Forever Young: Keeping Passionate Intimacy and Sex Alive (Part 1)

This blog post contains excerpts from Chapter 10 of my book, The ReWired Brain

Human sexual desire is the most complex form of sexual motivation among all living things. It’s a combination of genetic programming and variables of life experience, producing the utmost sophisticated nuance and variety of sex on the face of the planet. David Schnarch, The Passionate Marriage

In the 2012 movie Hope Springs, Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have been married for thirty-one years. They live a safe, monotonous, routine-driven life. Each morning Kay dutifully cooks Arnold the same breakfast he’s had for the past three decades, one sunny-side-up egg and a piece of bacon, while he reads the paper. After chowing down his grub, Arnold leaves for work, and Kay does the same. Day after day this marriage cycles around work, sleep, meals, and watching the Golf Channel. Spontaneity, intimacy, passion, and sex do not exist in their world. Although Arnold loves his wife, he is clearly oblivious of this fact, hypnotized and quite content with his quiet though bland life. In contrast, Kay desperately desires change. Deep within, she is a passionate woman who longs for a marriage bursting with intimacy and steamy sex.

In one of the first scenes, Kay is disappointed when Arnold leaves for work without acknowledging their thirty-first wedding anniversary. She expresses this sentiment to a co-worker later that morning, asking if change in a marriage absent of intimacy, affection, and passion is even possible.

Her co-worker doesn’t offer much hope. “Change your marriage? What do you mean? Like you mostly eat in on Fridays then you eat out, or you’re at each other’s throats then suddenly you’re Cinderella and Prince Charming. . . . No, you marry who you marry, you are who you are. . . . Why would that change? . . . For that to happen it would have to be so bad that somebody was willing to risk everything just to shake things up, but then it might not come down your way. . . . Nah, marriages don’t change.”

Determined to create a better marriage, Kay ignores these cynical words. She dips into her savings account and books a week of intensive marriage counseling with a renowned therapist, Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell), in the sleepy New England town of Great Hope Springs.

After a very difficult and often hostile first session, Dr. Feld says to the couple, “You two have come here to try to restore intimacy to your marriage . . . to find ways to communicate your needs to one another . . . to cultivate intimacy and to develop the tools to sustain that intimacy going forward.

“The first step in rebuilding a marriage is tearing away some of the scar tissue that has built up over the years. . . . It can be very painful, but it’s worth it. I like to think of . . . the metaphor of when you have a deviated septum, and you can’t breathe . . . you have to break the nose in order to fix it.”

I love this movie and believe every couple, especially ones that are experiencing difficulty, should watch it. It is inspiring to watch Kay, who for years has played the role of a shrinking violet, reach the point where she is no longer willing to live the rest of her life sacrificing intimacy and sex for the sake of a comfortable and safe marriage.

What Is Possible with Intimacy and Sex

I believe sex and intimacy within a committed and covenant relationship are two of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. We all know what sex is, the physical offering of ourselves to one another. Intimacy is a bit more complex. It is being emotionally close to your partner, being able to completely share your inner world, who you really are, with that person. It is about being vulnerable and connecting honestly and in-depth in all areas of your life. Intimacy can include sensual expression; sharing thoughts, feelings, and ideas; and being aware of who you and your partner are as individuals. It is possible to have sex without intimacy, but a central premise of this chapter is that sex without intimacy is problematic. When two people are united in a committed relationship, they create a deeply passionate and transformational encounter that has the capacity to bring about closeness and maturation in a relationship like no other human experience.

In my new book, The Rewired Brain, I talk about how we humans essentially have two minds in one brain. The first is our more primitive mind and it resides in the mid to lower portion of our brains. This part of our brain is responsible for fast, automatic, and effortless thinking and it is called System 1 thinking. What we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch become electrical signals that travel through the primitive portions of our brains and trigger emotions, impressions, and intuitions. On the positive side, System 1 thinking is responsible for spontaneity as well as key aspects of social popularity and creativity. Our second mind (called System 2) emerges from our much more sophisticate front brain called the neocortex. System 2 is responsible for conscious thought and reasoning and is also responsible for imagination, fantasy, and diversity in experiences.

You may at this point be asking what does all this System 1 and System 2 stuff have to do with intimacy and sex? Well at its best, sex and intimacy blend the best parts of System 1 and System 2 emotions and behaviors in a mystical manner that powerfully transitions our intimate relationships from mundane to extraordinary. When System 1 instincts such as sexual desire, spontaneity, creativity, and longing for connection dynamically merge with System 2 qualities such as imagination, fantasy, and diversity, two mature individuals have the powerful capacity to transcend space and time.

This type of intimacy with another person is what makes us truly unique and human.

In profoundly spiritual acts of bonding, your commitment to your partner is conveyed through actions, not just words. You enter a capsule of sexual space, and time stops. Here you and your partner can experience deep connection and transformational joy and love.

You come alive by every heightened sensation, not just in your body but also in your mind. The climax of orgasm is almost secondary because the connection is so profound. And with increasing intimacy over time, this communion grows stronger, even outside the bedroom, as you begin to relate to each other in new ways.

You experience exciting, new adventures while laughing and playing together like carefree children running through a beautiful meadow.

Some of you may be frustrated at this point, rolling your eyes and saying, “Okay, okay, Dr. Ski. This world of mountaintop or romantic-novel-type sex may be the goal, but my marriage looks nothing like what you are describing. I’m stuck on the ground floor with Kay and Arnold.”

Next time in part 2, I will talk about getting unstuck and especially for those of us over 50 years of age….cliff hanger!

 

Body Health How to Rewire Relationships/Sex Uncategorized

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

It is with incredible sadness that I sense that our great country is rapidly moving in a very angry, fear-driven and dangerous direction. In my new book, The Rewired Brain, I talk about how that during deeply dark periods of history, we see the dangers of our animal-like survival instincts. These instincts rapidly react when we encounter people that are different (i.e. gender, race, religion, or nationality) than us. Then is especially dangerous if we are edged on by charismatic individuals/leaders from our same tribe.

Then, there is a powerful tendency to move toward fear or hate that ultimately leads to violence, racism, bigotry, misogyny, and exclusion.

In contrast to our animal instincts, I also believe that we have better angels within us. For me as a Christian, this belief is heavily inspired by the teachings of Jesus Christ. Consequently at times like these, it is critical to look to Jesus’s words in the gospels such as his Sermon on the Mount starting with the beatitudes in the 5th chapter of Matthew.  Read Jesus’s words in Matt 5:43-48 where he implores us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  Read the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) when Jesus was asked, ‘Who is your neighbor?’ Notice the neighbor, hero and Good Samaritan of the parable is not someone from the religious establishment, not a representative of the dominate political party or race, but an extraordinarily beautiful individual from a religiously despised minority. Read Jesus’s words in Matt 25:31-46 and notice how He says we will ultimately be judged …‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Jesus’s teachings turn everything and especially our animal instincts to be first and dominate upside down.

I have spent the past 15 years working with refugees from all over the world. I traveled to Darfur, Sudan when millions of  people were being killed in an horrific genocide. I currently tutor Syrian refugee children every week. In all of these circumstances, these poor, unfortunate (typically women and children) beautiful people have done nothing to deserve their fate. These Syrians families have lost everything, their homes in places like Aleppo and Homs, most of their family members killed to genocide, all of their possessions, gone. They lived in tin cans and tents in refugee camps in Jordan for 4-5 years and were vetted for over two long years to have the right to walk on our soil. The rumor that there is a lack of vetting is simply not true. These poor people are simply the victims of horrific unthinkable circumstances…these are Jesus’s special ones…our neighbors.

And each time I’m with them, I think, ‘there but for the grace of God go I and my family.’

There are those who rationalize our country’s direction and executive orders by saying all of this is to keep us safe. But I am also a scientist and the data says otherwise. There has never been a case where a Syrian refugee killed an American, and yet these people are banned from our country indefinitely.

You have a 6000 times better chance of being killed by your friends and neighbors than an Islamic immigrant. If you want to ban someone, ban your friends and neighbors.

You have a 10 times greater chance of being killed by an armed toddler or 15 times more likely of being killed by lightning than an Islamic immigrant.

I would end by reminding us that aside from Native Americans, we are all immigrants to this great country. Hate or ban who you want, but do it knowing that if you are an American or a Christian, you are doing it against the key principles that this country stands for and the words and actions of Jesus Christ when he walked this earth.

Body Fear Health How to Rewire Mind Soul Uncategorized

Forever Young: Rewired Aging

As we approach this exciting New Year, my New Year’s resolution is to end the year younger than I started it. I know that sounds crazy and as a scientist who studies the impact of the aging process on health, I know that with the passing of time, we all age. I also believe that every decade we reach is a milestone to be celebrated. So I’m going to tell you a secret. I am 59 years old! This is the only time I will ever mention it to you again because I don’t feel or act 59. I know 60 is just right around the corner for me, but I’m actually excited about entering this new decade of life because I know that I am going to “kick butt” in this decade. In the next three weeks, I am going to write three blogs (starting with this one) about what I believe to be the keys to staying forever young.

Your Thoughts

In my new book, The Rewired BrainI emphasize the incredibly power of our thoughts—and that includes our thoughts about aging. So how “old” we are depends probably more than anything else on how old we think we areI like to say, “our thoughts become our actions, our actions become habits, and ultimately our habits become our destiny.” In the picture associated with this blog post, I am climbing the 42 foot mast of our sailboat to untangle a sail. I have also attached a link to some dives I did last year in a video associated with the launch of my book https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emkJphKFNqc&t=89s . Now, there is no way in this world that I could do these activities at my age unless I truly believed (thought) that I could do them. It is the power of my thoughts, not my athletic ability, not anything else that allows me to do these things.

So if you want to be and stay sexy and youthful, you must push yourself to regularly act in vigorous, energetic ways that support this lifestyle. If you start down that path, over time you will begin to find a fountain of youth. If you tell yourself, “I’m getting old and I must act like an old person,” I promise you that rapid aging will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is clear that for the vast majority of us, we become the type of people our thoughts tell us to be.

But have you ever noticed that at a certain point, a lot of people stop celebrating and start lamenting?

Well, I’m here to fight the notion that turning 50, 60, 70, 80, or even 90 is all gloom and doom. I truly believe that the journey of aging can be amazing. It can be sexy. It can be fun, joyful, and fantastic in so many ways! Really, it’s all about how we approach the idea of aging.

Fortunately, with life expectancies increasing and people living longer than ever, stereotypes about aging have changed for the better. According to a poll conducted by AARP in 2014, 69 percent of people in their 60s said that problems with their physical health did not hold them back from doing what they wanted, and 59 percent thought that growing older has been easier than they anticipated. Fifty-four percent of 60+-year-olds also responded that they had more energy than they expected they would at their age.

Additionally, when asked what age they considered to be the beginning of “old age,” people in their 50s said age 68, and people in their 60s responded 73. So it appears that as we get older, our perception of what we think is “old” really changes! (In fact, one 90-year-old woman said that a woman isn’t old until she hits 95!)1

These thoughts and stereotypes about aging affect much more than our attitudes. They affect how we physically age, too. One study found that people who held negative thoughts about aging actually had a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Compared to more positive-minded people, participants in their 40s who held negative stereotypes ended up having significantly greater loss of hippocampus volume and larger accumulations of plaques and tangles (all hallmark signs of Alzheimer’s) 25 years later.2

The same researcher who headed up this study concluded in another study that older adults who had positive age-related thoughts lived seven and a half years longer than their negative-minded peers.3

So it’s clear we need to approach aging in a positive light if we want to live life to the fullest. We have no control over the passage of time, but we have full control over how we think about aging. Here are some ways to make the most of these years:

  • Find new purpose. Many people choose to retire in their 60s. If you enjoy working and it gives your life meaning, don’t retire! More and more businesses these days appreciate the unique experience and value that older workers bring to the table. So if you feel fulfilled going to work every day, there is no need to stop. If you do decide to retire, you may wonder what to do with all your extra time. Find a new purpose, perhaps something you’ve always wanted to do and new ways to have fun.
  • Take risks. In her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bonnie Ware beautifully documents the primary regrets and disappointments of hospice patients. When asked what they would have done differently, almost all said they wished they had had the courage to live true to themselves, not what others expected of them. Well my friends, now is the time! Were you too embarrassed or afraid in your 30s, 40s, or 50s to take belly dancing classes, or try your hand at stand-up comedy, or write a book, or go skydiving, or hundreds of other crazy activities? This is the period of life when it’s time to take chances.
  • Laugh a lot. There are countless health benefits to laughter, including increased immunity, better blood pressure, and lower depression. Not only that, smiling and laughing makes you look and feel
  • Stay active. Jog, hike, swim, dance, do yoga, or take up karate or even Crossfit! The science is clear—if you stop moving, you will get old and die. Consequently, being physically active is a key to maintaining your health as you get older. I am going to devote my entire next article to this topic.

 

References:

  1. http://pubs.aarp.org/aarptm/20140203_PR?folio=40#pg42
  2. Levy BR, et al. Psychol Aging. 2016 Feb;31(1):82-8.
  3. Levy BR, et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2002 Aug;83(2):261-70.

 

Body Health How to Rewire Mind Relationships/Sex Soul Uncategorized

Understand God’s Role in Your Tragedy

Understand God’s Role in Your Tragedy

Reframing loss, illness, or grief is a journey from exile. Consciously and unconsciously, we feel tremendous anger, despair, depression, and resentment. Waves of emotion overwhelm our minds. Reframing is not about minimizing, fighting, or ignoring what we have been through; it is about returning from a destination where we feel displaced, disconnected, or depressed. Although we cannot change what happened, we can change our thoughts, our perspective, and our approach to move forward in life.

In my new book The Rewired Brain, I point out that one of the most important things we can do when tragedy strikes is to come to peace with our beliefs about the cause(s) of tragedy

I am always blown away by the foolish things people say to someone going through heartbreak or tragedy. A few years ago, I attended a funeral service of a teenager who had committed suicide. As I stood in line waiting to speak with his parents, I struggled with what to say. Words did not come easily. I knew spouting a monologue or offering advice would be pointless. So I just told this couple who had endured an unthinkable loss how sorry I was and then hugged them tight. What else was there to say?

Unfortunately, I have heard perhaps well-intentioned but misguided people respond in these circumstances with phrases and clichés that only enhance the sufferer’s pain or spotlight a disturbing theological perspective.

If your husband has left you for another woman, if your child has a fatal disease and is in the hospital for the tenth time, if you are dealing with a debilitating physical or mental illness, the last thing you want or need to hear is:

“This is God’s will, and you have to accept it.”

“God never gives us more than we can handle.”

“God has selected you for this burden because he knows how strong you are.”

Perhaps one of the most horrible statements I have heard was when someone approached a couple who had just suffered the loss of their only child. This person said, “I’m sorry you’re sad. But God obviously needed your baby as an angel in heaven more than you did.” I can say with confidence that was not, nor ever will be, the case.

In his book The Will of God, English theologian Leslie Weatherhead tells the profound story of being in India with a friend who had lost his young son in a cholera epidemic. Weatherhead walked beside his friend, who paced up and down the veranda of his home only a few feet away from his sleeping daughter, his only surviving child. The bereaved man turned to the great theologian and said, “Well, padre, it is the will of God. That’s all there is to it. It is the will of God.”

Weatherhead gently disagreed. He loved his friend and knew him well enough to reply with the following words: “Suppose someone crept up the steps of the veranda tonight, while you all slept, and deliberately put a wad of cotton soaked in cholera germ culture over the little girl’s mouth as she lay in that cot on the veranda, what would you think about that?” The father was horrified and replied by saying he would kill the intruder and then asked why he would even suggest such a cruel thing.

Weatherhead quietly explained to his friend that that was what he had done when he had characterized his son’s death as God’s will.

“Call your little boy’s death the result of mass ignorance, call it mass folly, call it mass sin, if you like, call it bad drains or communal carelessness, but don’t call it the will of God.”

What you attribute your tragedy to will make a huge difference in your capacity to reframe it. Whatever you have been through or are going through as you read these words, do not blame God for your suffering.

I love the words of Rabbi Harold Kushner in hid classic book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, “ The God I believe in doesn’t send us the problem; He gives us the strength to cope with the problem.”

 

 

 

Body Fear Health How to Rewire Mind Relationships/Sex Resources Soul Uncategorized

What to Do When the Doctor Says You Have Cancer

Every year, roughly 12 million people get news that they never imagined they would hear: “You have cancer.”

Without a doubt, this diagnosis is shocking, upsetting, and terrifying. As a cancer survivor myself, having had two different primary cancers, I can tell you that I certainly can relate to the whirlwind of emotions that comes from such life-altering news.

However, the purpose of my message today is to tell you this: Once you get over the initial shock, how you conduct yourself next can make a world of difference in how well you respond to treatment and recover.

System 1/System 2 Responses

As many of you know, dual (System 1 and System 2) reasoning is a major concept in my new book, The Rewired Brain.

System 1 thinking originates in the lower (reptilian) and mid (limbic system) brain. It is responsible for unconscious emotions and reactions that center on survival instincts.

System 2 resides in the outer regions of the front brain (neocortex and particularly the frontal cortex). In stark contrast to System 1, System 2 thinking is much more developed, deliberate, and uniquely human.

The capacity to use System 2 to make conscious choices gives us the ability to move beyond our fear-based survival instincts and to carry out higher-level cognitive functions, to have distinct unique personalities, to make complex decisions, and to dream and hope.

The Fear Response

What does this have to do with cancer? Well, when you first get diagnosed with cancer (or any disease, really), you have two ways you can react.

I think it’s perfectly natural to initially react in a very System 1 way. In fact, I know I did, and I spent some time in a state of fear and anxiety wondering what was going to happen to me. Being given a cancer diagnosis can be very isolating because no matter how much you are loved, you still have to go through much of this journey alone.

Facing the possibility that this disease could take your life can make you feel very lonely. So, it’s very important to give yourself grace to feel this way.

However, it’s important not to linger too long in this constant state of System 1 fear and anxiety. If you do, there is a wide range of consequences that lead to the deterioration of both your physical and mental health and weaken you, giving your cancer a better chance of winning. And this is the last thing you want to do if you want to be a cancer survivor.

You see, when you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol (often called the “stress hormone”) and other stress-related messengers. Small bursts of cortisol in stressful situations help to initiate the body’s System 1 fight-or-flight response. This is incredibly helpful if you need to escape a fire or run away from a dangerous situation.

But when stress is chronic, it causes cortisol to pump through your body nonstop. Chronically elevated cortisol raises the risk of systemic inflammation, which increases the severity of cancer.

So higher stress makes it harder to fight cancer and makes metastasis more likely.1

The Mindful Response

Real Female hairless fight against cancer outdoor

The second way you can react puts your System 2 conscious mind in control. With a System 2 mindset, you choose to live courageously.

For me, this also means that I choose to connect with God in a very personal and powerful way. I find it fascinating that the phrases “do not be afraid” and “fear not” appear more than 80 times in the Bible. Do you think God is trying to tell us something? Clearly, the writers of this sacred text anticipated our natural tendency toward fear, especially in very scary times such as cancer. But God does not want us to be afraid.

This does not mean you can’t feel fear, anxiety, or uncertainty. These reactions are absolutely normal. Rather, you acknowledge these fears and then allow your conscious mind to monitor them so they don’t take over. This type of mindfulness is difficult at first, but the more you do it, the more natural it becomes.

You may be asking yourself, “Dr. Ski, What specifically does this mean?”

I’ll tell you what I do. To this day, I undergo routine 6-month checkups with my cancer doctors. About a week before these visits, I typically go for blood work and other types of tests to see if the cancer has come back. The doctor tells me the results of these tests at my visits. I’m not going to lie—they’re very stressful and pretty scary.

Prior to these appointments, I give myself permission to think about the worst-case scenarios for 24 hours. I allow my System 1 fears to come through in full force during that time. But that is all that I will allow cancer to take away from me—24 hours, and that’s it. Once that time is up, I get back to living my full, happy, productive, passionate life.

I don’t have time to waste thinking about what-ifs. No one does. For me, the “great blessing” of cancer is that it reminds me of my own mortality and how important it is to spend my time focusing on things, people, and purposes that matter. None of us live forever, so we all ought to “live like we’re dying,” as the country music artist Tim McGraw sings.

With this type of mindfulness, you are able take conscious control of your thoughts and emotions, and you find the capacity to connect with God in a very powerful and meaningful way. Yes, you still have some fear and anxiety because, after all, you are only human. However, you do not allow yourself to live in them and you are constantly reminded and encouraged to “fear not.”

If you have cancer, I want you to know that I understand how you feel. I know how hard it is to consciously take control of your emotions …to let go of the what-ifs…to choose to live life without constant fear… But if you want to live a beautiful life today and for the rest of your life, you must.

I am here for you and with you, and I am praying that this message might help you or someone you love today.

 

  1. Moreno-Smith M, et al. Future Oncol. 2010 Dec;6(12):1863-81.
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We Believe the Stories We Tell Ourselves

If I asked, “Who are you?” how would you answer? I have found the default answer almost always centers on career or parenthood. “I’m an accountant.” “I’m a mother.” “I’m an actress.” “I’m a doctor.” “I’m a writer.” This may be true, but even if you have the most important job in the world, like caring for your children, this is not who you really are. Take it from a father who dearly loves his four adult children. If you define your identity by your children, once they leave the nest, you will be lost.

Who we are is much more than what we do. It is about what drives us, what motivates us, what fuels us to wake up each day with joy and meaning. I believe it’s ultimately God’s purpose for our lives. In Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson says, “people are forced to construct theories about their own personalities from other sources, such as what they learn from their parents, their culture, and yes, ideas about who they prefer to be.

In other words, our perception of our Self is often based on a narrative we create from all the clues around (culture, family, social circles) and inside (unconscious feelings and behaviors) of us.

We may be so highly influenced by peer expectations that we shape a narrative that fits into what others perceive we should be. However, there is a major rub in doing this. When the story you tell about your Self is not authentic and not consistent with who you really are, you get confused and stuck between two conflicting worlds and create your own Self-generated chaotic matrix. Even worse, when you tell your Self a negative story about you, these very thoughts wire your brain to become who you think you are. That is why I always emphasize that:

We believe the stories we tell our Selves so be very careful what you consistently tell your Self.  

The trick is to find the real narrative, the one deep within you that represents who you really are, how you really feel, and what truly brings meaning to your life. Repeatedly telling yourself negative stories and perceptions driven by your fears and anxieties will only strengthen those pathways within the wiring of your brain. This in turn will prevent you from finding your real narrative and purpose.  For nearly twenty years, James Pennebaker, esteemed professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of several books, including Writing to Heal, studied the impact of writing Self-narratives on the mental and physical health of individuals. He discovered how the simple act of writing about our lives, including our honest thoughts and challenging experiences, is a pathway to healing, Self-development, and overall well-being.  Common threads of emotional dysfunctions and addictions appear, but patterns of purpose and passion also emerge, bringing to light a truer picture of our Self.

For me, writing my story helped me identify and name the primary emotional issues that were preventing me from living a life of joy and freedom.  It also helped me to understand my primary passion, and realize my joy comes from helping those less fortunate than me.

Once my life and daily activities were aligned with this passion, my life was beautifully transformed into what I believe God intended when He envisioned me.

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