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Health Fusion: What butterflies reveal about living in the moment

Long road trips provide ample time for both reflection and rumination — the good and the bad of hours and hours spent behind the wheel. In this Health Fusion column, Viv Williams shares stories of a recent drive to Colorado and how a pit stop at a botanical garden's butterfly house made a faulty air conditioner tolerable and brought meaning to the buzz word "mindfulness."

Butterfly on a plant
A butterflies life is short, but worth protecting.
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ROCHESTER, Minn. — Over the last few years, I've become quite familiar with the drive between southeastern Minnesota and Colorado. My son is in veterinary school in Colorado and while he's beyond capable of making the drive himself, I can't resist the opportunity to ride along. Twelve-plus hours of his being trapped in the car with me, sharing stories and listening to cool podcasts is the best (I recommend Dakota Spotlight and The Vault , btw). I love it even when he's snoozing and his cat insists on sitting on my lap, despite the fact that the temperature in the car is soaring because it's 92 degrees outside and only hot air billows out of the air conditioning vents (remind me to have our guy take a look at that).

OK, I'll admit that at some point after we've turned south off of I-90 and are in the northwest corner of Nebraska, I get a little antsy. How can we possibly tolerate 4 or 5 more hours of driving?? That's when the head games start and I have to make a conscious choice — either allow pessimism and a really bad mood to set in (easy) or opt for optimism (hard). Purposefully choosing to smile, find the good in situations and be happy isn't all that easy. But it can be really good for your mental and overall health. And it can make the drudgery of hours and hours behind the wheel of a hot car much more fun.

A study in the journal Mindfulness, "Being Present and Enjoying It: Dispositional Mindfulness and Savoring the Moment Are Distinct, Interactive Predictors of Positive Emotions and Psychological Health," explores how the way you look at things influences happiness. The study authors explain that being mindful and savoring the moment are different, but can be powerfully positive when they happen together.

Another article published by the American Psychological Association notes that after reviewing more than 200 articles, researchers conclude that mindfulness-based therapy may help improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, perception of pain, fatigue, addiction and it may boost your immune system.

Being mindful means to focus your attention on the here and how. It's not about sticking your head in the sand and avoiding bad situations. But pausing to pay attention to what you're doing and noting how you feel can help stop negative rumination that can trap you in a downward spiral — at least that's how it works for me.

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So instead of letting my mood tank when our road trip felt as if it would never end, I thought about the research I've read and took a moment to think about what I was doing. I was in the car with my wonderful son and I could ruin it by being grumpy or enhance it by purposefully deciding to adjust my mindset. Again, it's not always easy to make that shift. And, honestly, I would have rather pulled over, stepped out of the car and thrown my body onto the ground in a tantrum of frustration. But then I REALLY would have embarrassed my son, so I didn't.

By tapping into what I've learned about mindfulness, I managed to stay pretty positive. Then we had another experience that helped me realize how important paying attention to the good things around you can be. We visited the Gardens on Spring Creek in Fort Collins, Colorado. After a walk around the grounds full of native plants and rock gardens, we decided to check out the butterfly house, even though we were both covered in sweat (it was still super hot), a little dehydrated and on the verge of being crabby again.

The butterfly house tour guide started her spiel about not touching anything in the butterfly house — especially the butterflies. One of her statements grabbed my attention and sticks with me still.

"Butterflies only live for two weeks," said the volunteer tour guide. "And we don't want to do anything that might shorten their time on this earth."

Wow. Butterflies only live for two weeks. And there are no guarantees that we'll be around for any given amount of time either. Things can change in an instant. So the next time you're stuck in a hot car or in some other uncomfortable situation, try to push the reset button instead of falling victim to negativity, anger and sadness. It may take some work, but mindfulness may be what can help you be more positive and may make life more pleasant and meaningful.

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Follow the  Health Fusion podcast on  Apple,   Spotify and  Google podcasts. For comments or other podcast episode ideas, email Viv Williams at  vwilliams@newsmd.com. Or on Twitter/Instagram/FB @vivwilliamstv.

MORE HEALTH FUSION:
A dog's sense of smell has helped to find missing people, detect drugs at airports and find the tiniest morsel of food dropped from a toddler's highchair. A new study shows that dogs may also be able to sniff out when you're stressed out.

Opinion by Viv Williams
Viv Williams hosts the NewsMD podcast and column, "Health Fusion." She is an Emmy (and other) award-winning health and medical reporter whose stories have run on TV, digital and newspaper outlets nationwide. Viv is passionate about boosting people's health and happiness by helping them access credible, reliable and research-based health information from top experts. She regularly interviews experts and patients from leading medical institutions, such as Mayo Clinic.
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