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.

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A key to happiness: human connection

Humans are animals that live in groups. Back in the Savannah our survival depended on trusting our fellow humans and on being part of a flock. Nowadays, we have turned to an individualistic lifestyle. We avoid responsibilities and close connections, we often prefer independence, which we mistake for freedom. In part, the more individualistic lifestyle can support our well-being: it becomes easier to live a life that feels authentic and to experience being in control. Autonomy and authenticity are known to improve our well-being.

 

Being connected in times of globalization

However, our human flocks have become increasingly small. Our friends are part of our social network, but often live in different parts of the country or even the world. The same is true for our extended families, many of us have moved away from their hometown, away from parents and siblings. While we experience the endless possibilities in a globalized world mostly as opportunity, we sacrifice our close connections. As two global citizens, we too have moved away from family and friends, even from our home countries. It is nearly impossible and, when possible, takes a long time to establish new connections that carry the same weight as those of childhood friendships or family. The smallest stable unit is now our little family of four – quite a different situation compared to the nomadic group life our ancestors found themselves. 

 

Different types of connection

We don’t lose contact to friends and family, when we move. Quite the opposite has happened, we are in a highly frequent contact, sending messages, pictures and talking on the phone. However, digital contact is no substitute for real interpersonal contact. Human connection is an experience of being together of touching each other, of smelling each other, of hearing all the undertones in someone’s voice, which convey a lot more information than just reading the words and possibly seeing an emoji next to it. We also choose distant connections over people who live locally. This has the advantage of helping us feel connected to the people who are most similar to us, but makes us feel isolated in our living space. The less connected you feel to your neighbors, the less you trust them, and the more likely you are to become isolated in your living space.

 

Human connection in the digital age

We need that human connection for our well-being. I want to go so far to say that the freedom we gained is not worth the loss of being connected. We don’t need to give up that freedom of choosing our family, of choosing our flock and finding people who accept us in our individual ways. But we do need the close social interpersonal contact. New research shows that teenagers growing up in a digital world with social media and smartphones are actually less independent, and subsequently more depressed than previous generations. Messaging cannot replace simply spending time with our fellow humans.

While the endless opportunity of partners and friends often keeps us in a stage of indecisiveness, and we strive to keep our independence, we forget that social closeness is something inherent to the human condition.

Many studies show how important close interpersonal contact is. We feel better when we touch each other, when we spend time with each other, when we feel accepted and appreciated by friends, colleagues and family. Connectedness is a key ingredient to being happy. Let’s establish a new Zeitgeist, let’s base it on shared trust and support. Get close, open yourself up to others, tell them your sorrows and share your happiness.

 

Scientific literature:

Wenninger, H., Krasnova, H. & Buxmann, P. Activity matters: Investigating the influence of Facebook on life satisfaction of teenage users.  (2014).

Lemola, S., Perkinson-Gloor, N., Brand, S., Dewald-Kaufmann, J. F. & Grob, A. Adolescents’ electronic media use at night, sleep disturbance, and depressive symptoms in the smartphone age. Journal of youth and adolescence 44, 405-418 (2015).

Davey, C. G., Allen, N. B., Harrison, B. J., Dwyer, D. B. & Yücel, M. Being liked activates primary reward and midline self‐related brain regions. Human brain mapping 31, 660-668 (2010).

 

© 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 Jacob Ufkes 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.

 

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.

Why do you need the LifeSmyles method?

Do you often feel stressed? Do you feel exhausted after a long day at work? Does it seem like you can’t find time to take care of yourself?

When we experience periods of stress in our life, we are at risk of developing a depression, burn-out or an exhaustion syndrome. You need to engage in positive change, before it gets there. With Lifesmyles we want to share our experience and knowledge on how to avoid getting caught in this downwards spiral of stress and depression.

 

What does LifeSmyles offer?

A simple system that can be integrated into everyday life. You make a commitment. Not the kind that puts hefty pressure on yourself to change your whole life; no, that would just be another source of stress. We don’t want you to feel bad because you missed a workout or you ate junk food, or spent your evening watching shows you don’t even like. Instead, we want to show you how and when to implement new habits. You can decide yourself if you want to take small steps and implement just a few of our techniques in your life or take a big step to evoke greater change.

Our method is based on scientific findings on individual well-being. We want to show you many little pieces to the puzzle of a happier, calmer and more relaxed lifestyle. You can work them into your daily routines and into your mindset. By the way, let’s not focus on being “happy”. Our brains can not maintain a constant level of highly enthusiastic feelings of happiness. After a high phase you are at risk for hitting a low phase. It is better to strive for feeling content and balanced and to include and accept feeling sad every once in a while. We can help you with the details, and hopefully have some smiles along the way.

 

Who is behind this project?

LifeSmyles is being developed by two scientists, Dr. Rebecca Böhme and Dr. Andrew Wold. We both have an extensive interdisciplinary background in biology, psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience. Our system is shaped by our journey as parents, world travelers, as a couple in the best and more difficult times, and as individuals who have experienced crises. Our methods synthesizes modern research with our own experiences. We want to incorporate our knowledge with you, to help formulate an easy-to-follow method that can increase a feeling of balance, lower stress and reactivity, and to develop positive and meaningful experiences.

 

How can I participate in the LifeSmyles method? 

You can always follow our blog posts, our instagram and facebook account. The most important step is to decide that you want positive change in your life. You don’t need to reconstruct your whole life, but take the first step, a small commitment that can lead to something more fulfilling. You yourself decide when and even if you want to take small steps. Perhaps you only want to implement some of our techniques, great. Perhaps you want to incorporate all our lessons, fantastic! Doing so will allow yourself to evoke greater change.

Try to engage friends, family or your partner to take steps towards this goal together. It is always easier to develop new habits in a group or with an emotionally close person. Motivate each other.

We will soon offer subscriptions to our videos introducing you to our method. We will also offer seminars, where you can take a deeper dive into our method.

 

Welcome to LifeSmyles!

 

 

Top photo by Allef Vinicius 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.