says, “Your ancestors taught you how to work, how to grieve, and why bad things happen. You have taken for granted that in their desire to protect you, they prepared you adequately for life by teaching you the way of the tribe — what they valued and what they believed to be true. These tribal beliefs are the inherited ideas about the way life works, passed down to you from anyone who had power or authority over you as a child — pretty much anyone who was taller than you were. Some of these beliefs cause you to make choices that make your life harder than it needs to be, creating conflicts and inner turmoil often marked by repetitive themes and patterns.”

Sometimes these beliefs are good for us, but often they are not.

“At first, you aren’t even aware that you are making choices at all. You are simply following the tribal way, even when you believe you are thinking for yourself and doing what is best for you. Consider the student who pursues a college degree in an area that offers a safe career path but does not excite her, or the man who gets married despite his doubts because everyone tells him how lucky he is to have found someone so nice. Or perhaps you are justifying staying in a career you no longer enjoy because the pay is good, or a draining relationship because you’ve been together for a long time. These are all examples of lives driven by limiting beliefs, not the heart’s desire. Unfortunately and paradoxically, some tribal rules are contrary to your authentic nature and needs. Even a life that looks successful on the outside can leave you wondering if this is as good as it gets, because you recognize on a deep level that something is missing. And it is.

“What’s missing is a deep satisfaction with your life, alignment with your soul, happiness that wells up and overflows, peace of mind, and a general sense of well-being. One reason you are left wanting is that tribal beliefs can make you think you want things that you really don’t, and when you get them you wonder why you aren’t wowed by them. This is but one symptom of a person at odds with his spirit and not living an authentic life. And a life without authenticity quickly becomes a life without passion.”

In this book, Christel Nani shows you how to uncover your tribal beliefs so you can examine whether they are good for you or not. She doesn’t ask you to throw them out willy-nilly. But isn’t it worth looking at the beliefs you live by? She also helps you rewrite limiting beliefs into beliefs that will serve you better.

Christel says, “I wrote this book to help you learn to listen to your spirit. The purpose of Sacred Choices is to explore your tribal beliefs and determine if they are good for you — to decide whether they raise or lower your vibration. Some tribal beliefs cause you distress and can lower your overall energy and even cause illness. The idea is to be aware of your unconscious choices — to become more conscious and thereby have a greater role in living your life the way you want it to be — not how you were taught, or how you believe it’s supposed to be.”

When I have been able to apply these concepts to my life, I am very happy with the results. Christel’s promises are lavish, but not unwarranted:

“I want you to be wildly happy, incredibly successful, and filled with passion and spontaneity. Listening to your spirit will accomplish all of it. And when your vibrations are good, you are sending out the best possible energy to the rest of the world. The fact is, your good vibrations are healing to others.”

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Review of Choosing Brilliant Health, by Rick Foster & Greg Hicks

Choosing Brilliant Health

9 Choices That Redefine What It Takes to Create Lifelong Vitality and Well-Being

by Rick Foster and Greg Hicks
with Jen Seda, MD

A Perigee Book (Penguin), 2008. 258 pages.
Starred Review.

I was so impressed by the authors’ earlier book, How We Choose to Be Happy, I ordered this one from Amazon rather than waiting for the library to purchase it.

Like the book on happiness, the authors interview healthy individuals and show nine choices those people have made that led to their good health. They also tie this information in with medical studies that show the physical benefits of these concepts. The book is full of these healthy people’s stories, illustrating the choices that lead to health.

And the choices that lead to happiness are the same ones that lead to health. The chapter headings in Part Two give you the idea:

1. Intention: Change the pathways of your brain with your thoughts.

2. Accountability: Take control of your health by triumphing over the “Victim Brain.”

3. Identification: Envision your joys and passions and tell vibrant stories about them.

4. Centrality: Do the things you love to alter your biochemistry.

5. Recasting: Convert the sadness, fear, anger, and despair of trauma and illness into meaning, opportunity, and action.

6. Options: Create hope and resilience by uncovering hidden possibilities.

7. Appreciation: Value your life and your body, and express appreciation to others.

8. Giving: Build a thriving Marketplace of Giving.

9. Truth: Tell the truth to your body, yourself, and others.

The authors say of these ideas:

“Brilliant Health doesn’t promise a disease-free, pain-free, un-aging life. Let’s face it; sooner or later health and age-related issues will visit all of us. But whether we’re in mint physical condition or facing a disability or a significant, even terminal health issue, Brilliant Health brings us the highest possible emotional and physical quality of life.”

With a promise like that, these ideas are definitely worth listening to.

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Review of The Power Is Within You, by Louise L. Hay


The Power Is Within You

by Louise L. Hay

Hay House, Carlsbad, California, 1991.  239 pages.

Recently I’ve discovered Louise Hay’s books, and I’m finding them uplifting and tremendously encouraging.  I have to admit that I’m not sure I’m convinced that it’s really so simple.  I’m not sure you can really heal your body’s illnesses, aches and pains with affirmations and changing your thoughts.

However, it certainly doesn’t do any harm!  And I do think that paying attention to my beliefs and speaking life-affirming, loving statements to myself has actually helped me be healthier.  It certainly puts me in a better mood, and that’s worth so much all by itself.

Here’s what Louise says in the introduction:

“I am not a healer.  I do not heal anyone.  I think of myself as a stepping stone on a pathway of self-discovery.  I create a space where people can learn how incredibly wonderful they are by teaching them to love themselves.  That’s all I do.  I’m a person who supports people.  I help people take charge of their lives.  I help them discover their own power and inner wisdom and strengths.  I help them get the blocks and the barriers out of the way, so they can love themselves no matter what circumstances they happen to be going through.  This doesn’t mean that we will never have problems, but it is how we react to the problem that makes a tremendous difference.

“After years of individual counseling with clients and conducting hundreds of workshops and intensive training programs across the country and around the world, I found that there is only one thing that heals every problem, and that is: to love yourself.  When people start to love themselves more each day, it’s amazing how their lives get better.  They feel better.  They get the jobs they want.  They have the money they need.  Their relationships either improve, or the negative ones dissolve and new ones begin.  It’s a very simple premise — loving yourself.  I’ve been criticized for being too simplistic, and I have found that the simple things are usually the most profound.”

Now, as a Christian, I was taught to be leery of anything that sounds so New Age as this.  However, Louise’s message is about changing to positive self-talk.  And almost all of her affirmations fit with what I believe about God.  (She may call Him “the Universe,” but I do believe that He is watching over me and loves me.)  If you don’t like using her affirmations, you can actually substitute similar Scripture verses or Christian songs — The idea is to work on your underlying beliefs, believing that good things are going to happen and that I am loved and valuable.

Again, maybe it seems simplistic, but even if it doesn’t improve your health as she claims, filling your mind with positive truths about the world certainly will improve your outlook.

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Review of You Can Heal Your Life, by Louise L. Hay


You Can Heal Your Life

by Louise L. Hay

Hay House, 2004.  First published in 1984.  251 pages.

I picked up this book from the library’s New Books shelf with some embarrassment.  I tried to carry it to my desk and check it out unobtrusively.  After all, that New Age mumbo-jumbo is ridiculous nonsense, right?  Or worse yet, with demonic roots?  What will people think if they see me reading it?

I had some of the same misgivings when I thought about reviewing this book.  But, bottom line, there are some tremendously helpful ideas in this book.  I’m definitely not the least bit worried that there might be an evil source.  Perhaps the book doesn’t seem “scientific,” and perhaps I’m not completely convinced that affirmations can heal all your diseases, but I am sure that I’ve gleaned some good from this book, and perhaps others can do the same.

The basic premise of this book is similar to teaching I found in Christel Nani’s writings:  Your deep-seated beliefs, beliefs so ingrained you think they are fact, can dramatically affect your body and your health.  You can heal your body by changing your thinking.

Now, I’m not sure how much I believe that we “choose” the things that happen to us.  However, I do find some things interesting.  When she describes the beliefs that can contribute to ailments I have had, they do ring true.

For example, soon after my husband left me, I had major gynelogical troubles.  Coincidence?  Maybe.  But I’m sure it didn’t hurt me to examine and confront my beliefs about how only bad people get divorced.  This was from Christel Nani’s writings, but the same ideas are reflected here.  Louise Hay recommends the affirmation, “I rejoice in my femaleness.  I love being a woman.  I love my body.”  Even if this does not to any good, it certainly doesn’t do any harm!  And to me, those words even feel healing.

Another example is my lifetime struggle with headaches.  Louise Hay says, “Migraine headaches are created by people who want to be perfect and who create a lot of pressure on themselves.”  Now, that description certainly fits me and has fit me since I was a child.  (And I have gotten migraines that long, too.)

However, for the past few years, also about the time my husband left me, my headaches have gotten dramatically better, and I rarely get a bad one.  Now, I’d been attributing that to a change in preventative medication.  However, in the past I’d experimented with preventative medication after preventative medication, and nothing ever worked.  Currently, I’ve used three different ones, and they have all worked beautifully.  It does make sense to suspect that something further might be going on.

If Louise Hay is right, and migraines are created by perfectionism, then I’m attributing my cure to Flylady. (  Her messages about Finally Loving Yourself and “You are not behind; you do not need to catch up,” are truly healing me from perfectionism.  Maybe it’s no coincidence that my headaches left at about the same time.

I do realize that it would be dangerous to start applying these ideas to other people and their illnesses!  That’s all we need — diagnosing other people’s beliefs that are making them sick!  But for self-analysis, this book has plenty of food for thought.

Now, you may not agree that “Every thought we think is creating our future.”  However, even if you don’t agree that it goes so far, surely you can only do yourself good by doing as she recommends and releasing resentment and self-criticism.

She lists “Some Points of My Philosophy” at the front of the book.  Some that stood out to me are:

Resentment, criticism, and guilt are the most damaging patterns.

Releasing resentment will dissolve even cancer.

We must release the past and forgive everyone.

We must be willing to begin to learn to love ourselves.

I’m facing a divorce that will most likely be finalized in the next few months.  Her teachings are helping me to purpose to let go of anger and resentment about it, to choose to forgive.  And I’ve got to start my new life not looking at myself as damaged goods.

This completely fits with Christian teaching.  Forgiveness is key and God forgives us.  C. S. Lewis has stated that “Joy is the hallmark of the Christian.”  If Louise Hay is right, Joy is also a key to good health.

How do you examine your beliefs about yourself and about life?  How do you change thinking that isn’t good for you?

It does take practice.  This book is full of affirmations:  New, healing messages you can fill your mind with.

I just looked at the author’s website,, and read the affirmation of the day:

“Forgiveness is a gift to myself.  I forgive, and I set myself free.”

Whether all the author’s claims are true or not, I certainly don’t think that telling yourself a message like that can do you anything but good.

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