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

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.