Perception and Conditioning

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Photo by David Boatwright

It may seem there is no rhyme or reason to what precipitates a panic attack.  Some days, anxiety appears to creep up out of nowhere, often at the most inopportune times (not that there is any good time for a panic attack).  There are natural physiological reactions in the brain which contribute to negativity, depression, and anxiety.  However, there are some learned responses which also contribute, and unlearning them can be helpful in restoring your happiness.

Anticipation is typically associated with a positive event.  For instance, we look forward to spending the holidays with our family, or an upcoming wedding or graduation, with anticipation.  There are two components to anticipation: perception and conditioning.  Our perceptions begin to develop in early childhood and conditioning reinforces these ideas throughout our lifetime.  If an early perception is negative and nothing ever happens to alter that perception, as adults we may experience anxiety when presented with similar ideas or events.

Going to the dentist is a fairly common source of anxiety for many adults.  However, the person who had regular cleanings as a child is less likely to feel anxious than somebody who only saw the dentist when they had a toothache.  Likewise, the child who was told, “You’re being very brave” is going to have a different experience than the one who was told, “Quit being such a baby.”  As adults, we try to rationalize with ourselves — we know we’ll be fine, we know the dentist is a trained professional, and yet there is still a “this is awful” feeling in the pit of our stomach.  This is the perception aspect of anticipation.

Consider a young child who spills a drink and is told, “You’re so clumsy!  Look at the mess you’ve made!”  Perhaps the story is then repeated, “We were having a good time until he spilled his drink.”  The perception has now been created for the child, and reinforcement – or conditioning – has begun.

People who spill their drinks are clumsy and messy; therefore I am clumsy and messy.

I ruined everyone’s day by spilling my drink.

This is how a common event such as a spilling a drink becomes over-important.  Life is messy and spills happen, to children and adults alike.  There are people who, even as children, can spot the blown-out-of-proportion-ness of some adult reactions and grow up unaffected.  But the depressive brain is predisposed to absorbing negativity and feeding it back to us throughout our lives.  Even long after toxic relationships have ended, our brains replay the tapes over and over again.  This is conditioning; the reinforcement and repetition of self-defeating thoughts which are fed to us by others and ourselves.  As adolescents and adults, these messages become a source of anxiety.  We may skip out on social occasions because we think, “I’ll just end up embarrassing myself and ruining everybody’s day.”  In other words, we have learned bad things not only happen to us, but because of us.

Have you ever had one of those days where you felt you couldn’t do anything right?  Maybe it started with a bad hair day or you burned breakfast.  Then you got reprimanded at work or school over some mistake.  Some people have the gift of isolating these incidents, but for others, the brain pairs each incident with an earlier perception, bundling them all into one reverberating theme: I am a loser.  It is therefore crucial to remember two very important truths:

Your brain will lie to you.

You can retrain your brain.

Learn to isolate incidents.  It can be easy to look at life like a big bowl of spaghetti, with people and events intertwined.  Everyone and everything becomes tainted by a few negative comments or events.  Try thinking WAFFLES.  Keep a notebook handy and track what happens throughout the course of the day – both the good and the bad.  Instead of looking at the day as one collective bummer, consider it as a series of incidents, some good and some bad, but each independent of the others in its own little waffle square.

Counter-punch those negatives.  For each bad thing, identify a good thing that happened.  On a particularly challenging day, your good thing may be to simply acknowledge at least it didn’t get worse or at least the day is nearly over.  That is okay!  You are still forcing your brain to spark up a positive reaction.

Identify and eliminate ‘always/never’ thinking.  As you chronicle your day, pay close attention to both internal and external messaging.  Do you have a parent who still claims you always do this or you never do that?  Do you say those things to yourself?  Write them down.  Then, at the end of the day when you can relax, rewrite each statement without the definitive.  Beware the definitive in disguise!  “I’m such a screw-up” has exactly the same meaning and effect as “I always screw things up.”  Capture these thoughts and reconstruct them.  For instance, “I’m lousy at my job” can be rewritten as “I messed up on that project, but now I understand my mistake and can do better next time.”

Taking control of your thoughts will strengthen those positive-thinking areas of the brain and reduce activity in the areas which feed into your depression and anxiety.  In time, you will learn to filter out the negative messaging around you, and live a happier and healthier life.

Sad for a Season

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Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters

Many of us love a rainy day.  It’s a great reason to snuggle in and enjoy a good book or movie while sipping our favorite warm beverage.  However, there is something about multiple consecutive grey days which leaves many people with a major case of the “blahs”.  For some, this results in a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.  For others, it contributes to an overall ‘bah humbug’ feeling throughout the wintry holiday season.

The symptoms of SAD are very similar to those of depression, such as:

  • Chronic tiredness or malaise
  • Sadness and irritability
  • Lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed

The big difference between those people dealing with SAD and those with clinical depression is that SAD symptoms typically disappear in the spring whereas chronic depression persists in spite of the changes in the seasons.  Fortunately, there are a few simple things we can try to alleviate both short and long-term winter blues and weather blahs.

Boost Your Vitamin D

The exact link between Vitamin D deficiency and depression is still not fully understood, but multiple studies have shown a common correlation between the two.  While increasing Vitamin D is not a cure for depression, it can be useful in alleviating some of the symptoms, so you may want to start by asking your doctor to check your Vitamin D levels.  If they are low, he or she may recommend you try some of the following methods to increase your levels.

  • Vitamin D exists naturally in tuna, salmon, and eggs and it often added to dairy products. Try adding more of these types of foods into your diet.
  • Most multivitamins meet dietary guidelines for calcium, potassium, and Vitamin D. Read the labels and find one which includes 100% Daily Value (DV) of Vitamin D.
  • Sunlight is a natural source of Vitamin D, but can be scarce during the winter months. If your moods are susceptible to the lower light levels of winter or other stormy seasons, you can purchase a special therapy / energy lamp.  These lamps are specially designed to emit safe levels of intense lighting.  When used regularly as instructed, this artificial lighting is known to help relieve depressive symptoms and boost Vitamin D levels.

Exercise

I know, I know…who wants to exercise when just getting out of bed seems nearly impossible?  However, just raising your heart rate for a few minutes can boost energy levels and help chase away the blues.  If the weather outside is frightful, try a quick indoor fitness fix, such as jogging in place.  Make it fun by binge-watching your favorite show and exercising during the commercial breaks.

Take Your Meds As Directed

This seems simple enough, but people with depression often skip doses when they feel like their depressive symptoms have improved.  On the flip side, some people will skip their medication if they think it may trigger a manic episode and thus provide them with a burst of energy and elation, albeit potentially harmful.  This is not the time to experiment.  If you feel your meds aren’t helping, or if you are experiencing unwanted side effects, speak to your doctor about trying something different.  In the meantime, take your antidepressants as prescribed for the best possible results.

Write It Down

If the grey skies are making you feel blue, try journaling.  Writing your feelings down is a great way to transfer internal sadness to something external, like a notebook.  Challenge yourself to list as may descriptive words as possible to convey how you are feeling about the weather, the holidays, current circumstances…whatever!

The holidays can be both joyous and stressful, and sometimes inclement weather seems to cast its shadow over everything.  Take care of yourself to ensure you enjoy the season as much as you possibly can.  Whether you are experiencing a meteorological storm, or a metaphorical one, spring WILL come.

Are you eating your words?

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Photo by Maria Molinero

People with eating disorders get a bad rap.  Behavioral addictions are somewhat of a mystery to society and are very often viewed only as character flaws.  This results in a sort of collective ignorance and judgmentalism which further damages those who are the victims of it.

Like other addictions, eating disorders are rooted in shame.  Unlike other addictions, people with eating disorders MUST continue use of the abused substance – food – in order to survive, thus adding a layer of complexity to the recovery process.  Discovering and understanding some of the reasons behind emotionally-driven eating patterns can be a powerful first step.

If you are constantly fighting with food, consider this; you may be eating your words or somebody else’s.  Addictive behaviors begin with an unmet need and are frequently paired with a sense of having been victimized.  This victimization can be physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, neglect, marginalization, and discrimination — something which resulted in a sense of powerlessness.  Abusive words, whether your own turned against yourself, or those of somebody else are often at the heart of comfort-eating.  However, many with weight-loss issues and eating disorders can tell you: Comfort eating is rarely truly comforting.

Overcoming an eating disorder is so much more than simply developing healthy eating habits.  It is conquering emotional pain in order to begin building a new, positive self-image.  I once saw a talk show where a young lady had been told by her boyfriend he was going to leave her if she didn’t lose weight, citing health concerns.  She literally worked her tail off, losing over 150 pounds.  He then said he couldn’t bear to look at her because of the loose skin.  In another case, a man lost weight after excessive criticism from his wife.  As he become healthier and gained confidence, other women began to compliment the wife on her attractive husband.  Was she proud of him?  Unfortunately, no – she felt jealous and became even more critical.  What really happened here?

For anybody who has struggled with weight issues, these stories are not surprising.  Not only is your own identity closely linked to your body image, but others often build their self-worth through attachment to another person – perhaps even to you.  The boyfriend and wife in these anecdotes had boosted their own self-image by being critical of the overweight girlfriend and husband.  In essence, their threats were a bluff — they didn’t really want their partners to lose weight – there was far too much to be gained from feeling superior.  If you’ve ever suffered a relapse of poor eating habits, you may have encountered the twisted glee of somebody who said, “I knew you’d give up.  You’ll always be fat.  Losing weight is too much work” or something similar.  Learn to ignore them.

There are multiple, complicated facets to eating disorders and the psychology of weight loss, which is why we often start a weight-loss plan only to fail, start another, and on and on.  If this is happening to you, it may be whatever course of action you’ve chosen is only addressing one piece of the puzzle.  For instance, losing weight might help you feel and look better, but it won’t make an abusive relationship less so, or resolve memories of childhood neglect or abuse.  Try using a holistic approach to recovery, one which includes addressing those triggers which push you towards food.

If you are setting out on a new weight-loss journey, it may be both surprising and painful to find there are people in your life who are less-than-supportive.  Do it in spite of them.  There may be echoes of critical voices past in your brain, and perhaps even your own self-criticism.  Do it in spite of yourself.  Get yourself a binder for your new adventure.  Include articles and pictures which motivate you, healthy recipes you’ve tried and enjoyed, and write down any negative self-talk you catch yourself doing.  You might also write down negative input you get from others.  Write it down then write your counter-attack.  Resolve firmly to make these changes for YOU— not to please others — and pledge to yourself to never, ever give up.

If you fall of the wagon, jot down the thoughts or events which precipitated the step back, then forgive yourself.  Tomorrow is a new day.  Expect resistance and find local or online groups where you can find and give support.  You can do this.  You can do it even if nobody cheers you on.  Start by taking captive those thoughts which make you want to eat, and replace those eating words with fighting words – words which motivate you to stay in the fight not only for your health, but for your happiness.

 

 

On Becoming an Aardvark

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Photo by David Higgins (unsplash.com)

Do negative thoughts and images seem to pop into your head at random?  In spite of our best efforts to construct and maintain a positive outlook, some brains seem determined to keep their human hosts totally bummed out.  These thoughts can be very troubling and often worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety, but understanding the physiology behind them can help us minimize their influence over our moods and behaviors.

People with depression tend to have an overactive deep limbic system.  The deep limbic system is the area of the brain associated with feelings and memories.  It is also the part of the brain which pairs our words and thoughts with emotions.  For people with an overactive limbic system, most words and thoughts become auto-paired with negative feelings.

By conducting exhaustive studies of numerous brain scans, Dr. Daniel G. Amen found the deep limbic system shows low activity — or cool spots — when the brain is processing happy thoughts.  Negative thought patterns produce hot spots, which in turn produce what he calls ANTs: Automatic Negative Thoughts.  Here are a couple of tips for channeling your inner aardvark, eliminating ANTs, and cooling your brain’s jets.

ANT Elimination Tip #1: Remember ANTs will lie to you.

The depressive brain is predisposed to filtering out or distorting healthy, uplifting thoughts.  When you notice your first reaction to something is pessimistic, or when an unpleasant image intrudes on an otherwise normal situation, take a minute to write it down so you can evaluate it further.  Not everything we think is true, and thinking something does NOT have to mean believing it.

ANT Elimination Tip #2: ANTs tend to be extremists.

You can usually tell an ANT by its absolute.  Do any of these sound familiar?

  • FINITE: “You are always late” or “You never pay attention to me”
  • PREDICTION: “You’ll only embarrass yourself”
  • LABEL: “You’re such a loser”

Always and never statements are the fuel of defeatist thinking, causing us to believe the very worst of ourselves and others.  Rather than finding encouragement in the idea that we all have room for improvement, we become convinced we and others cannot or will not ever change.  We predict the future, often adapting our behavior according to these mythical expectations.  We may cancel dates, avoid friends and family members, or call in sick to work the day of a big meeting all because an ANT convinced us something bad would happen.  We then validate our predictions with labels.  “I’m better off skipping that presentation today.  Besides, I’m such a poor speaker nobody would want to listen to me anyway.”

 Can you see how easily a cycle of negative thinking can develop?  I urge you to challenge these thoughts.  Keep track of them on paper throughout the day.  Later, restate each one while avoiding finite and predictive phrases, and without using hurtful and accusatory labels.  Try doing your restatements in the evening, so you can kill some of those ANTs which try to keep you awake at night.  And consider checking out Dr. Amen’s book, Change Your Brain Change Your Life if you’d like to learn more about identifying and conquering ANTs.

 

The Art of Feeling Worth-full

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New Orleans, LA (LB)

“Worthless” is a strange concept.  Quite literally, it means to be worth less than something.  Why then, when applied to ourselves, does it mean worth absolutely nothing?

Two things begin to happen as soon as we are old enough to interpret the actions of others.  First, our sense of self-worth begins to develop.  Second, our brain’s filter begins taking shape.  Many people face various difficulties throughout childhood, yet still develop a strong and healthy sense of self.  However, there are others born predisposed to negativity.  For them, a pessimistic interpretation of early childhood experiences helps create a filter which later colors the experiences of adolescence and adulthood in a gloomy hue.

Much of the frustration experienced by people with depression is caused by confusion about their own emotions.  For instance, a child who is harmed by an adult may know something bad happened, but may not yet have the vocabulary to express it or the understanding needed to completely process it.  Time marches on and the event is filed away deep in the brain.  Now, consider this child as an adult; certain events trigger strong emotional responses, but because the original event was never fully processed and is now buried deep in the subconscious, the connection between past event and current emotional trigger may be absent.  What is present is a sense of badness and a personal connection to it, thus reinforcing the association between self and bad.

We can’t change the past, but we can learn to control of our thoughts and retrain our filters to process the future in a more positive light.  The key is to stop allowing the actions of others to influence your own feelings about yourself.  This means finding other ways to reaffirm your value, and then using these as a counter-punch to those put-downs you hear inside your head.  Try doing something creative, or doing something for someone else.

There are countless ways to express creativity, and many don’t require any special training or talent.  If you aren’t sure where to start, try something you enjoyed (or wanted to enjoy) as a child.  Build a model, color, do a puzzle – the point is to produce something you feel good about.  If it doesn’t turn out quite as planned, it is okay.  This isn’t a test – you get as many do-overs as you like!  Keep trying different things until you find what you enjoy.

Performing a little act of kindness for somebody else can be as simple as holding a door open for somebody.  If you don’t have the energy to deal with people right now, there are lots of animals who need kindness (and will return the favor).  Saying something encouraging to somebody, checking on an elderly neighbor, scratching the ear of a furry friend – these may seem insignificant, but as we do them, we stimulate the happiness center of our brain and begin to feel less worthless and more worth-full.

We live in a society which bombards us with trash-talk and hate speech around the clock.  When those external messages pair up with our internal negative, it reinforces feelings of low self-worth.  I would be lying if I said this would be easy to overcome, but for most of us, our self-image has been a lifetime in the making.  Commit to spending a little time each week on something which makes you feel good, no matter how small it seems.  That little spark of good will become firmly planted in your brain, and the more you fuel it, the better your outlook will be – not only about life, but also about yourself.

 

Reversing Love Lies

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Muir Woods (LB)

Many people have been inspired by lyrics to songs such as The Greatest Love of All (I like George Benson, 1977).  On the surface, these are anthems of self-determination and self-respect.  However, the ideas are easily distorted by the filter of the depressive brain.  They become a weapon used primarily against oneself, often resulting in isolation and loneliness.

ATTACK #1: I depend on me, therefore I don’t need you.

Over time, depression and anxiety condition us to anticipate rejection.  This frequently results in the development of coping mechanisms which may seem helpful, but actually increase our negative mindset.  The fear of rejection leads us to deny our desire for relationships.  The lie here is “I’m not very likely to reject myself, so I’ll simply be content to be alone with me.”  However, denying ourselves relationships with others IS rejection of ourselves, as it denies us the experience of caring for and being cared for by others.

ATTACK #2: I do not love myself; therefore I cannot be loved by others.

Do you know someone whose life is an endless quest for self-improvement — constantly trying this new thing or that – all in an effort to affirm their own worth?  This chronic self-dissatisfaction often leads to dissatisfying relationships: “If I don’t know who I am, how do I know if you are somebody I will want to be with?”  This attack is rooted in perfectionism: in the belief since one has not quite become the person they hope to be, they will delay having relationships until they are closer to perfect and more worthy of love.

ATTACK #3: I have not learned to love myself, therefore I cannot love others.

The root of this attack is abuse in its various forms.  The victim of Attack #3 has learned love is something which must be earned or won, and is easily denied or lost.  Love which has been withheld in the past seems unattainable in the future.  These people wonder, “Is there any love in the world?  Has there ever been?”  It can seem difficult to counter-attack when you feel as if you’ve missed the love train.  However, you CAN reverse the lie.

Nobody has ever found a definition of love which all the world can agree on.  The only thing there really seems to be any consensus on is that in its purest form, love is good.  Many people with depression can tell you that it is sometimes ONLY love for somebody else which keeps them going.  Love for children, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, pets, you name it – that love drags MILLIONS of depressed people out of bed every single day.  Does this sound like you?  If so, please don’t stop just because of some misguided societal standard of worthiness or somebody else’s definition of what love should be.  Instead, keep it simple.

Before going to bed, try writing down some of the ways you showed love to others throughout the day.  These don’t have to be grand gestures or overt displays of affection — just little acts of kindness.  Count them – no matter how small they seem.  The next day, try showing yourself a little of the same courtesy you show others.

I’m not sure where the following saying originated, and an internet search turned up countless sources, so I’m going to go with Oscar Hammerstein:

“Love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay – Love isn’t love ‘til you give it away.”

There is nothing wrong with giving love away before you receive it – perhaps THAT is the greatest love of all.

 

The Three Faces of “Should”

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The Three Faces of Eve is a movie from 1957 about a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder.  One personality is meek, another bold and daring, and the third even-keeled.  In the depressive brain lurks a “should” which also has three faces.  By its nature, “should” implies that what IS, is simply not enough and thus leads to discontent.  “Should” is quite possibly the single most dangerous word for a depressive brain.  Its three personalities are The Accuser, The Fortune-Teller, and The Shape-Shifter.

The Accuser

This is the finger-pointer of our brain, tricking us into playing a self-directed-blame game in which we always seem to the villain or the loser.  The Accuser’s primary weapons are the malfunctioning filter of the depressive brain and shame.  The combination of the two results in a mental cloudiness which obscures visibility into our memories.  It separates our depressed self from our well self, causing us to forget we have ever been happy.

The Accuser leaves us regretting our past and fearing our future.  It takes incoming messages from other people, passing them through the negativity filter.  Then it adds a sprinkle of shame and voila! 

  • INCOMING: Why don’t you go out and DO something to make you feel better?
  • FILTER + SHAME: I’m not any fun to be around.  I’m probably keeping others from having fun.
  • ACCUSATION: I should stop going out with people.  I’m never any fun and I always ruin things.

The Fortune-Teller

The Fortune-Teller’s weapon is “if”.  It shows us visions of what surely would have been if only we had done or said something differently.  “If” is another “should” in disguise, and can be both regret and threat.  Can you spot the fortune-telling in the following statements?

  • REGRET: If I had been more outgoing, my marriage would not have failed.
  • THREAT: If I failed at marriage once, I will fail again.

We become conditioned to anticipate conflict and the result is often anxiety.  Because the Fortune-Teller has shown us the future and the Accuser has told us we cannot handle it, we try to avoid it, even at the expense of our own self-worth and peace of mind.

The Shape-Shifter

The Shape-Shifter has the uncanny ability to take on the persona of people we know.  For some of us, the voice belongs to a parent, for some an old friend or flame, and for some it is these and more.   All too often, it really is a parent or loved one, although they may have had good intentions when they said whatever hurt us.  Just as understanding the concept of “better” can be difficult when you are going through a valley, the concept of the filter is foreign to somebody who has never had depression.  So, how to fight the three faces of “should”?  Try using “big buts”.

Big “Buts”

When you catch yourself thinking a “should”, write it down.  You don’t have to address it immediately – in fact, it is probably best to come back to it during a quiet time.  When you do come back to it, try to identify the underlying accusation.  Then, rewrite the statement without the accusation and with a big “but”.

  • THOUGHT: I’m not any fun to be around. I’m probably keeping others from having fun.
  • ACCUSATION: I’m never any fun and I always ruin things.
  • NEW THOUGHT: When I’m feeling depressed, it is hard for me to enjoy myself and I imagine nobody wants to be around me, BUT when I feel better I can and will have fun with the people I love.

Let me know if it helps!

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A Reasonable Lie

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In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky wrote:

“The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself…”

Recently, I mentioned the deep limbic system as a filtering mechanism for the brain.  It begins its task of processing and interpreting with our earliest thoughts.  Overactive limbic systems stamp a big “NEGATIVE” on thoughts, turning them into depression, anxiety, and lies.

The lies begin in early childhood.  Young, impressionable brains are fertile ground for the seeds of self-destructive thoughts and behaviors of adulthood.  As we get older, observations become the Miracle-Gro of the depressive limbic system, each one paired with a seed then passed through the negative filter to produce a reasonable lie.  A reasonable lie is comprised of two dangerous components:

#1 – Some part of the lie has a slight ring of truth, and we are thus convinced of its accuracy.

#2 – The reasonableness of a reasonable lie, no matter how slight, is almost impossible to disprove to its believer.

Consider a fit adult who was once overweight as a child.  The observation, “Other children call me fat” was paired with a seed, “Being fat is bad” to create a reasonable lie, “I am fat, therefore I am bad”.  This is component #1, since being fat was a truth, but I am stressing the word “was” because of component #2.  In spite of the fact this person is now a fit adult, what was still is.  In other words, the original observation and seed have been diminished until only the lie remains: I am bad.  This explains why so many people are unable to explain why they hold on to certain beliefs about themselves.

“Why do you think you are stupid?”

“I don’t know.  I just am.”

 Bad Experience + Bad Seed = Reasonable Lie

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this type of mixed up mental math is our brain’s seemingly relentless energy in pursuing it.  Our brain will tell us horrible lies about ourselves again and again until we accept them as horrible truths.  So, how can we learn to recognize and counteract the reasonable lie?  Start by planting new seeds, and let the first seed be one of patience with you.

Mental triggers are everywhere – in songs, pictures, words, smells, foods, places – all of these and more can stimulate an old lie and make it seem true again.  Replacing the lies with real truths and positives CAN BE DONE, but it can also be difficult.  Old seeds can lie dormant in the back forty of our brain for years when something suddenly sparks a memory and we find ourselves feeling bad, but don’t fully know why.

I recommend getting a notebook for positives only.  Be strict about it! This notebook is only for things that make you smile and make you feel good.  Write down your favorite poems, quotations, and every accomplishment – no matter how small.  I mean really load it up.  If you find yourself journaling…STOP.  Do that somewhere else.  This notebook has one purpose; to be the counter-punch to those rotten, reasonable lies.  Add at least one item to it each day until it is full, and then start filling another one.  Spend a few minutes looking through your positives each night and each morning.  This will help you start and end each day with good seeds in your brain.  No matter what happens throughout the day, the new seeds will be there, growing new and beautiful truths.

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