The benefits of social connection

Feeling close to others, knowing that others support us and are there for us in difficult times has further reaching consequences than just that we feel secure. Most of us know that having friends is important for our emotional well-being. Several studies have shown that feeling close to others and to socialize regularly increases overall happiness.

Less well known is the fact that there are more benefits: being part of a group of individuals who support each other is highly beneficial for our longevity.

 

Belonging to a tribe

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes a lot of sense. We are used to living in a group and back then, we needed our group to survive. We modern humans still really need our group to survive; we rely on our highly organized societies that supply us with food, health care, clothes and whatever else we may need. Unfortunately, by making the processes that supply us with all these goods and services more and more efficient, we have lost the personal interaction in them. We do not know the person who is selling us our bread; we cannot stop and chat at the checkout counter, because it has to be fast – or because it is a self-check-out without any human interaction.

Studies suggest that we need a few close friends who are loyal to us and whom we are loyal to in turn. Two or three of these close connections are enough. In addition, we need a larger network of acquaintances, which can be coworkers, neighbors or the owner of a local store. People whom we encounter regularly, who we can talk to and who provide a certain sense of stability. Because, back in the day when we lived in the savannah, we did not get to see hundreds of new faces every day, we were used to seeing the same 20 or 30 faces every day. Being confronted with all these strangers commuting in a big city creates stress on a daily bases. We can counterbalance this through regular encounters with people from our network of acquaintances.

 

Social contagion

Our friends can have a positive influence on us. Many behaviors are socially contagious. If one person in your friend circle starts exercising, there is a high chance that you will, too. A large study shows that even emotions spread through social media can be contagious.

They analyzed emotional status messages of people during times of rainfall and found that bad weather reduced the amount of positive content in status messages. This weather-dependent negative mood spread to friends in areas with good weather! This study suggests that social media synchronize our moods on a more global level. Of course, this does mean that, as shown in the study, negative moods can spread as well. However, the study suggests that everyone can influence their friends’ and in turn their own happiness by sharing more messages that are positive.

 

Touch reduces stress

However, we should also focus on our social connections outside social media. Friendly physical contact with a close one, like a hug or a friendly pat on the shoulder, can lower our experienced stress level and stress hormones in our blood. This effect lasts for hours: a hug in the morning can make a demanding day at work less stressful. Friendly touch is even more effective at releasing stress than friendly words.

 

The centenarians of Okinawa

The inhabitants of Okinawa, a region in the south of Japan, live especially long. People here belong rather to the lower socioeconomic class, which is traditionally associated with lower health. However, the people of Okinawa have very strong social bonds and social support in their communities, suggesting a powerful role of social involvement and connection in longevity.

 

Social connections let you live a longer and happier life

When we put all this together, we can already create a convincing picture. Close social connection makes us happier – which already is a health benefit in itself. Our close friends can have positive influence on our emotional state and our lifestyle – so it is important to spend time with people who are happy and engage in activities or habits that we would like to incorporate in our own lifes. That does not mean that you should leave a friend who suffers from depression behind. You can be the positive influence on them! However, try to balance out time spend with a friend who is going through difficult times by treating yourself to some extra hours with an especially happy friend. Positive social interactions lower our stress levels, especially when they also involve friendly interpersonal touch. All these health benefits might accumulate to a level where they let us live longer and healthier lives.

 

Scientific literature

Mogilner, C. (2010). The pursuit of happiness: Time, money, and social connection. Psychological Science, 21(9), 1348-1354.

Aral, S., & Nicolaides, C. (2017). Exercise contagion in a global social network. Nature communications, 8, 14753.

Coviello, L., Sohn, Y., Kramer, A. D., Marlow, C., Franceschetti, M., Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. H. (2014). Detecting emotional contagion in massive social networks. PloS one, 9(3), e90315.

Ditzen, B., Neumman, I., Bodenmann, G., von Dawans, B., Turner, R.A., Ehlert, U., Heinrichs, M., 2007. Effects of different kinds of couple interaction on cortisol and heart rate responses to stress in women. Psychoneuroendocrinology 32, 565–574.

Grewen, K.M., Anderson, B.J., Girdler, S.S., Light, K.C., 2003.Warmpartner contact is related to lower cardiovascular reactivity. Behavioral Medicine 29, 123–130.

Cockerham, W. C., Hattori, H., & Yamori, Y. (2000). The social gradient in life expectancy: the contrary case of Okinawa in Japan. Social science & medicine, 51(1), 115-122.

 

© Rebecca Böhme & Andrew Wold, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Photos by Matheus Ferrero and Thought Catalog and Sabrina Ellul on Unsplash

A luxury problem

“That which annoys us does not necessarily injure us; but we are driven into wild rage by our luxurious lives, so that whatever does not answer our whims arouses our anger” – Seneca

A luxurious life with a little rage

I wanted to start with this quote to bring up a feeling many of us have experienced: overreacting. Whether our travel is delayed, our food order is wrong, or we feel wronged, it’s not uncommon to overreact. My favorite way to overreact is to swear out loud at any number of minor indiscretions; stubbing my toe, not being able to merge easily, not being finished on time, all these produce a predictable chain of swear words that flow out of me as naturally as water down a mountain stream. When I reflect on my own reaction, I’ve tried to justify that it has utility; it helps me feel a little better by releasing some pent up steam. Unfortunately, that’s only a cover story, reacting too much just makes me more likely to overreact to the next event, and my extra vigilance only hinders me from focusing on my task at hand.

The problem, we live in a time where our immediate surroundings provide everything that is necessary for our survival. Seneca is right; our luxurious lives put us in a position of feeling vexed for being made even slightly discomforted.  It used to be worse for me, it has gotten better, and I’d like to share with you how I’ve trained to be less reactive.

Time to implement change

There are two ways you can go about becoming less reactive, the first is learning to prolong your reaction. Basically, you give yourself time to find what the proper reaction should be before you let any emotion take hold in an automatic sense. My favorite technique to do this comes from a concept called “principle negotiation” developed by Roger Fischer and William Ury. In William Ury’s book “Getting Past No”, Ury describes a method to not react to what your partner is saying by “going to the balcony”. This means to imagine the situation as though you are viewing it from above; a balcony overlooking the situation. I like this visualization, it provides the distancing from a given situation, but keeps the vantage point local to the whole of the situation.

The second technique is something we have discussed already: gratitude. It has been shown that people who have high levels of gratitude, have a higher capacity for patience. In experiments looking at how gratitude effects temporal discounting, i.e. prolonging a satisfying experience into the future, individuals with higher levels of gratitude showed more patience when being able to delay an incentive. Gratitude can help you up to the balcony.

How can we implement this in our everyday lives? First, wait until the next time you overreact (or you may be able to draw on a very recent event). After the fact, consider the value of your overreaction. I’ve literally written “overreaction”, but was your reaction nevertheless well-measured? Did it make you feel better or did it put you in a state that made you feel on edge,  annoyed, and ready to continue reacting in a short fused manner? Replay the event as though you first went to the balcony, view the situation from above, and see if you would have reacted differently given time and perspective. Ideally, next time try to first take this distanced perspective, but don’t be discouraged if you find this difficult. We are beings preset to react automatically, it’s useful, but not easy to gain a distanced perspective from our own actions and reactions.

Moving on to gratitude, how can we use this? A study of college students seeking mental health services at a university offers us some guidance. In this study participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. All three groups received counseling services, but the first group was also instructed to write one letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks, whereas the second group was asked to write a letter depicting their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. The third group was the control group, and didn’t have to do any writing activity. I should note that the students were almost all coming for complaints of depression or anxiety. The results of this study showed that those who did in fact write a letter of gratitude reported significantly better mental health at 4-weeks and 12-weeks, compared with the other two groups. Before you cast this result aside – perhaps you are not a college student seeking mental services at a university health care, consider a few more points of the analysis of this study.

First, this increased mental health recovery happened whether this letter was sent to someone or not. Even if you do not successfully communicate your gratitude to someone, you experience a mental health benefit. Next, the most important aspect of these gratitude letters was a lack of negative emotional words expressed (it doesn’t always benefit us to expel negativity, in fact it could simply propagate more negativity). The most lasting effects came from those who expressed positive emotion words and “we” language, as opposed to “I” language. Still, the most important aspect for effective gratitude seemed to be removing negativity words altogether (focus on the positive). Lastly, this gratitude effect was not immediate; it started around 3 weeks into the exercise. Even though we want an effect now, planting the seeds to a better mental state can take time, don’t get discouraged if you don’t feel better the next day, give gratitude time and give it space to make a difference.

To go back to Seneca’s quote about raging even though we have a luxurious life. At times, it can seem like we have just about everything, but what’s missing or not delivered to us, arouses that inner rage. It happens, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take action against it ourselves. Take a moment to reflect on something that has already happened, if you can, go to the balcony and prolong the time you take to react. Practice gratitude, literally focus on positive and avoid the negative. Why not write a letter? You don’t even have to send it, you still benefit from the exercise of putting your positive words to paper. How about trying a one month gratitude letter writing challenge? I gotta tell you, I feel better for sharing this with you, so spread the message and get a piece of this gratitude for yourself!

Literature:

Ury, W. (1992). Getting past no: Negotiating with difficult people. Random House.

Wong, Y. J., Owen, J., Gabana, N. T., Brown, J. W., McInnis, S., Toth, P., & Gilman, L. (2018). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research, 28(2), 192-202.

Dickens, L., & DeSteno, D. (2016). The grateful are patient: Heightened daily gratitude is associated with attenuated temporal discounting. Emotion, 16(4), 421.

 

Cover photo by Diego Geraldi on Unsplash

In-text photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash

 

© Andrew Wold & Rebecca Böhme, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Connectedness to nature

 

The feeling of being emotionally close to others, close to nature and our direct environment is becoming less natural in the digital age. While it is easy to stay in contact with people, even when they are far away, we do not feel close and connected. It becomes rarer and harder to develop connectedness to our direct environment. While twenty years ago it was natural to talk to your neighbors regularly, exchange missing food items and help, nowadays we often do not even know them anymore.

With the increasing presence of our digital devices, we distance ourselves more and more from the present moment, from the direct experience of what is around us. While we undeniably gain a lot through these new technologies, we might be at risk for losing those little moments of doing nothing. Those are the moments, when we can actually feel connected to our environment – be it nature, another human being, an animal or simply the street we live in.

While we are doing nothing, while we are experiencing boredom, we actually open our attention up to what is happing in our direct surroundings: we watch people passing by on the street, we listen to the birds sing, we smell the fresh coffee on our neighbors table in the café. And we might start a conversation with him or her on how delicious coffee is.

In “The evolution of happiness” David M. Buss writes

“Appreciating the beauty of a blossom, the loveliness of a lilac, or the grace of a gazelle are all ways in which people can, in some small measure, fill their daily lives with evolutionarily inspired epiphanies of pleasure”.

 

Through these small pleasures we can develop a feeling of connectedness – but we do have to give ourselves the time and the openness of attention to even be able to perceive these things.

There is a whole field in research, that focusses on studying our relationship to nature: environmental psychology. Studies from this field of research show: exposure to nature decreases negative emotional states, like depression and anxiety, and increases positive feelings. But why?

Possible explanations include (according to Health Council of the Netherlands, 2004):

  • recovery from stress and attention fatigue
  • encouragement to exercise
  • facilitating social contact
  • encouraging optimal development in children
  • providing opportunities for personal development and a sense of purpose.

 

There might be even more to this. One study showed that nature positively affected well-being through the experience of higher connectedness to nature, higher private self-awareness and higher awareness of the immediate environment. Importantly, the participants were compared to a control group who experiences “virtual nature”, i.e. they were watching a movie of the same walk that the nature-group took. It therefore becomes clear, that the virtual world cannot replace the real nature experience.

It is also important, as the authors of this study note, that the increased well-being of participants in the nature-group was not simply related to a reduction in stress. There is more to the experience of nature than just that we calm down and get a break from our hectic lifestyles. The researcher write:

Humans have lived the vast majority of their lives embedded in nature, belonging to the natural world in very real ways. In geological time, it is only a tick of the clock that we have spent in highlyurban settings, working in concrete buildings, driving in climate controlled cars, and living in relatively densely populated areas, shut off from nature. As Pretty (2002) estimated, for 350,000 generations humans have lived close to the land as hunter-gatherers; a sense of belonging, place, and feeling embedded within the broader natural world characterized these cultures. In some ways, then, it would be surprising if the modern life of being divorced from nature did not have some negative consequences associated with it and that being in nature had positive benefits” (Mayer et al., 2009).

Another way of connectedness if feeling close to our fellow humans. We will talk about that in our next article.

 

 

Scientific literature

Mayer, F. S., Frantz, C. M., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., & Dolliver, K. (2009). Why is nature beneficial? The role of connectedness to nature. Environment and behavior, 41(5), 607-643.

 

© Rebecca Böhme & Andrew Wold, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Photos by Paz Arando and  Paola Aguilar on Unsplash 

 

Anticipating Fear

“[The] only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd US president

You probably heard this quote or something similar and perhaps even wondered what this might mean. In Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, he elaborates further with “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” And although he was speaking to a nation, he could have easily been speaking to all of us as individuals.

Fear is an emotion that is at the base of our existence. Our brains and extended nervous systems are tuned and highly reactive to fear, as it has driven animals to advance to where they are to this day. We humans are no exception. Imagine if you will hearing a rustling in a nearby bush. It could be nothing or it could be the stirrings of a predator. Those who were afraid and sought shelter survived just a little more often than those who had no fear or chose to ignore it (because every so often, it was a tiger in the bush, and now your genes will no longer be represented in the gene pool). Although most of us reading this text live in peace and general prosperity, we can’t ignore that fear plays a role in our lives. This fear is often what causes us to retreat from the path that leads to a happy life, when instead we should convert into advance.


“Some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.” – Seneca 

Neuroscience has shown in experiments what stoics like Seneca have preached for centuries; our habits are a product of a negativity bias that has develop during thousands of years of evolution (remember those who choose to interpret the rustle in the bush as a tiger) – negative experiences carry more weight. I’d like to focus on one aspect of this tormenting cycle in this article, namely, anticipation.

Experiments using brain imaging have shown that the anticipation of a painful experience and the actual experience are similar but distinct in the areas of the brain they activate. Anticipation activates areas associated with pain, as though it was similar to the pain itself. In the real world, we experience a great deal of anxiety in any impeding painful or negative experience. Although useful in a more threatening environment full of tigers, in a world of relative safety this intense anticipation becomes maladaptive.

Not only pain, but the anticipation of pain can alter your mood. It is believed that this anticipation of pain is relevant to the development of chronic pain disorders. Becoming tenser in the anticipation of pain will make pain often much worse. Think of someone telling you about a painful dental procedure in excruciating detail, and then slowly examining every instrument in preparation for the actual procedure, yikes. Conversely, distracting someone with questions or applying a heavy cognitive load (like counting back from 500 in steps of 7) can make the experience of receiving a shot relatively painless. Now the good news, if we gain control of our minds we can exert control on how we experience any number of negative situations.

We dread the anticipation of pain to such a degree, that we would volunteer to accept higher levels of pain immediately instead of having to wait for lesser pain. This was shown through an experiment where participants were asked to choose just that, higher levels of pain now or lesser pain delayed for a few seconds – isn’t science fun! 70% of participants preferred a more painful experience right away over waiting for a less painful experience; they just wanted to get it over with.

In life we may want to quickly rip of the bandage and simply get our pain and fears over with, but in the case of this experiment you would have been given perfect information about what you will be choosing – more pain right now or less pain after waiting. We rarely receive such a luxury in life, instead we are plagued with uncertainty, and this is where pain is bridged with fear. Uncertainty is ripe with fear. Anticipating a situation wrought with uncertainty is a tormenting experience, and leaves many people in a frozen state, anxiously waiting for some uncertainty to be resolved. Unfortunately the worse we feel, the greater the effect fear has on our mood and ability to take control over the negative effects of anticipation.

To this end, people suffering from major depression disorder experience pain differently. In an experiment comparing depressed patients with healthy controls, depressed patients showed more neural activation (via brain imaging) in response to the anticipation of pain. They also showed an increase in neural activation for experiencing pain, and a greater activation in the right amygdala (an area classical involved in fear responses) during anticipation of pain, which was associated with greater levels of perceived helplessness.

This is an example of a depressed brain being more active than a healthy brain, which is not always what we might assume when we think of being depressed. What this illustrates is also a mind that is overactive in the anticipation of negative experiences, and therefore bogged down in outward behavior. If you let fear, and particularly future fear, take control of your mind, you’ll often be frozen in state of agitation, expecting tigers when no such threat exists.

In the same letter to Lucilius (On Groundless Fears) as the above quote, Seneca quotes another great stoic, Epicurus: “the fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live”. Don’t let fear stop you from living. If you are free from pain and are safe, take a moment to enjoy what you have. If the future holds something grim, know that anticipating how grim it might be is worse than actually experiencing it. Do you want to exert some control over fear? Exercise your fears by grounding them. Name the fears, list them out; pull them into the light so you can see them for what they are.  Allow your fears to be a trigger to go deeper into yourself, and you may find that you are simply waiting on something that may never come to pass. If you find yourself confronting the fear of anticipating uncertainty, then forgive yourself and your fearful ancestors, thank them for trying to keep you alive. Now, let that fear go. Stop getting ready to live and just live.

 

References:

Ploghaus, A., Tracey, I., Gati, J. S., Clare, S., Menon, R. S., Matthews, P. M., & Rawlins, J. N. P. (1999). Dissociating pain from its anticipation in the human brain. Science, 284(5422), 1979-1981.

Welman, F. M., Smit, A. E., Jongen, J. L., Tibboel, D., van der Geest, J. N., & Holstege, J. C. (2018). Pain Experience is Somatotopically Organized and Overlaps with Pain Anticipation in the Human Cerebellum. The Cerebellum, 1-14.

Story, G. W., Vlaev, I., Seymour, B., Winston, J. S., Darzi, A., & Dolan, R. J. (2013). Dread and the disvalue of future pain. PLoS computational biology, 9(11), e1003335.

Strigo, I. A., Simmons, A. N., Matthews, S. C., Arthur, D., & Paulus, M. P. (2008). Association of major depressive disorder with altered functional brain response during anticipation and processing of heat pain. Archives of general psychiatry, 65(11), 1275-1284.

Cover Photo by Ian Froome on Unsplash

In-Text Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

© Rebecca Böhme & Andrew Wold, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Look into the Inner Voice

We are often told to listen to our inner voice, or trust our gut instinct, but what it that? The best term we might be able to find to define this phenomenon is intuition. Intuition is an unclear phenomenon to speak about yet only to research, but there is a growing body of work in cognitive science that looks to unlock the mysterious of our own intuition.

 

William James, the prominent psychologist and philosopher, is one of the early examples you can find who attempts to define what intuition is. He defined a system of cognition that works in two phases, intuitive and rational. These phases would later work very well as a foundation for the dual process of cognition: fast thinking and slow thinking, as coined by Nobel laureate and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman. Intuition is a quick and largely unconscious assessments of a given situation based on a conglomeration of experiences and affective processes. You can argue that these processes have developed as a way to save energy in complex mental processing. Rational analysis would then be the labor intensive, energy demanding process of slowing working towards a result (or just giving up).

 

Based on the brief explanation of what intuition is, it’s easy to see the appeal of relying on a system that is energy efficient, provides quick and reliable results, and doesn’t really demand high level analyses. But just because the answers come easily doesn’t make them infallible. Here we address a major drawback of intuition; it’s overlap with compulsion.

When intuition meets compulsion

Compulsion, or compulsive behavior, is defined as an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way. Many of us will immediately think of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a mental disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts that produce anxiety and by compulsively engaging in seemingly irrelevant repetitive behaviors. Let’s not go down the disorder road just yet, because compulsion affects everyone to a certain degree – we should do our best to differentiate compulsion from intuition if we are to trust the inner voice that we so heavily rely on.

Because intuition is not based on deep analyses, compulsion can feel a lot like an intuitive sensation. There are times when this can be problematic, or even deadly. Think of the drug addict, who intuitively finds their way back to their substance of choice, or the cheater who feels “so right” in the arms of their lover. Without a moral judgement attached, these behaviors may create more problems in the long run but feel right in the moment, something that a lengthy rational analysis will help to uncover.

 

So what is to be done with intuition?

So what is to be done with intuition, especially when bordering on compulsion? The first idea is to identify where an intuition moves you, and to identify the feelings it produces. Although easy to write, making unconscious processes conscious is no easy task. The first step is to assess a situation where you felt intuition lead you astray and to analyze what led you to follow the gut feeling. Start with those, the feelings, add the context and see if you gain a new perspective.

 

It may help to give an example from my own journey into trying to understand my own intuition. In this case, I interrupted my intuition to add rational thought into trying to understand how to soothe my son. I remember holding my son as a baby and rocking him in my arms back and forth, feeling that intuitively the motion would calm the child – how often I had seen babies being swung to and fro to lull them to sleep. My intuition provided no result, and it was only when I tried to understand the perspective of a baby, through perspective taking, that I realized less is more. After considering the motion patterns that an unborn baby has grown accustom to, I changed the pattern. Now, with my boy clutched against my stomach, swaying little, moving with a slow but deliberate gait, he slept. Calming the inner voice, like a child, can be all about slowing down and taking time for a deeper understanding.

 

Further reading:

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

 

© Rebecca Böhme & Andrew Wold, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Title Photo by Lachlan Dempsey on Unsplash

Text Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

How to recover from stressful life events

(and a little bit on dealing with grief)

We have been writing a lot about how to deal with stress. But let’s face it: everybody will go through phases in their life where they experience intense stress. Even if you are highly resilient and an experienced yogi knowing all the breathing techniques – there are things that won’t leave you unscathed.

We have been through some tough times ourselves and know from personal experience that such times will affect you – not just emotionally, but on the physical and cognitive levels as well. We become tired, more easily irritable, our fitness level decreases. We feel mentally and physically exhausted. In addition, we struggle with everything that has a higher cognitive demand. It becomes harder to focus, harder to engage and our short-term memory is affected.

My (Rebecca’s, it’s me writing today) most intense stress experience comes from my student years, when I just started my advanced master’s courses in neural and behavioral science. At that time, my mum was terminally ill.

My mum and me, probably 25 years ago

First, I struggled with finding a balance between spending time with her, but still living the student life and fulfilling all the very ambitious course work at university. Then she died – and even though I knew it was coming, I felt completely unprepared. I managed to finish my master’s degree, even with good grades, but emotionally, I was a mess. My mum was my best and closest friend. We used to talk every day and about everything. At that point of my life, I was at a deep loss.

 

It took me several years to recover from this experience.

During these years, I noticed something strange: I could not really remember events from the months before her death. Everything seemed blurry. I mixed up names and people, did not remember where I knew them from, and even forgot important things that had happened. The time before my mum’s death, the most stressful time, disappeared in a cloud within my head.

I was studying neuroscience and soon learned that the hippocampus is affected by intense or chronic stress. Just recently, a large meta-analysis with over 800 participants with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) confirmed, that the hippocampus decreases in size when subjected to highly stressful events.

How did I recover?

First of all, the best medicine is time. Traumatic events need time to be processed. Usually it takes longer than our social environment believes we need and is willing to give us. In the case of losing a close one, there is even a prescribed “normal” time window after which we are supposed to function normal again. In the diagnostic manual for psychiatric disorders, the time defined as normal, non-pathological grief has decreased dramatically over the last years. In the DSM version number 3, it was one year, in number 4 it was two months, in the newest edition number 5, there were rumors it would be reduced to only two weeks (I guess that was too drastic and didn’t happen).

For all stressful events, from an especially hard time at work over heartbreak to losing a loved one, it is important to be patient with ourselves and accept that it might take a while until we “get over it”. Often, we feel fine for a while, and then something triggers the memory of the stressful event or phase and we have to go through another time period of processing it. Be patient with yourself. Don’t get annoyed, if your brain makes you go through it again.

This is actually a fascinating mechanism: our brain gives us a break from processing the stressful life-event for a while. When we have become stable again, it will allow the memories to come back up. The brain uses the calmer times to process difficult experiences. Accept this and see it as a positive process: every time this happens, it is getting easier.

 

What else can we do to recover from stress?

First, stabilize your basis. Make sure, you are exercising, eating well and sleeping enough. After my mum’s death, I started exercising multiple times a week and eating more healthy food. Not really to combat the stress, but to deal with anxiety regarding my own health. However, it did have a positive effect. Especially the regular exercise felt extremely good. When we are stressed, our body prepares for something bad to happen. Stress is an adaptive mechanism to protect us. Our body prepares for the fight-or-flight reaction. So we should use it in that way it was meant to be: go for long runs or an intense sports class. That way, stress hormones fulfill their biological function and are less harmful than when we are sitting on the couch with our 100+ heartrate. People who exercise are reportedly more resilient to stress, which also means they recover faster from it.

Again, meditation becomes an extremely helpful tool during stress recovery. 

However, if you have not practiced meditation before, it might be the wrong time to learn it. If you are still in the stressful phase, it will be hard for you to sit down and calm your mind. Better to train meditation during a calmer time of your life to have this great tool ready, when you need it. If you are currently recovering from stress, don’t feel discouraged to try it out! But don’t beat yourself up – or the method – if it does not have the effect you were looking for. Try to exercise instead and come back to meditation practice when you are further in your recovery journey.

Some other tips:

Try a new hobby like painting or pottery. Start writing or dancing. Choose whichever form of art you are most drawn to and get lost in it for a few hours per week.

Listen to classical music. It has been shown to help your cardiovascular system during stress recovery.

Treat yourself with immersive and positive nature experiences, which can reinforce your recovery process.

 

 

Scientific literature:

Logue, M. W., van Rooij, S. J., Dennis, E. L., Davis, S. L., Hayes, J. P., Stevens, J. S., … & Korgaonkar, M. (2018). Smaller Hippocampal Volume in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Multisite ENIGMA-PGC Study: Subcortical Volumetry Results From Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Consortia. Biological psychiatry83(3), 244-253.

Salmon, P. (2001). Effects of physical exercise on anxiety, depression, and sensitivity to stress: a unifying theory. Clinical psychology review21(1), 33-61.

Chafin, S., Roy, M., Gerin, W., & Christenfeld, N. (2004). Music can facilitate blood pressure recovery from stress. British journal of health psychology9(3), 393-403.

Reynolds, C. F., Hoch, C. C., Buysse, D. J., Houck, P. R., Schlernitzauer, M., Pasternak, R. E., … & Kupfer, D. J. (1993). Sleep after spousal bereavement: a study of recovery from stress. Biological Psychiatry34(11), 791-797.

Adevi, A. A., & Mårtensson, F. (2013). Stress rehabilitation through garden therapy: The garden as a place in the recovery from stress. Urban forestry & urban greening12(2), 230-237.

Pizarro, J. (2004). The efficacy of art and writing therapy: Increasing positive mental health outcomes and participant retention after exposure to traumatic experience. Art Therapy21(1), 5-12.

Appleton, V. (2001). Avenues of hope: Art therapy and the resolution of trauma. Art Therapy18(1), 6-13.

Marcus, M. T., Fine, P. M., Moeller, F. G., Khan, M. M., Pitts, K., Swank, P. R., & Liehr, P. (2003). Change in stress levels following mindfulness-based stress reduction in a therapeutic community. Addictive Disorders & Their Treatment2(3), 63-68.

 

 

© Rebecca Böhme & Andrew Wold, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Photos by Edu Grande and Amy Treasure on Unsplash 

The power of reappraisal

In our previous post, we talked about how re-appraisal of stress can affect your health. It is some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: if you believe that stress is bad for you, it will have more negative health consequences.

 

Make the strategy of reappraisal or re-evaluation your close friend – not only when it comes to stress.

This will help you in many other areas of life. You might have ideas and concepts anchored in your mind that are not accurate. For example, you might be sure, that you are quite a lazy person. This idea could have been planted there already in your childhood, when you parents called you lazy because you didn’t want to clean your room. It was probably reinforced during your teenager years, since teenagers usually have other priorities than working hard in school, and are being called lazy on a regular basis. Maybe you got back on track, when you started working or studying – but the concept of your character already contained the description “lazy”.

 

Self-concept reappraisal

Now, this is where the problem lies: we think of ourselves as a quite clearly defined entity with certain traits. We believe, we know ourselves, that we can predict how we will react in specific scenarios and – most importantly – that we won’t or will hardly change.

However, we do not base our self-concept entirely on extensive reflection and detailed observations of our own behavior. We might use these tools, but our self-concept will always be integrating the views, thoughts and comments that others make about us. If you kept hearing that you are a lazy person, you might have decided to prove them all wrong, but more likely, you accepted this description into your idea about who you are.

As a consequence, the word lazy pops up, whenever you do not feel like doing a task. You will say to yourself: “I just can’t help it. I am a lazy person.” It is the best excuse that you can come up with, because it sounds so definite and fits perfectly into the narrative that you repeat. If you simply are a lazy person, how could you ever change that?

 

A simple strategy for reappraisal

This is where re-appraisal comes into play: As soon as you hear your inner voice uttering such a sentence, think about the description.

Are you really lazy, low-energy, anti-social, a loner, difficult, etc.? Start by writing down all these descriptors that you give yourself. Make a little list over a couple of days. Then, try to find evidence in the past as well as in the present. Were you really a lazy child or did you simply not like cleaning your room, but were active in sports and engaged in school? Were you really a lazy teenager or did you just invest your energy in writing sad song, trying to master a cool skateboard trick or doing everything to impress your crush? Now as an adult, are you really lazy or are there good reason why you want to avoid a certain task? Are there concrete reasons, that are not based in a negative trait you are assigning yourself?

 

Watch out for these pitfalls

When doing this little exercise, avoid the trap of generalization. Just because you might be lazy, when it comes to doing the dishes, does not make you a lazy person. You might invest a lot of energy into gardening, or cooking or your job.

Also, notice patterns of disqualifying all the evidence that speaks against your theory about who you are. For example, a childhood memory of you setting the dinner table might come up, and you brush it away thinking “That was just a one-time-thing. Usually, I was indeed lazy.”

 

Last, but not least: You can change!

If all the past and present evidence shows that you are a super lazy couch potato, but you want to change that: go ahead. Our character is not set in stone. Our brain stays flexible until old age.

That notion that “we develop our personality until we are 15 and then we are who we are” is completely incorrect. The brain can not form news neurons (except for in the hippocampus), but it constantly alters the connections between existing neurons. That way it stays adaptable – and so are you.

If you want to become a more energetic and active person, do it! Start by changing how you describe yourself. When you catch your inner voice talking about how lazy and always tired you are, talk back to it. Remind yourself of examples, when you are full of energy. Soon you won’t just become more active, but your self-esteem will increase drastically, when you start cutting out all the negative and inaccurate descriptors. Don’t let self-directed negativity hold you back!

 

© Rebecca Böhme & Andrew Wold, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Photos by Cody Davis and ian dooley on Unsplash 

 

 

Breathing against Anxiety

 

I get overly anxious sometimes. It can be for the silliest reasons. It can be enough that I had a long day at work and I am alone at home at night. My stress-levels are already higher, because there are multiple deadlines coming up at work – and that in the last two weeks before Christmas… High stress puts my brain on alert.

That makes sense: if we are stressed, that means, or at least meant back when we lived in the Savannah, that something unusual is going on. We were stressed in unknown territories or during a hunt. Our brains needed to be especially alert in order to detect the smallest hint for danger. When we are in such a vigilant state, we see more and we hear more. Small things seem a lot more important to us: that shadow could be the tail of a tiger or the sound could be a lion sneaking up upon us.

Highly vigilant for tiger-tails
However, we don’t live in the Savannah anymore. In our modern world, when I come home from a stressful day at work, it is not always easy to relax. I am alone at home, it is already dark. I live out in the country, the wind is blowing leaves around and small branches hit the house. My brain is still on the lookout for tiger-tails, and the shadows of the leaves in front of my window make me jump. I know that I am safe, but still, I feel nervous. I try to calm myself down by drinking hot tea on the couch, but I keep hearing strange sounds. It is quite a stormy day, and all this starts to make me anxious. Not that I don’t know, that the probability for any real danger is extremely low. But rational reasoning doesn’t impress my highly alert brain. That is the reason, why I feel anxious: I feel, as if I have to be vigilant and cautions, but there is no good reason for it. My intuition does not fit the actual situation I am in. That is what we call anxiety.

If rational reasoning does not help, what can we do to get our brains out of this highly vigilant state? The alertness is based on very old and very basic structures in our brain. The best way to influence these old instinctual parts of our brains is by using very basic techniques. The early-human-half-monkey in us does not care about the low probabilities of people being eaten by tigers in their homes. Therefore, instead of statistics, we should try to influence our physiology. Our brain does not only control our body, our body can in turn also influence our brain.

So, what can we do?
We can try to calm our brain down using a simple technique: if we pretend, we aren’t stressed, and everything is fine, then the brain will react and reduce its hypervigilance as well. How to do that? Simply change your breathing pattern! Take a deep breath in, pause, slowly breathe out, pause, repeat. You will feel calmer within a few breaths already.

There is actual, scientific proof for this effect.
Several studies were able to show that controlled, slow breathing can reduce anxiety. Scientist even have a reasonable explanation of the underlying process: A small group of neurons in the brainstem controls our breathing rhythm. Some of these neurons are connected with other neurons responsible for alertness, attention and stress (in the so-called locus coeruleus), and they can interact both ways. The locus coeruleus is in turn connected to the amygdala, an area well known to be involved in the processing of emotions and especially fear.
If this small group of neurons in the breathing-pacemaker area, which can talk to the alertness-region, is rendered inactive in mice, the animals become extraordinarily chill.
So, if you breathe slowly, these neurons in the brainstem will tell other areas in the brain, that everything is fine, that you are calm and your feelings of anxiety will decrease.

Influencing anxiety and stress via breathing techniques might seem very basic. Bear in mind, though, that this is the only autonomic function in our body that we can modulate voluntarily. And who’s to say that a simple technique is a bad technique? If you can learn to reduce your own stress and anxiety simply by controlling your breathing, wouldn’t that be wonderful? We suggest, you give it a try.

Next time, you feel anxiety bubbling up, do this:
Breathe deeply into your belly, while slowly counting to four. Then hold your breath, again counting to four. Slowly breathe out, counting to four. Hold your breath for another four seconds. Repeat this 4-by-4 breathing cycle ten times, afterwards note how the state of your body and mind have changed. If it is hard for you to stick to the four seconds intervals, keep practicing during times, when you feel fine. It well get easier and prepare you to use this technique in situations, where you feel anxious.

 

 

Some scientific background literature:

Yackle, K., Schwarz, L. A., Kam, K., Sorokin, J. M., Huguenard, J. R., Feldman, J. L., … & Krasnow, M. A. (2017). Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice. Science, 355(6332), 1411-1415.
Nardi, A. E., Freire, R. C., & Zin, W. A. (2009). Panic disorder and control of breathing. Respiratory physiology & neurobiology, 167(1), 133-143.
Brown, R. P., & Gerbarg, P. L. (2009). Yoga breathing, meditation, and longevity. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172(1), 54-62.

 

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

© Rebecca Böhme & Andrew Wold, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.