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

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 

 

Exercise for your body and mind

Most of us should exercise more, and most of us know that. More exercise would be good for our health – but also improves our mental health dramatically.

The general recommendation is that we should exercise for 150 min per week. That’s not so bad – sounds like with half an hour a day, we might be fine. We can even break this up into 10 minute intervals and still get the same benefits. Kids and teens should move more, for them the recommendation is 60 minutes of intensive aerobic a day, at least 3 times a week.

 

Are you an active couch potato?

However, if we work out for half an hour per day and then sit for the rest of it, the benefits of the exercise does not outweigh the negative effects of the sitting. On average, adults only exercise 1 % of their day and sit for more than 8 hours! Unfortunately, the adverse health effects of sedentary behavior is independent of leisure time exercise. Only if you exercise more than 1 hour a day, and that means a moderate to intense work out – not just going for a walk – only then can you counteract the increased mortality rates due to chronic sitting. So, other physical activity is needed in addition to the planned training session at the gym during your lunch break.

Now, what are these adverse health effects of sitting? Most of us know that too much inactivity has negative consequences for the cardiovascular system; many have probably heard that also the risk for other diseases like cancer may be reduced by working out more. Lesser known is the relationship between sitting around too much and mental health problems.

 

Too much sitting can make you feel depressed

The risk for depression is increased by 15% for people who don’t move enough. This in turn relates back to increased mortality rates: people with depression die 8-10 years earlier (which is mostly due to somatic comorbidities). Of course, this is a catch-22: when you feel depressed, it is especially hard for you to motivate to work out.

One study was even able to show, that there is a causal link between sitting too much and depression: participants in this study were asked to sit for just additional 30 minutes per day – and these people showed an increase in their negative mood as well as greater stress induced inflammation.

The threshold for too much sitting seems to lie somewhere around the 6 hours per day. People who work eight-hour jobs might run into problems. Maybe you can ask for a standing desk or get yourself a yoga ball to sit on. It is also highly recommended to break up long periods of sitting. Take extra walks to the coffee room, the bathroom or the copy machine.

Exercise can even prevent future depression, as some prospective studies were able to show. One of them even claims that 12% of future episodes of depression are preventable with only 1 hour exercise per week!

One recent meta analysis  showed that exercise was as effective as psychological therapy and pharmacological treatment! The intensity of the work out didn’t matter, but the frequency did. Aerobic and resistance training both seem to be effective; the best results were found for a combination of both kinds of workouts.

If you feel motivated to start working out more after reading this blog post, take your training level into account. Don’t jump into a highly strenuous exercise program right away, because it will be a lot harder for you to stick with it. If you feel a lot of pain right after you worked out, you will start connecting exercise with feeling bad. Therefore, it will be harder and harder for you to get going again. If you start with a very light work out and increase it slowly, you can condition yourself to connect exercise with feeling good afterwards.

Whatever you choose to do, if you lift weights, run, do Yoga or even just go for brisk walk – as long as you get moving, you will feel happier!

Scientific literature:

Zhai, L., Zhang, Y., & Zhang, D. (2015). Sedentary behaviour and the risk of depression: a meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med, 49(11), 705-709.

Endrighi, R., Steptoe, A., & Hamer, M. (2016). The effect of experimentally induced sedentariness on mood and psychobiological responses to mental stress. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 208(3), 245-251.

Schuch, F., Vancampfort, D., Firth, J., Rosenbaum, S., Ward, P., Reichert, T., … & Stubbs, B. (2017). Physical activity and sedentary behavior in people with major depressive disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of affective disorders, 210, 139-150.

Mammen, G., & Faulkner, G. (2013). Physical activity and the prevention of depression: a systematic review of prospective studies. American journal of preventive medicine, 45(5), 649-657.

Bjerkeset, O., Romundstad, P., Evans, J., & Gunnell, D. (2007). Association of adult body mass index and height with anxiety, depression, and suicide in the general population: the HUNT study. American journal of epidemiology, 167(2), 193-202.

Phillips, A. C., Hunt, K., Der, G., & Carroll, D. (2011). Blunted cardiac reactions to acute psychological stress predict symptoms of depression five years later: evidence from a large community study. Psychophysiology, 48(1), 142-148.

Wen, C. P., Wai, J. P. M., Tsai, M. K., Yang, Y. C., Cheng, T. Y. D., Lee, M. C., … & Wu, X. (2011). Minimum amount of physical activity for reduced mortality and extended life expectancy: a prospective cohort study. The Lancet, 378(9798), 1244-1253.

Brown, H. E., Pearson, N., Braithwaite, R. E., Brown, W. J., & Biddle, S. J. (2013). Physical activity interventions and depression in children and adolescents. Sports medicine, 43(3), 195-206.

Cooney, G., Dwan, K., & Mead, G. (2014). Exercise for depression. Jama, 311(23), 2432-2433.

O’Connor, P. J., Herring, M. P., & Caravalho, A. (2010). Mental health benefits of strength training in adults. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 4(5), 377-396.

 

Photos by Jason Briscoe and Alex wong 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 

 

 

Rethink stress, live longer!

 How many of you have been experiencing heavy loads of stress? Even if you’ve experienced moderate stress, how bogged down and irritated are you that you’ve had to endure all that horrid stress? Many of us believe that stress is inherently bad, and something to be reduced to the absolute minimum, but rethinking stress could be a life saver.

We have all heard of strategies to reduce stress, go for a walk or get some kind of exercise, take a moment to breathe, talk to someone; which are all great pieces of advice. These strategies attempt to deal with stress, but even better is to reappraise stress entirely. That means rethink stress, not as a useless burden, but as a positive function. From now on believe that stress is a healthy service that your body provides to help you achieve and perform your very best.

It’s true that prolonged stressful experiences can lead to negative health outcomes, but if we perceive stress as harmless, or better yet a positive motivator, we can protect ourselves from an increased risk of premature death. In a study of 28,753 US residents who completed a survey asking about their experiences of stress, perceptions of stress, and if they sought help for their stress, the following data was gathered:

After a 9 year follow up a total of 2,960 (10.3%) of the original participants had died. Taking into account experiencing moderate to heavy amounts of stress and a belief that stress impacts health resulted in an increased risk of premature death by 43%! The authors admit that this study cannot establish a causal link between stress perceptions and early death, but intuitively we can all imagine the torturous grind of believing stress is negatively affecting you combined with heavy to moderate life stress. Believing something like stress is bad for you – and heavily engaging in it – is, in fact, terrible for you.

Are you at all surprised about how many people experienced moderate to heavy amounts of stress? Where do you find yourself on this questionnaire, especially when it comes to your perception of stress? I personally find it striking that many people don’t choose to take action to control stress. We can do that for ourselves now by remembering the push our body gives in response to a stressful situation is there to lift us up, not hold us down. The next time you feel that strong pulse and increased consumption of energy, know that that is your body saying “challenge accepted”.

Scientific Literature:

Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677.

 

© 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.

Photo by Emma Simpson 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.

Getting to know yourself and your signs of stress: why it is so important

In our previous post, we wrote about signs of exhaustion and how to notice when you are becoming too stressed. Today, we want to motivate you to actually take care of your mental health. It is not enough to just notice that you are feeling stressed. We often know that we are stressed, too stressed even. Still, we ignore the signals that we are getting exhausted.

We often simply shrug our shoulders, tell ourselves to get over it and that it will get better soon. There is a reason for this: working hard is valued highly in our society and success in life is equated to success at work. It is not just society and its peer pressure that makes us work hard and ignore stress symptoms. For many of us, this happens because we like our work, because we feel responsible for our cause, patients, clients or students, because we want to make the world a better place. Many of us want to work hard – and on top of that we want to find time to spent with friends and family. Mixed up in this struggle we forget to take care of our psychological state.

So today, we want to remind you, how important it is to take signs of stress serious.

Not all stress has negative effects. Many of us enjoy a certain level of stress and even feel bored, if they don’t experience it. However, everybody profits from investing some time into reflecting on how much stress is good for him or her. Where the point of balance between good and bad stress lies will vary highly between individuals. To recognize this point will help you to prevent mental health problems.

Developing mental health problems, like depression or anxiety, can be driven by external events, for example experiencing traumatic life events. We have no influence over these things. For instance, a very common reason for the development of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms is the unexpected death of a loved one. Adverse events during childhood and the stress level of our mothers during pregnancy influence, how sensitive we are for negative and stressful events in our life. If you belong to a minority, you are also at higher risk for experiencing mental health issues due to stress. But even if you are highly sensitive too stress, you can do things to train your resilience. It’s better to begin in a phase of low stress, so that you are prepared for more difficult times.

There are many good reasons to take care of our mental health

Body and mind are not separate entities. So if you strive to be healthy and live a good life, include practices in your daily routines that stimulate and heal our mind. We go to the gym to stay fit and eat superfoods to stay healthy. We invest lots of time and money into our physical health. We can do the same thing for our mental health. The brain is like a muscle that can be trained! There is evidence from a variety of studies for this: regular practice of playing the piano will lead to an actual increase in size of areas that control the hand and finger movements. Regular practice of meditation changes connectivity patterns in the brain. Trained Yogis have more gray matter in the insula, an area involved in perceiving the state of our body. Training of present-moment focused attention increases gray matter in prefrontal regions, socio-affective training affects the insular cortex.

That everyone brings with them their individual package of genetic background and early life experiences does not mean, we can’t take action to influence our emotional states. Neuroscientific studies show that we can still form our brains – we can actually teach old dogs new tricks! We can accept that we all have our individual history – and instead of dwelling on it, take active steps towards becoming more resilient.

Follow our blog to get inspiration on how to train resilience!

 

Some scientific background literature:

Langner, T. S., & Michael, S. T. (1963). Life stress and mental health: II. The midtown Manhattan study.

Van den Bergh, B. R., van den Heuvel, M. I., Lahti, M., Braeken, M., de Rooij, S. R., Entringer, S., … & Schwab, M. (2017). Prenatal developmental origins of behavior and mental health: The influence of maternal stress in pregnancy. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews

Valk, S. L., Bernhardt, B. C., Trautwein, F. M., Böckler, A., Kanske, P., Guizard, N., … & Singer, T. (2017). Structural plasticity of the social brain: Differential change after socio-affective and cognitive mental training. Science Advances3(10), e1700489.

 

Photo by Riccardo Annandale 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.

How much stress is too much stress?

We all get stressed, all the time. It is impossible not to, and that is just fine. What we call stress is usually the feeling that there is a lot going on. We need that feeling of stress to get in the right mindset to get stuff done. There is also the notion of positive stress: a certain level of stress can be beneficial for us. We need challenges, we need to get out of our comfort zones. Our bodies are made for a certain level of stress, not to just hang out and be completely calm and relaxed.

So how should you know if the stress you are experiencing is too much? Where is the point when positive stress turns into something negative, something harmful?

There are actually many signs that you should watch out for and these should signal you to start taking it easier. Take these signs seriously, because too much stress will lead to exhaustion and eventually to burn out, depression or another form of harm to your health.

 

Signs to watch out for

Memory problems

If we experience too much stress for an extended period of time, this negatively affects our cognitive abilities: it is harder to concentrate, memory recall is reduced, and we experience overall reduced cognitive processing. In the beginning we might just forget things that are not very important, but high stress levels over a long time period will also affect our memory for important things like appointments or promises we made or even names of people we know well.

Stress hormones affect the Hippocampus, a sensitive brain area that is necessary for retrieving memories and for building new ones. People with damage to the Hippocampus, for example after a stroke, are sometimes completely unable to learn and remember something new. Chronic stress alters the brain’s ability to adapt to new information. This can result in an actual decrease of hippocampal volume. Such structural changes are associated with impaired memory. Roughly said our brain encodes new memories by making new connection between neurons. But the neurons in the Hippocampus of stressed individuals have less connections with each other and less new neurons are being produced – which is the reason for memory problems in times of stress. 

 

Slower recovery

Another clear indicator is that we feel exhausted faster than we used to. This is true for physical as well as mental activities. We might also notice that it is harder to recover from physical and mental efforts. We need more or longer breaks, or might even feel like we simply can not fill up our batteries, no matter how long we are resting. This might in part be due to reduced sleep quality, which is another symptom of stress.

 

Mood changes

Of course prolonged periods of stress will also affect our mood. We become more easily irritated and angry. Noticing our lower energy level further affects the mood, because we might feel guilty or weak, when we can’t get as much done as usual. Normal requests from co-workers, friends or our partner suddenly feel demanding. Social interactions might become overwhelming and we begin to avoid social gatherings.

 

Hypersensitivity

Another less intuitive consequence of stress can be a heightened sensitivity to noise, light or other sensory impressions. We might experience loud music as more disturbing or bright light as very unpleasant. This could be another, maybe even unconscious reason for us to withdraw from social situations and interactions.

 

When to act

Did any of the above symptoms resonate with you? If so, interpret these behaviors as signals and don’t ignore them – instead, react to them.

We are well equipped to handle some stress, even if you experience these signs in a more extreme form, you can still recover in time. It is normal to fluctuate through periods of high and low stress. Most of the time, we can regulate ourselves and get back on track. Unfortunately, after many ups and downs, and particularly when our coping strategies are unhealthy, we become vulnerable to a dangerous downward spiral. At some point our body and mind can not return to our previous healthy baseline. More stress will pile on leading to exhaustion, burn out and depression. Therefore it is always good to stay vigilant and detect symptoms of exhaustion. If you react early enough, you will still have the energy to make the necessary changes. If you wait too long, your recovery will take longer and you might not be able to manage on your own.

So give yourself some time to reflect on how you have dealt with stress in the past and try to evaluate, if you show any of the signs mentioned above. Master your own signs, and make sure these signals translate into taking action.

Not good at feeling your own mental states? Many are not, and it’s a skill that requires practice. Our advice is to ask friends, family or your partner. Often they can see your behavioral changes more objectively than you can. If they say your are irritable or angry, take a moment to evaluate the claim (this is difficult, but you have to assess the information you get, and taking even a moment makes all the difference).

If you notice that you suffer from too much stress, try to find the big source(s) of stress in your life, and try to recognize their effects to reduce their potential impact. If you know what helps you reduce stress, take active steps to implement that activity (e.g. exercise).

Also, keep reading our blog for more tips on a positive mindset and simple ways for reducing stress ;).

 

 

Photos by nikko macaspac and Haley Phelps  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.