Topic: MIND

Resiliency Is a Philosophy: A Life Span Approach

Every time I type the word “resiliency,” spellcheck seems to prefer the word “resilience.” It made me question whether or not the word “resiliency” exists. When I searched the definition for “resiliency”, it redirected me to the definition of “resilience.” Is there a difference between the words? According to Oxford’s definition, “resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” 

What then is resiliency? I am not a linguist, but I would submit that resiliency is the practice of being resilient. Resiliency is a philosophy that believes in embracing difficulties and seeing them as opportunities for growth. Resiliency does not submit to fear. 

Resiliency is practiced by getting up every time you are knocked down. The practice of resiliency is clearly on display by the people of Ukraine, as they are being attacked by a supposedly more formidable opponent. They refuse to give up. When the United States offered President Volodymyr Zelenskyy an opportunity to escape via helicopter, he stated, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Zelenskyy’s acts of resiliency are infectious and admired, as videos of Ukrainian citizens standing in front of Russian tanks or taking up arms to defend their country has gone viral. 

By all reports, Putin has underestimated the resiliency of the Ukrainian people. Historically, Ukraine has struggled for independence. They have been occupied by several countries including Nazi Germany and Russia. Their people have faced repeated attempts of extermination. On January 21, 1990, over 300,000 Ukrainians organized a human chain for Ukrainian independence between Kyiv and Lviv. Ukraine’s dream of independence became a reality on August 24, 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union. By practicing resiliency in the face of prior adversity, the Ukrainians are well prepared for what they are currently facing. 

How do the lessons of the Ukrainians apply to practicing resiliency within a child’s development? I am reminded of Dr. Rabbi Abraham Twerski’s story of the resilient lobster. While Dr. Twerski was waiting at the dentist’s office, he read an article about how the lobster gets a new shell. As the lobster grows, it experiences pressure and discomfort, confined by its shell, Dr. Twerski tells us. “So it goes under a rock, casts off its shell, and produces a new one.”

“The stimulus for the lobster to be able to grow is to feel uncomfortable,” Dr. Twerski points out, adding that, “if lobsters were able to go to a doctor, they would be given a Valium or Percocet and never grow.” 

Research supports Dr. Twerski’s lobster’s story of resilience. A recent study found that, contrary to the researcher’s expected findings, the more intimately exposed you were to Covid-19, the more resilient you were.

Resiliency is in our DNA. On average the male produces 100 million sperm to fertilize one egg. Of the 100 million sperm, only one survives and fertilizes the egg. Fertilization is an example of resiliency. 

If resiliency is in our DNA, then why do we have so much difficulty coping with stress? Once the fetus is formed, it becomes dependent on the mother for its nutrition via the umbilical cord. After the child is born and the umbilical cord is detached, the opportunity for the practice of resiliency becomes real. 

The child’s ability to practice resiliency is often thwarted by the best parental intentions. No parent likes to see their child suffer. The paternal impulse is to protect the child from the bully, the mean teacher, and the missing homework. However, when a parent shields a child from the natural consequences of his actions, he could be undermining his opportunity to experience some discomfort and shed his shell. 

I am not suggesting placing a 6-month-old child in the middle of traffic. To cultivate resiliency it is necessary to take a developmental approach. A scaffold is a temporary support structure that is surrounded by the construction of a building. This metaphor has been used in early education but is applicable in raising a resilient child. As a child matures, he is faced with new obstacles. Depending on his level of development, he has the necessities to face certain stressors. The scaffolding provides the necessary support. The scaffold eventually goes away and the child should be able to stand on his own.

A parent’s role is to provide a child with the necessary skill set to face his difficulties and not escape them. President Zelenskyy did not want a helicopter to escape, he wanted the support necessary to face his enemy. That is the philosophy of resiliency.

Which Well-Being Approaches Work Best?

So, it’s not surprising to see more and more workplaces appointing chief well-being officers to build a culture of health across their organizations. But what are the best approaches when it comes to caring for workplace well-being?

“With so many well-being theories and concepts available, it can be difficult to decipher which we should choose in any given setting,” explained Dr. Scott Donaldson, a senior researcher in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, when we interviewed him recently. “Our meta-analysis of 20 years of research found that multidimensional well-being theories demonstrated the strongest relationship with improving desirable work outcomes like well-being and engagement and lowering undesirable work outcomes like turnover intentions and stress.”

For example, one of the most popular multidimensional well-being theories studied was Dr. Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory of well-being, which suggests that there are five factors related to well-being: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Scott and his colleagues found that drawing upon theories and measurement tools like this can be helpful when developing well-being strategies in organizations as they provide evidence-based guideposts on how to measure and care for our well-being, in contrast to single well-being interventions like mindfulness or gratitude.

Scott and his colleagues also found that the delivery method of workplace well-being support can have an impact on workers’ outcomes. For example, when trying to improve well-being, group settings had the greatest impact. However, when trying to mitigate negative outcomes, individual and group coaching sessions appeared to be more effective at achieving the desired goal, perhaps due to their higher levels of psychological safety.

What might this all mean practically for your workplace well-being approach?

Scott recommends that we:

  • Choose a multidimensional well-being approach. Multidimensional theories like PERMA, Psychological Capital, and Strengths are more likely to have a significant impact on workplace outcomes. Multidimensional well-being approaches provide more freedom and flexibility for people and teams to focus on the well-being approaches that serve them best based on their needs, hopes, and resources. Which multidimensional well-being approach might serve your people best?
  • Be mindful of the best mode of delivery. When it comes to improving engagement and well-being at work, large group settings appear to be the most effective mode. However, when it comes to reducing turnover and stress, individual coaching appears to be more effective. Issues that are more sensitive—like navigating stress—may be difficult for people to discuss in more open forums. Based on the levels of psychological safety your workplace changes may require, consider what will be the best mode of delivery.
  • Invest in measurement. To confidently demonstrate the value of your well-being approaches and know when you need to continue experimenting because you’re not where you want to be yet, measurement of your workplace well-being efforts is essential. Look for validated tools and scales to help you reliably assess the impact you are having.

How are you supporting well-being in your workplace?

Letting Go of Being “Right” Can Allow You to Enjoy Other People More

In full disclosure, I admit that over the years, I’ve experienced a lot of my own all-or-none thinking. Even nowadays, this judgmental “rightness of view” raises its ugly head. Maybe this form of thought will never really leave, but at least I’ve learned to recognize and step back from it a little bit, instead of it becoming fused with my identity.

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) all-or-none thinking is considered a “thinking style” or “thinking error” that leads to cognitive distortions. Let me provide a couple examples of how all-or-none thinking can act like a bully that pushes you around (not to mention others).

I once worked with a client whose all-or-none thinking style made it difficult for him to be around others. His mind would tell him in no uncertain terms, “I’ll always be stuck in this job,” and, “there’s no way I can pass the training needed for a promotion.” He even had body-related thoughts, such as, “I’ll never lose this weight and get in shape.”

As a result, he avoided situations where he felt he would not measure up. Other than going to work, he avoided being around people because he feared being criticized.

Over time, this person’s world shrunk and he rarely went outside because his all-or-none thinking bullied him into thinking that he wasn’t good enough. He ended up ruminating on these thoughts and getting depressed and anxious as a result. Since he avoided going to the trainings necessary for getting promoted, his thinking style became a self-fulfilling prophecy that held him back. 

Mindfulness Produces Diversity of Thinking

Mindfulness is a tool for recognizing thoughts, and in this way, helps us notice them in a more objective way. This means we can get curious about those thinking styles instead of buying into them. This shifts our relationship to the thought and even the emotion that the thought elicits. 

A recent literature review published in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity described how mindfulness supports creativity and in educational settings “can benefit learning, creativity, and wellbeing.” The article also explores how mindfulness promotes a deliberate, or intentional, state of mind that promotes openness of thought. 

Openness of thought is almost the opposite of a fixed all-or-none thinking style. Keep in mind that all-or-none thinking might be steeped in a protective belief system, or schema. In other words, having a fixed ideology or belief may seem to protect one against the barrage of information and belief systems that we would otherwise need to consider.

With the rise of so much competing (and divisive) information on almost every topic—COVID is a good example—having a singular point of view might seem easier. But keep in mind that a singular view may be a major distortion and unhelpful. And if you stick to it, those who are stuck on the other side will seem less relatable, to say the least!

Is it really worth bullying yourself and others with all-or-none thinking? If you find that your viewpoints have others running for the exits, consider the advantages of diverse thinking. Being right might feel good, but it’s not necessarily the right thing to do. Or at least not the best option. 

3-Part Mindfulness Practice to Counter All-or-None Thinking

As with any skill, exercise, or practice, you want to start by taking small steps. You can’t run a marathon without doing a lot of training. So, to begin, pick out one of the all-or-none thoughts that dog you, that follow you around and rattle incessantly in your head. Usually, these thoughts have words like “always” or “never” attached to them. Those are clues that these are one-sided thoughts. 

  1. Do an experiment and see how many times you can notice this all-or-none thought throughout the day. You’re not trying to change anything here. You’re just trying to practice observing the thought. Do this noticing practice for a week, writing down the number of times that you caught your all-or-none thought. 
  2. For the next week, you can continue to notice the thought, but now, whenever you hear it, mentally say to yourself, “This is just a thought, it’s not who I am. It’s not a fact.” By doing this, you’re separating yourself ever so slightly from the thinking style.
  3. For the third week, you can write down a statement that is not so all-or-none that is more honest and truthful. Is there evidence, for example, that refutes your all-or-none statement? Surely, you have sometimes succeeded or followed through on something that invalidates the all-or-none thinking style.

If your thinking style is judging others in a harsh all-or-none way, look for evidence that helps you recognize that others are just people with frailties and worries who are trying their best to make their way in a challenging world! We’re all pretty much the same in that regard. See if you can soften your all-or-none statement.

3 Simple Strategies to Boost Your Brain Health Today

There’s just no way around it: our brain health is about the most valuable thing we own. When our brains are unhealthy, we can’t think straight. Our mental health is poor. We simply can’t enjoy life as well. With this in mind, finding ways to prioritize brain health every day is vital. So what are some of the most scientifically sound, easy ways to make sure you’re helping care for your brain? Here are three of the best:

1. Prioritize Good Sleep

Why it’s key: You’ve probably heard people diminish the importance of sleep by saying things like, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” But if you don’t prioritize sleep, you’re doing your body and especially your brain a great disservice. Pick just about any disease and you’ll find that it’s more prevalent or more severe in people who don’t get good sleep. For example, we now know that people with Alzheimer’s tend to have issues sleeping. Poor sleep may also increase the risk of developing dementia. When it comes to mental health, these same trends hold. Sleep issues are very common in people with mental health issues, and are also thought to increase one’s risk for developing these conditions. 

Tips for better sleep: Many are seeking quick fixes for sleep issues, especially insomnia. But while some people may benefit from short-term use of drugs, there are mounting concerns about the side effects and efficacy of prescription sleep aids. To this end, finding non-pharmaceutical methods of promoting healthy sleep are likely a better long-term solution for most people. Simple strategies to facilitate better sleep include winding down with a regular routine that minimizes blue light/screen exposure in the hours before bed. Also, consider sleeping with your room a bit cooler, as this may promote better sleep. Try cutting out caffeine after 2 p.m. (or earlier) and consider avoiding alcohol before bed, as this throws off sleep quality. Lastly, consider speaking to your physician about an evaluation for sleep apnea, especially if you are male, overweight, or someone who snores. Sleep apnea is a very common condition that majorly compromises sleep quality and is often missed. 

2. Move Your Body

Why it’s key: Study after study shows that regular exercise is linked to better brain health. People who move more tend to think better and have better mental health. In fact, a recent review in JAMA showed that exercise may act as an antidepressant. So why is exercise such a brain booster? It may lower inflammation (which damages brain function), increase molecules like BDNF (which promotes healthier brain function and growth of new brain cells), and it does great things for our blood sugar (higher blood sugar may damage brain health).

Tips for physical activity: You don’t need to train for a marathon or become a professional athlete to get the brain benefits of exercise. This is all about sustainability, and if you hate or get injured when you’re exercising, it’s unlikely you’ll stick to it. Instead, look for ways to make physical activity enjoyable. A walk with a friend, some yoga, lifting some weights, or going for a swim—it’s all great stuff. The best exercise is the one you enjoy because it’s what you’re most likely to keep doing. So, find something you can look forward to. 

3. Clean Up Your Diet

Why it’s key: The foods you eat are the literal building blocks for your brain. Food is also what turns into neurotransmitters. Your diet significantly influences your immune and endocrine (hormone) systems that play key roles in your brain health. Food is also one of the best opportunities we have to influence our health on a day-to-day basis because we absolutely have to eat, but we get to choose whether that food is a vote for a healthier or a less healthy brain.

The Inner Critic: Loving Yourself With Curiosity

Loving ourselves: It is so much easier said than done, isn’t it? Yet it is so necessary for our healing and wellness. When we emotionally beat ourselves up for feeling down, we will only continue to feel down. So how do we go about changing that narrative? I believe it’s about greeting the inner critic with curiosity.

Most people might suggest ignoring the inner critic or attempting to get rid of it altogether, but in my experience that has not been successful. The inner critic is often the internalized voice of someone else and over time the brain has held on to the messages and has carried those messages with us. Our job is to learn how to not only turn down the volume but also to gather data on what it might be trying to protect you from. Protection, you might ask? Yes, protection. The inner critic may be attempting to keep you out of feeling raw, vulnerable, and uncomfortable, and so it may grasp on to criticism and perfectionism to keep you from feeling that way. But here is what we know: Discomfort is where change most often happens, so maybe, just maybe, that inner critic is actually working hard at preventing change. Learn to work with it and you may grow in ways you never dreamed of.

Perhaps taking steps towards a more loving inner monologue may shift the power of your inner critic.

Practicing daily affirmations, reading and listening to inspiring podcasts, writing yourself a loving and kind note or greeting card, engaging in self-care activities, taking time to practice breathing exercises, engaging in gentle movement with your body such as stretching or yoga, exploring a new hobby or revisiting one you used to love, or taking time to create art or journal about your fears. These are all some ways to take good loving care of ourselves, especially when we are feeling down, defeated, or stuck.

If we simply sit and listen to the critic on repeat, we will feel powerless, defeated, unappreciated, and paralyzed. One small step towards shifting the inner dialogue and doing an activity to shift our thinking may just help us all get back to center and to appreciate the humans that we are versus the human the critic tells us that we are not.

Be kind and gentle with yourself, take one small step towards reframing your thinking, and stay curious.

Are We What We Eat? Nutritional Psychiatry and Brain Health

Many folks start their day with a cup (or two or three) of coffee and that’s about it. They try to make it to lunch, perhaps inhaling a muffin if they are really hungry. But our bodies and brains in these situations are starving for proper nutrition. Research from nutritional psychiatry suggests there is much we can do to improve upon this situation. Here are a few principles that you may find helpful.

1. While our brains are only 2% of our body weight, they consume 20% to 25% of our energy when we’re active (Wilson, 2022). Our brains need sustenance, and if not fed properly, they go hungry. Nutrition has powerful impacts on our health in general, and brain health, specifically. We need to feed it regularly and nutritiously to be our best.

2. What we eat is strongly connected to brain and mood health. It matters what we put in our bodies. Some foods are high in antioxidants and help our body to protect itself from free radicals and oxidative processes, thereby reducing inflammation. In contrast, some foods cause inflammation, which has been linked to incidence of cancer and also mood disorders like depression. Poor and irregular eating can lead to drops in blood sugar, irritability, and struggles with cognitive performance (Wilson, 2022). We can become easily stressed, anxious, and confused when our brains are not properly fed. What are some examples of foods we should be getting more of?

3. Eat more fish. Fatty fish, like cod, trout, Alaskan salmon, mackerel, and herring are highly recommended by nutritionists. Why? There are good kinds of fats and bad kinds of fats, and fatty fish are rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids that are essential fats (i.e., our bodies do not produce on their own). Omega-3s work to decrease inflammation and cut the risk of heart disease. They’re important for prenatal development in babies, too. At least two servings of these fatty fish per week are recommended by nutritionists and dieticians (Wilson, 2022). Because I really like all of these fish, I initially thought I must be doing well in consuming the recommended portions; a review of my eating habits in the past month revealed that I eat only about three portions a month. (By the way, avoid fish with high levels of mercury contamination, such as swordfish, king mackerel, shark, and tilefish). Baked and broiled fish are healthier than fried. Folks often find themselves eating burgers, steak, and tacos, but it’s a good idea to mix it up and have healthier options every week, as these foods are high in cholesterol and saturated fats, are highly inflammatory, and, eaten to excess, are terrible for your heart.

Does Alcohol Make You Feel Better?

I get it. I love the idea of a drink at the end of a long day, too. But does it really make us feel better? The answer is complicated.

There’s no question that alcohol is a large part of our society. In many cities, it feels like there’s a bar on every corner. And it’s a rare party, cookout, or get-together that doesn’t include wine or beer. Our society tends to normalize and even encourage alcohol, which makes it difficult to avoid.

Unfortunately, too many people don’t want to avoid it, which often leads to adverse mental and physical outcomes. Alcohol is classified as a depressant, which means it can cause or worsen depression, especially if used in excess. It can also exacerbate nearly every other psychiatric condition, as well as significantly increase your risk for cancer of multiple organs, heart disease, liver disease, dementia, insomnia, and a long list of other conditions. While these conditions can take time to develop, more immediately, most people don’t feel as well the day after a night of drinking, even if it was only a couple of drinks.

Why do we do it? 

A theory, which isn’t hard to accept, is that alcohol makes you more social, and humans need to be social to survive. It’s easier to build shelters, fend off predators, and raise our young when we work as a group. Being social also makes us happier, and helps us live longer. And alcohol is the ultimate social lubricant. After a drink or two, people tend to feel happier in the moment, conversation flows more readily, and connecting with others comes more easily. Alcohol helps us attain a necessary goal in life, both for the individual and for the community.

There is, of course, a large caveat. While a couple of drinks on a Saturday night with friends may boost your mood, there is a narrow therapeutic window. Drinking too much in one sitting or drinking too frequently can quickly convert the benefits of alcohol into a detriment. Daily use, especially more than two drinks per day, can lead to, or exacerbate, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and anger. As mood worsens under the effects of consistent alcohol use, regular drinkers no longer look towards alcohol for euphoria, but rather to relieve their suffering. This creates a downward spiral that doesn’t stop until the alcohol does. 

Context matters as well. Drinking in a social setting can increase feelings of closeness and positivity, as mentioned above. However, when drinking alone, the euphoria is more muted, or absent altogether. According to Dr. Kasey Creswell, an alcohol researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, ”Several studies have shown that drinking alone does not produce the same positive effects as drinking in social settings.” It’s just not as much fun to drink alone. Plus, there are no social benefits. 

But even if drinking with friends brings you happiness and joy, this comes at a price. The more you enjoy it, the higher your risk of slipping into alcoholism, and ultimately worsening your overall mood. “In some instances, the people who derive the greatest mood enhancement from alcohol, compared to if they were not drinking alcohol in the same situations, also may be those most vulnerable to subsequently developing a drinking problem,” warns Dr. Michael Sayette, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Power of Believing in Yourself

Years ago, right before starting on a big new project, I bought a framed note that spelled with golden letters: 

She believed she could so she did.

I didn’t know who she was and what she did, but somehow, the words offered encouragement for my own undertaking.

The contract that humans draft with their loftiest dreams is surprisingly straightforward. Yes, we need skills to accomplish our goals. Yes, we need effort, strategy, resources, creativity, character, and even luck. But before we set the world in motion, we need the blessing of an inner ally, who, whether with a coy wink or a full-blown orchestra, makes us believe that we can

This confidence in our abilities in specific life domains is known as self-efficacy. After studying self-efficacy for decades, psychologist James Maddux concluded that believing that we can accomplish what we want to accomplish is one of the most important ingredients for success. Indeed, countless research studies have shown that having high self-efficacy can help us pursue our goals, cope effectively with stress, engage in health-promoting behaviors, and have better psychological well-being. 

Why do our thoughts and convictions have such a consequential hold on us? Is it the courage they impart to dream in the first place? Is it the resolve they extend when we stumble? Or is it because when we believe in ourselves, we can “risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit,” as poet E.E. Cummings writes.

Here are 8 insights from Maddux on the key role self-efficacy plays in our lives. 

Self-efficacy can be more adaptive than self-confidence 

Traditionally, psychologists have defined and measured self-confidence as a global construct that is consistent over time and across situations. It’s almost like a personality trait that people tend to have to varying degrees. The trouble with thinking of ourselves in global terms, such as having high or low self-confidence, is that it’s very easy to mis-predict outcomes.

Research shows that when it comes to our ability to predict behavior, situation-specific measures (i.e., self-efficacy beliefs) outperform global measures such as self-confidence. Thus, if you are considering setting a new goal, you’ll be better off breaking down your general self-confidence into components and thinking about your abilities in various specific situations. This is particularly important for people with low self-confidence, which can often become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, in cognitive behavioral therapy, the client who complains of low self-confidence is invited to explore some areas in life where they actually do well. This exercise can help individuals think about their particular competencies in various situations that they feel good about and move away from self-defeating thinking patterns.

Self-efficacy is a key ingredient of self-regulation

Self-regulation refers to the way we guide our behaviors, thoughts, and emotions in the pursuit of our goals, desired outcomes, and values. It involves using our past experiences and knowledge about our skills as reference points to develop expectancies about future events and states. Consider self-regulation as a circular process where complex networks, factors, and predictions interact with each other and unfold over time.

Being a good self-regulator is an acquirable skill that includes learning how to generate better self-efficacy beliefs, setting and pursuing effective goals, incorporating feedback, and having adaptive self-evaluations of performance. Self-regulatory skills (as well as the belief that one is a good self-regulator) is fundamental for psychological well-being because they can usher a sense of agency over one’s life.

Self-efficacy is not wishful thinking or a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude

Self-efficacy is best viewed in terms of having confidence in your ability to apply your skills in particular situations. It is a much more nuanced concept than a blind belief of “I believe I can do it, and therefore I will succeed.” Notably, it entails having a clear understanding of your skills. Skills and beliefs about skills usually go hand-in-hand. This is why overconfidence without actual preparation (or lack of skills) can set people up for failure. 

Self-efficacy can help in challenging and uncertain times 

A powerful source of self-efficacy is actual performance—things you’ve done well in life. Often, when people encounter what appears to be a new problem, they see it as being entirely different from what they have experienced before. That’s rarely the case. Any challenge, if you live long enough, will have some similarity to other challenges you’ve faced and overcome before. If you stop and think about the ways in which a current challenge is similar to other challenges you successfully dealt with in the past, you can draw upon your experience and boost your sense of self-efficacy for managing this “unprecedented” circumstance. It can also attenuate the fear of uncertainty and of encountering something you have never encountered before.

8 Tips to Keep Your Mindfulness Practice Going

A new study has found that nearly 60 percent of people who subscribed to a popular meditation mobile app stopped using the app within a year. Mobile meditation apps are a helpful way to learn meditation and have been shown to reduce anxiety and stress. However, many people find that staying engaged with meditation and mindfulness apps can be challenging.

The study examined a random sample of 2600 new subscribers to the mobile app Calm in 2018. While 83 percent of people used the app at least one more day, by day 350, 58 percent of users had stopped using the app. For those who did continue to use the app, the average amount of meditation was about 4 minutes and about every 3 days. 

Creating a new habit can be challenging and the benefits of meditation are not always immediate. Our digital attention span has also become bite-sized bits of 8 seconds or less. Some marketing teams have shown that our ability to stay engaged has shrunk from 12 seconds in 2000 to a mere 8 seconds in 2013. It’s likely even less now. This has created an even greater need to improve our attention span through practices like mindfulness, and yet finding a way to integrate mindfulness into one’s daily life can feel daunting.

Here are eight tips to keep a daily mindfulness practice going.

1. Build a little at a time—even one minute a day.

Start with practicing mindfulness for as little as one to five minutes a day. Listen to what your body and mind need, and go at your own pace. If it feels like time is the limiting factor, make it convenient and short so that it does not feel burdensome. Simple breathing techniques like 4-7-8 breathing or audio-guided meditations found at websites like the Free Mindfulness Project or on streaming services are accessible throughout the day. 

2. Schedule a recurring time on the calendar for mindfulness.

Making time for your mindfulness practice starts with getting that time on the calendar. Scheduling the time is a helpful reminder and ensures the time for it exists—even if it is just five minutes—and lets others who have access to your calendar know that this is protected time. The key is to establish a regularity to the practice, so it feels like a natural part of your day. 

When should you schedule this time? Ask yourself about your natural rhythm of stress—this can help you find the right time to schedule your practice. If you wake up feeling anxious, it can be useful to schedule the time as a morning meditation. If you tend to have difficulty with winding down at night and feel stressed before bed, body scan meditations are useful as part of your nighttime routine.

Finding Peace in an Anxious World

The complexity of life is shifting faster, and no matter our age, these changes are easily seen. Yes, we can see examples with our parents and grandparents, and how things are different now as opposed to when they were growing up.

Changes are fast and often

Even now, if you’re younger, you’ve seen changes. They come quickly, and they come more often.

I’ve been doing a podcast for a while now. And maybe you’ve heard it. I did a podcast about the movie, Transcendence, with Johnny Depp. It’s about the future when AI becomes conscious and begins to change our world. Well, podcasts themselves haven’t been around that long. Mine is one of the older ones because I’ve been doing this for about 10 years now. But I want to share a story that just happened to me.

As a business owner, I must fill out a census bureau where I talk about my business and what I’m doing. I also must talk about the things I’m doing and using to help my business grow. And, interestingly, when I got this census from the government, they asked me a lot of questions. I would say about 25% to 50% of the questions were about how I was implementing AI (artificial intelligence) in my work. 

I produced that podcast right when the movie came out, and if you want to listen, it’s episode #36. It’s called Transcendence, and it was produced on March 28, 2014. And now, eight years later, this subject was a movie concept at the time, and it’s now being studied by the U.S. government. It’s about how AI is used in businesses today. That is a lot of change.

So many changes

There are so many examples. Change seems to be the new norm. Our world is changing fast, and this is just one of a plethora of examples that I can give.

Just recently, in Southern California, where I live, we had a hurricane. It was the first hurricane that I can remember since I lived in Southern California. This is just one example of how our world is changing so fast. Change is the one constant. Our world is going to be different 10 or 20 years from now. 

But we’re here to find happiness. So, let’s take a deep breath, pause, and say, “OK, our world is changing, guaranteed, and it can create a lot of anxiety, stress, or worry.”

But there are ways we can work against these anxieties and learn that we can find peace and happiness no matter what. So, let’s talk about what we can do with all the changes in our world.

Do not resist change

The first thing that causes anxiety is fighting change. If we say, “I don’t want this change! Go away,” we’re going to suffer. We’re going to be anxious or even mad because change is, in many ways, the new norm. 

It doesn’t mean that we need to embrace the change. We simply need to realize that change is part of life now. We need to learn to adapt. One of the best ways to adapt is to acknowledge the change in the world. Instead of fighting change, find ways to make life go well. There are many ways we can acknowledge change without embracing it.

Why We All Should Get Screened for Anxiety

Recently, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) released, for the first time, a recommendation that all adults under age 65 should be screened for anxiety.

Global rates of anxiety surged following the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The USPSTF cited that 40% of women and 26% of men will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Given how common anxiety is, anyone may benefit from getting screened for anxiety.

What anxiety is

From time to time, we all experience some form of worry or anxiety. In some cases, anxiety can be a motivator; in other cases, it can be exhausting and paralyzing—almost pathological. In the pathological case, we may get stuck in thought loops and overthink. Further, we may experience physical symptoms, such as a tight chest resulting in difficulty breathing. To manage our anxiety, we may completely avoid potentially life-enriching experiences that might trigger it, such as social gatherings. 

Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in the U.S. but as a society, we have only begun to accept it as a potentially serious mental health condition. Once considered a personal weakness, anxiety was not viewed as a real mental health condition until recent decades.

From an evolutionary psychiatry perspective, anxiety serves to protect us. When our ancient ancestors lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, anxiety helped them survive. A fight-or-flight response to an incoming predator was a critical, life-saving feature of the body’s anxiety system. Today, few of us encounter life-threatening situations on the daily. Instead, many of these evolutionary features simply became anxiety symptoms (e.g., panic attacks).

The importance of diagnosing anxiety

Living with anxiety is difficult. With anxiety, an individual may avoid important life experiences and events, and have an increased risk for depression. Severe anxiety also has a high correlation with suicidal thoughts. Further, individuals with anxiety may cope by using substances, and develop substance use problems as a result. Anxiety is a serious health condition, and early intervention and treatment are critical.

Limitations of anxiety screening

There may be some disadvantages to testing for anxiety through a screener. Screeners administered by clinicians will likely be self-report questionnaires evaluating the severity of anxiety symptoms. Screening in this manner runs the risk of overdiagnosis, which may lead to unnecessary referrals to treatment and increased stress. Additionally, there are many types of anxiety, which cannot be entirely identified with a simple screener. When following up for a possible anxiety diagnosis, clinicians may need to be vigilant about considering all potential types of anxiety.

Ultimately, despite the potential barriers to anxiety screening as proposed by the task force, its implementation will benefit all of us. Mental health conditions regularly go undiagnosed in our healthcare system; by making screening routine for all American adults, detection rates may be improved. Promoting a greater focus on mental health will also help destigmatize it and increase funding and research, ultimately facilitating access to mental health resources and treatment.

3 Powerful Strategies for a Better Brain in 2023

t the end of each year, we find ourselves reflecting on accomplishments and struggles while looking ahead to what comes next. For many, this leads to resolutions around improving diet, getting more exercise, and becoming better at work or relationships. Yet far too often in the process of committing to these changes, we miss the fundamental significance of improving our brain health and function. With this in mind, consider skipping the fad diets and quick-fix strategies and instead focusing on your brain. Here are three powerful and science-backed strategies to power your brain for success in the coming year. 

1. Cut out unnecessary brain-draining media.

Our brains are incredibly energetically demanding, comprising 3 percent of our body weight but using 20 percent of our energy in a given day. Most of that energy is used by our neurons, and the amount of energy they use is directly related to how much they are being used. This means that our brain’s energy and function are a reflection of where we direct our focus. 

If you’re like the average adult, most of your focus is going to be on the media around you. American adults, on average, spend upward of 11 hours of their day on screens and listening to the radio. While there’s plenty of healthy and valuable content on our screens and airwaves, it’s also the case that media content (especially news) has grown increasingly negative and sensationalized. 

Stressful and polarizing media content activates stress-responsive parts of our brains and may increase the risk for mood issues as well as damage our brain health and function. To this end, limiting your consumption of unnecessarily stressful, draining, sensationalized, and polarizing media may do wonders for your brain health. And, at a very basic level, removing the unhelpful content frees your brain up to consume the healthier stuff.

2. Consume more of the good stuff: healthy relationships and sleep.

One of the most impactful areas of brain research speaks to the brain benefits of very simple daily habits. Besides the usual (and important) topic of eating right for brain health, here’s why relationships and sleep are fundamental for better brain health.

Quality relationships are clearly fundamental to overall health as well as brain health. Loneliness, for example, is thought to be a risk factor for worse mental health. In a recent observational study of over 12,000 people, loneliness correlated with a 40 percent increased risk of developing dementia over a 10-year period. On the other hand, having more close friends late in life is linked to a significantly lower risk for dementia, suggesting a protective effect of close interpersonal bonds. When taken together, this research speaks to the value of cultivating and maintaining close friendships. How to put it into practice? Consider setting a regular phone date, plan a trip to see loved ones, and prioritize date nights (and even group video chats). 

When considering lifestyle factors associated with better brain function and health, sleep is all too often ignored. Yet we now know that poor sleep is a risk factor for everything from dementia to depression to worse decision-making. Getting better sleep may be one of the most important strategies we have for quickly achieving better brain health. The unfortunate reality is that despite this science, most people neglect to prioritize sleep. 

A number of simple steps can be used to help improve sleep quality. These range from minimizing artificial light in the hours before bed to minimizing caffeine consumption in the afternoon. However, if sleep issues are severe or don’t respond to basic lifestyle modification, it’s likely a good idea to seek professional help with consideration for a sleep study or other testing. 

3. Challenge your brain daily.

How can we take steps to constantly move our brains toward a better state? One of the most powerful tools is to perpetually challenge our brains. This can be as simple as entertaining or exploring an opposing ideological perspective. So don’t just be adventurous with travel and new foods; consider opening up space for compassionate conversations with people who have different viewpoints. Another example is learning a new language or practicing an instrument. Even consistent word puzzles (Wordle anyone?) may help keep your brain sharp. 

When we challenge our brains, we may help form new connections between neurons through the process of neuroplasticity (a neuroscience term for the brain’s ability to reshape itself throughout our lifespans). Research has even indicated that regularly exercising our brains may help to slow down and even prevent certain aspects of cognitive decline.

Anxiety as the Path to Freedom

When you think of anxiety, you don’t usually think of freedom. But I’m going to share a secret: The biggest freedom you can have is the ability to feel anxiety in your body.

I know, it sounds crazy, right? But I promise you that’s true.

Vulnerability Is a Powerful Tool

Some people believe the biggest freedom would be to never ever feel anxiety. But, if that were true, and you never felt the tension and agitation of your sympathetic nervous system, you would not be a truly alive and sensing human. As a matter of fact, psychopaths (those folks who have no conscience and no empathy) have remarkably low levels of anxiety, and that is not a good thing. 

When people say to me they are waiting for the day they will feel no anxiety, I tell them they will experience sensations of vulnerability until the day they die. Those uncomfortable sensations are a wake-up call, inviting you to tune inward when you’re faced with limits to control over things that matter to you. That activation in your nervous system, the muscle tension and agitation of “unrest,” is simply your body’s way of signaling you to pay inner attention and soothe your nervous system, so you can access the power of emotion flowing underneath.

Unrest is the most powerful tool we have to promote our personal growth, as long as we know what to do with it. Freedom is not being free of anxious sensations; it is being able to face, feel, and soothe them, to access the wisdom of emotion—the adaptive emotions that want to help us come to terms with reality, when reality does not bend to our will.

The key is we need to be able to notice, tolerate, and really feel what our body feels like when we are anxious. We need to stay out of the “story” we make up, all the future “what ifs” and imagined scenarios, and all the backward-looking stories of “woulda shoulda coulda.” Importantly, we need to bring a precise and slow awareness to our inner experience of muscle tension and arousal. We need to carefully (with care in our hearts) stay with ourselves and sense the quality, intensity, and parameters of the tension, being willing to really feel this moment of uncertainty, this moment of “I can’t,” this moment of limits to control over an outcome that matters to me.

Like Sleepwalkers, We Tune Out of Ourselves

This is such a simple thing, yet it is so very hard to do. We are primed to move away from this experience of tightness and agitation. There is an urge to disconnect from what we feel at that moment. At a level that is below our conscious awareness, it just seems like the right thing to do, and we typically simply obey the impulse. Like sleepwalkers, we avoid our inner experience and tune out of ourselves. We use myriad ways to avoid: eating, drinking, shopping, busying, controlling, worrying, and distracting ourselves, slaves to an impulse we didn’t even recognize.

That’s where freedom comes in. When we can notice the signal from the body that tells us we are vulnerable, if we can become expert at knowing our own unique phone call (tight shoulders, fidgety fingers, held breath, clenched butt, tapping feet) as the body asks for our attention, we have a choice—the big choice that leads to freedom. We have the choice to approach ourselves then and there in that precise moment and be with ourselves in the discomfort. It is the choice of love. Or we can avoid ourselves in that moment, which is the choice of fear. And if we chose fear and avoidance, we are not free. We are busy and numb and fretful and distracted and sometimes very productive…but we are not free.

Freedom is the ability to be with ourselves in the discomfort of what is. Rather than fight with what is, rather than trying to fix it or change it or shut it down or shame it or run away from it, freedom is saying hello to what is actually happening in your life and under your skin.

Mind Tricks for Cognitive Health in Old Age

Aging for the lucky among us is inevitable. Our brains shrink and the resultant cognitive slippage is scary. There are well-established ways to increase your chances of a good trajectory for cognitive aging—or at least to slow down the progression of cognitive impairmentThey include

  • physical and mental exercise (old brains like a challenge);
  • positive social relationships;
  • diets that are fiber-rich and include nuts;
  • low alcohol intake;
  • not smoking; and
  • healthy sleep. 

These strategies are behavioral. How you “live inside of yourself” is a different story.

Fortunately, there are ways in which how you experience life can help protect your cognitive functioning.

I spent several years interviewing senior psychoanalysts considered wise by their peers to discover what they had learned about human nature and the ingredients of good psychotherapy. What became clear along the way was that these high-functioning seniors, whose ages ranged from 74 to 103, had also figured out how to maintain their mental sharpness.

Trick No. 1: Play

Playful interventions can promote brain plasticity and cognitive reserve. While well into their 80s, “Dr. N.” played violin in a string quartet and “Dr. S.” played tennis, it was from a third practitioner, “Dr. B.,” that I learned this mind trick.

As we drove 40 minutes from the train station to my house, this 90-year-old psychoanalyst who had come (with her dog!) to be interviewed talked about getting her driver’s license again and buying a house in the country. Noting she didn’t have her hiking shoes on, she assured me with a smile that the ones she was wearing were good enough if we did some hiking later after the interview. It was clear, however, that physically she could no longer hike, and her stated desires were the stuff of playful shared fantasy. Here’s the trick: The young play at being grown up; as an elder, you can play at being young. The mind is fertile ground with imminent space to play.

Trick No. 2: Resilience

“Genius is the activity which repairs the decays of things,” wrote poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. With age comes inevitable loss: of persons, work, and bodily function. Resilience is recovering from losses, getting back up after being knocked down.

Interestingly, all the wise psychoanalysts I interviewed had endured hardships and traumas, and many had early losses. These people were able torebound.

“Dr. S.” was 93 when we met. Her husband passed away when she was a young mother of five, and she coped by continuing to speak to him out loud. Her trick was to keep those who are no longer in the present, present. “Dr. B.” lost her husband without warning from a massive heart attack. A woman without other family, she felt all alone, “like 2001: A Space Odyssey,” she said. After a year or so, she took a trip to a remote part of the world, where the terrain matched how she felt inside. She stayed for a day or so, taking in the full starkness of the environment. Her trick was to find a place in nature that mirrored her internal state, and by doing so, she felt shored up and able to go on.

Trick No. 3: Emotional Balance

I spoke with “Dr. B.” from the time she was 99 until shortly before her death, just shy of 104. Her wisdom about emotion spoke volumes: “I have many thoughts about the future, and I remember the past with both joy and sadness but without nostalgia. I am grateful for being able to live in the present with what feels like an appropriate mixture of awe and despair, of hope and dread.” Depression and anxiety negatively impact cognitive function, which includes a lessening of memory function, concentration, and attentional abilities.

The mind trick is to accept that in life we have both positive and negative emotions (sometimes about the same situation) and to gravitate toward the positive. This is called “affect optimization.” Elders who learned this trick do not hyperfocus on the negative and all that is wrong. Rather, they integrate negative experiences into an overall positive whole.

Trick No. 4: Purpose

Find meaning and purpose. Research has shown that purpose in life delays dementia onset (and mortality) by several years. At 100, “Dr. B.” talked about getting instruction so that she could be more computer literate. “I’m going to get to know the beast!” she said, so that she could teach a course in the fall via Skype. Well into his 80s, “Dr. S.” started a wisdom group at his local place of worship for people to share their life’s wisdoms. In her 80s, “Dr. F.” decided to write fiction. “Dr. O.,” a holocaust survivor in her 90s, speaks to groups about her experience during the Holocaust to educate the next generation so that they “Never Forget.”

Loneliness Is As Deadly As Smoking, Surgeon General Says

About half of U.S. adults say they’ve experienced loneliness, Dr. Vivek Murthy said in a report from his office.

“We now know that loneliness is a common feeling that many people experience. It’s like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing,” Murthy told The Associated Press in an interview. “Millions of people in America are struggling in the shadows, and that’s not right. That’s why I issued this advisory to pull back the curtain on a struggle that too many people are experiencing.”

The declaration is intended to raise awareness around loneliness but won’t unlock federal funding or programming devoted to combatting the issue.

Research shows that Americans, who have become less engaged with worship houses, community organizations and even their own family members in recent decades, have steadily reported an increase in feelings of loneliness. The number of single households has also doubled over the last 60 years.

But the crisis deeply worsened when COVID-19 spread, prompting schools and workplaces to shut their doors and sending millions of Americans to isolate at home away from relatives or friends.

People culled their friend groups during the coronavirus pandemic and reduced time spent with those friends, the surgeon general’s report finds. Americans spent about 20 minutes a day in person with friends in 2020, down from 60 minutes daily nearly two decades earlier.

The loneliness epidemic is hitting young people, ages 15 to 24, especially hard. The age group reported a 70% drop in time spent with friends during the same period.

Loneliness increases the risk of premature death by nearly 30%, with the report revealing that those with poor social relationships also had a greater risk of stroke and heart disease. Isolation also elevates a person’s likelihood for experiencing depression, anxiety and dementia.

The surgeon general is calling on workplaces, schools, technology companies, community organizations, parents and other people to make changes that will boost the country’s connectedness. He advises people to join community groups and put down their phones when they’re catching up with friends; employers to think carefully about their remote work policies; and health systems to provide training for doctors to recognize the health risks of loneliness.

Technology has rapidly exacerbated the loneliness problem, with one study cited in the report finding that people who used social media for two hours or more daily were more than twice as likely to report feeling socially isolated than those who were on such apps for less than 30 minutes a day.

Accept, Don’t Resist, Your Negativity

When you read the title, you may have had a double take: “A mental coach is telling me to accept my negativity? How can that be?” I realize that my statement is counterintuitive, but let me show you why accepting your negativity is actually the best thing to do whenever anything unhelpful enters your mind.

To begin, negativity is one of the most common reasons why people come to me. Despite having demonstrated in your life that you can achieve your goals, your mind may be filled with negativity, uncertainty, doubt, worry, “what ifs,” anxiety, frustration, fear, or anger, particularly just before important events when positivity is so critical.

There are two reasons why you go to the “dark side.” First, regardless of your objective abilities, you may lack confidence in that ability. This disconnect is so important because you may have all the ability to be successful, but if you don’t believe you have that ability, you won’t give your best effort to fully realize that ability.

Second, that negativity keeps your expectations low, which reduces the pressure you put on yourself. It also protects you from the pain of failure if you do give it your all and you don’t achieve your goals; you have an excuse for your failure. This reaction relates to a fear of failure (a topic you can learn more about by reading my four-part series). In other words, by being negative, if you end up performing poorly (at work or in school, or in some other setting), you won’t be that disappointed because you will have expected it. And if you actually exceed your self-imposed low expectations, then it feels like a bigger victory than it might actually be (and a big relief that you didn’t fail).

Regardless of the cause of your negativity, it will only hurt you in your efforts to push your limits and realize your goals. So, the question you must ask is: “What do I do when negativity rears its ugly head in my mind?”

Resisting Negativity

Negativity is very large and heavy psychologically and emotionally, meaning once it gets in your mind, it is very difficult to remove it. The typical reaction that most people have is to tell themselves, “Stop being so negative.” In other words, you try to push that negativity out of your mind. Unfortunately, that approach usually doesn’t work. Here’s an exercise that explains why: Don’t think about a pink elephant. What did you do? You likely thought about a pink elephant, despite my asking you not to. But really, don’t think about a pink elephant, don’t think about a pink elephant, don’t think about a pink elephant. What happens? You can’t get that pesky pink elephant out of your mind. Here’s why. Imagine the pink elephant in a room and you want to get it out of the room. Have you ever tried to move a pink elephant (or any colored elephant, for that matter)? Probably not, but I think it’s safe to assume that, because of its size and weight, you would not be able to move it. Negativity is like that pink elephant.

Staying Balanced in an Uncertain New Year

It’s easy to get caught up worrying about what the new year will bring. From economic and political changes to pandemics and climate change, the media feeds us a barrage of news stories that can easily overwhelm us with anxiety. But there are ways to manage your worries and take control of your mental health in 2023. Here are some strategies for coping with world events and knowing when you’re worrying too much.

Understand the Media Cycle

It’s essential to understand how the media works and their tactics to keep us engaged. News outlets often rely on fear-mongering to grab our attention and keep us coming back for more. This means they focus on negative stories, using sensationalized headlines and vivid language to draw us in. But this doesn’t mean that bad news isn’t real—it simply requires us to be conscious of how we consume the information and take it with a grain of salt.

Know Your Triggers

It’s essential to be aware of what kind of environment triggers anxiety or depression. For example, some people may feel overwhelmed by political news, while others might be more affected by economic uncertainty. Knowing your triggers can help you manage your emotions and cope with the stress of world events.

Find Support

Connecting with friends, family, or a professional therapist can be beneficial when navigating life’s challenges. Having someone to talk to can provide perspective, reduce feelings of isolation, and give clarity during difficult times. If talking to someone face-to-face isn’t an option, there are plenty of mental health apps and online support groups.

Practice Self Care

It’s important to practice self-care to maintain emotional balance during stressful times. Activities such as exercising, mindfulness meditation, journaling, or connecting with nature can help to reduce stress and clear the mind. In addition, taking time to focus on your physical and mental health can help you stay balanced and better equipped to handle life’s challenges.

Know When You Need a Break

The media can sometimes be overwhelming, so it’s essential to know when to take a break from reading or watching the news. If you get caught up in anxious thoughts or overwhelmed by events out of your control, it might be time for a mental health day away from the news cycle. Permit yourself to step away from all media sources for a few hours (or even days) if you need to reset your mind and soul.

Aging Men and Irrelevance: How to Find New Purpose

My last post on the irrelevance of aging men struck a nerve, based on the number of emails I received. The post said that men need to develop their internal world to balance a loss of focus on external achievement that aging and retirement inevitably bring. The men who wrote ranged from a former professional baseball player to a retired doctor. They nearly all asked the same two questions: What is the inner world, and how is a man supposed to explore it?

Here’s one example:

I literally stumbled upon your [post] titled “Aging Men and Irrelevance” and was stunned by how directly it applied to me. I am a 72-year-old man, retired for 12 years, feeling worthless, and constantly asking myself the same question your patient did: “What’s the point?” I ask myself that question every day.

At the risk of asking what might appear to be a silly question, what am I looking for? When I explore my internal, what might I find that will help me overcome this feeling of uselessness? And how will I know when I find it?

I have written at least four separate drafts of this post to try to answer these questions. Nothing I write seems to capture what I want to say or to do justice to the poignancy of what is being asked. It turns out it’s far easier to describe the problem than to prescribe a meaningful and workable solution.

But that doesn’t let me off the hook, because this call from these men touches me deeply. (It also, by the way, proves that men can express their feelings when the circumstances allow.) It makes me feel a certain pressure to perform, to be able to give an answer that will be useful, and in 500 words or so. In addition, there is the additional pressure of a follow-up to the external performance of the first post. As of this writing, the original post on men and irrelevance has been viewed over 300,000 times. How can I achieve similar success externally while writing something meaningful about our internal world?

What I’m trying to illustrate here, in my sharing my process, is how to walk the balance between the internal and the external worlds. I feel the pain and the plea for help from some of the men this post touched. That’s internal. The external is, “How do I respond in a way that will be helpful?” I also have to let go of the hope of it performing as well as the first post, because there’s no way this one will get picked up and used by a major newsfeed as the first one was. In other words, I have to walk my talk that as we age, it’s not the numbers that matter so much, but the meaning. And finally, I have to experience the limits of what I can do and be okay with it. This is the best I can do, given the limitations of this format.

Enough about me. Let’s turn to you. What do you really value? How can you find meaning and purpose in this last part of your life? How do you figure that out? You’ve been trained, almost since birth, to perform in one way or another according to outside metrics. You’ve been stripped of a lot of what gave your life purpose and meaning as you’ve aged out of your job and your external relevance. How do you find your internal importance and your purpose now?

You’re not going to like my answer, but I respect you too much to soften the blow or try to give you an easier solution. The best thing I can tell you, the thing that has the highest likelihood of working, is to get yourself into therapy. I know, I know, that may be a huge stretch, especially if you’ve never done anything like that before. But you’re not going to be able to do what’s required from reading this or any other article or book. You spent years, if not decades, mastering your profession. How do you think you’re going to master a new line of work—your internal world—without investing in it? You may have retired from the working world but you haven’t retired from life. The malaise you’re feeling is a signal to you that it’s time to get to work again, but this time on yourself.

What I can offer is how to go about getting started on this new job. I’m going to break it down into small discrete steps that you can do, one at a time, at your own speed:

  1. Begin by researching, just for the heck of it, who you might want to see. 
  2. Ask for a 15-minute consultation (most therapists will do this for free).
  3. Schedule a first appointment with the intention of giving it a four-session trial.
  4. Either start over if you don’t feel comfortable with the person or keep going until you see the benefit.

Just don’t wait too long to get this going. In case you haven’t noticed, you don’t have that much time left. Do you want to die feeling like this?

I heard a story recently about a guru in India who was consulted for years and years by her devotees on various questions. Finally, one devotee stood up and said: “We’re always asking you questions and you’re always giving us answers. Maybe you should tell us the question we should be asking you? And then tell us the answer?”

Here’s what she replied: “The question you should ask is: ‘Who am I?’ The answer to that question is ‘Know thyself.’”

3 Powerful Ways to Help Manage Your Inner Critic

You may not notice your inner critic that much. Maybe s/he hides in the shadows of your mind, waiting to pounce when you mess up, or something goes wrong.

Unfortunately, many of us do not know we are swimming in self-criticism until it is pointed out to us that we are drowning in it. But for some of us, the inner critic is the only voice we hear all the time. And this can be exhausting.

Self-criticism involves constant and harsh self-scrutiny, overly critical evaluations of one’s own behavior, and negative reactions to perceived failures (Löw et al., 2020).

Being self-critical is like any pattern of thinking: habitual. Whatever our Inner Critic says, we listen. We take it on board as if what it is saying is true. However, like any habit, we can change self-criticism with some work. This article outlines some key steps you can take to reduce your inner critic’s influence in your life.

Step 1. Notice When Your Inner Critic Shows Up

Cultivating awareness of your thoughts as they enter your mind is a skill that can be learned and takes practice. Consider for a moment the sky above you.

The sky sees all kinds of weather, from raging storms to brilliant sunshine and everything in between. Your ability to notice your thoughts is akin to the sky watching the weather.

Like the weather, your mind produces negative thoughts, self-critical thoughts, pleasant thoughts, and everything else in between. But you can be like the sky and watch your thoughts come and go.

  • Awareness of your inner critic can start with slowing down the momentyou are being self-critical. First, take a long, slow deep breath.
  • Now shift your attention to your mind. Ask yourself: am I being self-critical right now? Or is my inner critic showing up?

Step 2. Get to Know Your Inner Critic

Different emotions have their own distinct patterns of thinking, feeling, and being. For example, have you noticed that when you are angry, you will think differently, emotionally feel different, and have different physical sensations in your body compared with when you are experiencing sadness, contentment, or anxiety?

Your inner critic is one such self or version of the different parts of you (there can be other parts like your angry self or your anxious self and so on). Getting to know this part helps you gain insight into the different facets of your personhood (Bell et al., 2021). Alongside this, one key thing to hold in mind is this:

You are not “broken” or “damaged” or deserving of harsh internal rhetoric.

You are complex and multifaceted and experience a range of patterns of emotions and mind-body states that can be difficult to get to grips with. You did not design your brain this way. It is just how your brain has evolved over millions of years (Gilbert, 2020).

So how do you get to know your inner critic? When you notice you are being self-critical, ask yourself:

  • What is my critical self/inner critic saying to me? What tone of voice is it using?
  • What is the emotion in the voice? Inner critics tend to be harsh, cold, disapproving, frustrated, angry, and contemptuous.
  • What does it want? Is it critical to do something specific? For example, to protect you in some way, perhaps? To prevent you from doing something? Or to push you to succeed/not fail?

Step 3. Stop the Inner Critic Spiral

It is common for self-critical thoughts to spiral until you are in a pit of negativity and hopelessness. However, if you have followed the previous steps, you are halfway there to stop that spiral. The extra step here is to bring in some compassionate understanding for yourself:

  • What would I say to a friend or a young child in this situation? And can I say this to myself right now?
  • How would I say it? (What tone of voice would I use?) Let me use that tone with myself right now…
  • What would I do to help them? (What actions would I take?) How about I do … and … which will help me in this situation.

Final Thoughts

The above steps can help you reduce the dominance of your inner critic or critical self, but it can take consistent practice. Cultivating more of a self-compassionate, supportive, encouraging, and warm attitude towards yourself will help you manage your inner critic in difficult moments. If this is difficult at first, follow step three, which will enable you to tap into a compassionate state of mind that you can direct toward yourself.

3 Ways to Get the Benefits of Meditating, Without Meditating

When I talk to people about meditation, there is always an underlying guilt. “I know I should, but…” 

A common complaint is that there is never enough time. We have too much to do, and when we finally get a few minutes to ourselves, we would rather spend it doing something enjoyable. 

Luckily, research shows us how meditation works. Meditation shuts down the default mode network (DMN), which produces our self-directed, automatic thoughts. This is our inner monologue. It also activates the central executive network (CEN), from where our deliberate, focused attention comes. 

Over time, meditation reconfigures the brain: The CEN becomes stronger, making it easier to inhibit mind-wandering and focus on the things that matter. This creates a cascade of benefits, from reduced negative emotions to improved interpersonal relationships.

To experience the effects of meditating in everyday life, start with a mindset shift. Your inner monologue is unimportant. Unnecessary. It not only doesn’t provide value, but it also makes normal activities feel worse. It stands in the way of peace, calm, and being really present in your life.

When a valuable thought does arise, whether it is a to-do or a creative idea, write it down. Knowing what you will do with the occasional important thought helps you forget the rest.

Then, try out these solutions:

  1. Simplify your everyday activities. Forty-three percent of the time, we are doing everyday activities while thinking about something else, aka, listening to our DMN (Wood et al., 2002). When doing daily things, actively silence the brain by turning your focus elsewhere. Focus on the sensation of the warm water in the shower, the taste of your turkey sandwich, or the color of the sky. Mindfulness is a struggle when we value our thoughts. When we devalue our thoughts, mindfulness is the natural result. 
  2. Focus on what’s in front of you. Too often, we half listen to the people around us. We hear them, but we also hear the DMN rambling. When you speak with someone, make a conscious effort to go mentally silent. Focus on them. This will activate your CEN, turn off your DMN, and create a more fulfilling interaction in the process. 
  3. Choose flow. A flow state, when we are so absorbed in an activity that nothing else seems to matter, deactivates the DMN. Take time to do the activities you love—the ones that make you lose track of time and space. Sustained attention builds the CEN, creating the same effect that meditation does. If you don’t have a flow activity, take one you like, from tennis to knitting, and talk through the steps. “Knit one, purl one,” or, “Bounce, bounce, hit.” As W. Timothy Gallwey, the author of The Inner Game of Tennis, writes, “It’s hard to be saying “bounce-hit” and at the same time overinstructing yourself, trying too hard or worrying about the score.” 

In short, meditation is a powerhouse at shutting down the default mode network. Luckily, that is something you can do whether you’re in a yoga studio or the grocery store.

The 7 Habits of Health and Happiness

Increasingly lost amid the 24/7 frenzy of modern life is an important but unglamorous truth: most of our quality of life results from the routine physical, emotional, interpersonal, and mental habits we engage in each day. Advertising to the contrary, habits, not hacks, are the real secrets to success, health, love, progress, and fulfillment.

Consider a few examples:

  • While millions of people pursue dreams of prosperity by purchasing lottery tickets—a strategy whose success probability approaches zero—financial experts have long since identified the fundamental habits of wealth building, such as spending less than one earns, smart and consistent investment, use of compounding interest, and maintaining a long-term financial perspective.1
  • CRISPR technology is amazing, but gene therapies do not solve most modern health problems. Research conclusively demonstrates, for example, that less than half of our lifespan is explained by genetic factors.2Our lifestyle and environmental exposure habits explain most of our longevity potential. 
  • Greek mythology notwithstanding, romantic love is rarely the instantaneous result of Cupid’s arrow or Love Potion Number 9. Instead, love is demonstrably more likely to result from habits in our communication and behavior towards prospective intimate partners.3

The above illustrates just a few of the many instances where the slow force of habits exceeds the effects of even the most popular or expensive quick-fix remedies.

Just how powerful are habits? For the typical person, there is no single greater source of influence on their quality of life. Right now, beneath our noses (literally; you probably underestimate the physical and emotional effects of your breathing habits),4 and conscious awareness, habits are nudging our choices, compelling our actions, shaping our results, and, ultimately, deciding our destinies. 

If habits were part of your home, they would be the foundation. If your life were a train, habits would be the tracks on which it traveled. And if your level of health and happiness were depicted as a farm, habits would comprise the quality of your seed and soil. The science is clear: if you want a better life, you need better habits.5

The Seven Habits of Health and Happiness

If certain habits reliably produce wealth, increase lifespan, and foster love, there must also be habits promoting happiness and health. Not surprisingly, studies confirm precisely this prediction; certain habits predispose happiness and health, whereas the opposing habits prejudice us towards depression and disease.

The most practical and persuasive finding from the habit literature, however, is that habits perpetuate happiness and health and that the habits of mental well-being and happiness and the habits of physical health are mostly the same habits.6

Research shows that cardinal habits related to: 

  1. sleep
  2. self-talk
  3. physical activity
  4. relationships
  5. nutrition
  6. goal-setting
  7. stress management/coping

… either predispose our risk for depression and disease (figure above) or promote our capacity for happiness and health (figure below). Collectively, these seven habits function as the nucleus of our quality of life.

Habits comprise our mental and physical health foundation because of their repetitive influence. Although no single instance of exercise, healthy self-talk, or act of kindness toward our spouse, for example, may seem particularly significant, when repeated over time, habits’ effects compound into remarkable results.

For comparison, consider that gravity is invisible yet relentless enough to bend light and shape the universe. Water is mindless, yet it can gradually erode even the tallest mountain. And habits are unconscious, yet their quiet consistency molds our futures as skillfully as a sculptor carves a block of clay.


If the power of habits were expressed in a children’s story, they would be best represented by the humble tortoise from Aesop’s fable—discreet and unassuming, yet as reliable as Newton’s laws of physics. Facing 21st-century threats of rapid change and future uncertainty, habits are the steady and redoubtable force we can still count on to improve the quality of our lives.

Why Your Best Thoughts Happen in the Shower or When Walking

Ever wonder why a good shower relaxes your imagination and body or why it seems to release a stream of creative thoughts about a problem that may have vexed you?

The answer lies in the fixed amount of attention your brain has to work with at any given moment. This biological limit is why trying to multitask so often degrades performance and leads to mistakes.1

When the rational mind focuses on a problem, it eats up much of your allotted bandwidth, whereas letting the mind wander while you carry out a “mindless” task lets your subconscious thoughts roam beyond the activity at hand. 

By mindless, I mean a relatively automatic routine such as walking, driving a habitual route, following your exercise workout, hiking in nature, or, yes, taking a shower.2 These are all solitary activities that let us disconnect from the outside world. They can become meditative, relaxing intervals that open us to new ideas and perspectives.

An additional benefit of the shower is that its white noise blocks outside stimulation. The roar of the water produces a partial sensory deprivation, taking bandwidth that would have been used for other perceptions, and shunting it to the mental space the mind uses to wander. Ideas incubating in the background can rise to consciousness and lead you past a creative impasse. 

Carving out mental space and freeing the mind of deliberate thought is a proven incubator of creative insight. The lack of outside stimulation can lead to the state of “flow,” in which we are deeply if absentmindedly, engaged with inner contemplations.

Two widely agreed features of “shower thoughts” are that they insights from the subconscious and the result of not thinking deliberately about anything.3 Sometimes breakthroughs occur in an “aha” moment. Two features of this kind of insight are the need for relative mental quiet and the suddenness with which they arrive when not intentionally thinking about the problem at hand.

Walking is another mindless–or should I say mindful–activity that grounds us in the present moment. Famous walkers attest to walking’s benefits and shed insight on solitary activities. During her habitual, meandering walks, Virginia Woolf honed her ability to portray consciousness and the character of thought. In one of her last novels, The Waves, she refracts six separate consciousnesses into the mind of one character, the biographer named Bernard. 

In her biographical essay, “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf said that her novel To the Lighthouse burst forth while walking “in a great, apparently involuntary, rush … Blowing bubbles out of a pipe gives the feeling of the rapid crowd of ideas and scenes which blew out of my mind. What blew the bubbles? … I have no notion.”

In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau explained that it is nothing like exercise and is “absolutely free from all otherworldly engagements.” Nietzsche, too, walked so that he could think. In Twilight of the Idols, he wrote, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” 

In The Boy Detective, Essayist Roger Rosenblatt explores the flâneur–a stroller who saunters and observes–a walker without purpose. Wandering feet reflect a wandering mind, going wherever the chain of associations takes you. Rosenblatt develops a lovely concept that each of us has two personalities we take on our private walks, one “for the senses, one for the intellect.” The two never meet, yet live connected “parallel lives … and side by side move into infinity.”

Showers and walking can be meditative experiences and opportunities for introspection and reflection. They are also times when great ideas can pop into our heads.

15 Signs That You’re at Risk for Depression

Recent research has shown that nearly half of us will develop major depression at some point in our lives (Schaefer et al., 2017). Knowing when you’re most at risk can tell you when to take steps to prevent an episode. Watch for these 15 signs:

1. A history of depression

No surprises here: One of the most reliable predictors of depression is having been depressed in the past. The risk is 50% after one bout of depression (not much higher than for the average person), but fully 90% after three episodes (Moriarty et al., 2020).

2. High neuroticism

Those who are high in the personality trait of neuroticism tend to experience a lot of negative emotion. Not surprisingly, neuroticism raises the risk for depression—especially when a person experiences loss or other forms of stress (Vinkers et al., 2014).

3. Overwhelming anxiety

Anxiety tends to shrink our lives through avoidance, which cuts out rewarding activities such as social contact; depression is a common result. For example, social anxiety disorder raises the risk of depression by about 50% (Beesdo et al., 2007).

4. Insomnia

Trouble sleeping isn’t just a symptom of depression; it can also be a sign that depression is coming. Research shows that insomnia more than doubles the risk for depression (Li et al., 2016).

5. Adverse childhood experiences

One of the most consistent predictors of depression is negative experiences early in life. These events can include parents’ divorce, abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, a parent’s death, and other major experiences that can leave long-lasting marks (Vinkers et al., 2014).

Why February Is a Better Month for Resolutions

It’s a month into the new year, so how are your resolutions looking? Kudos to those who’ve kept to their new goals and there’s hope for the rest of us, too. 

January represents new beginnings. Whether it’s by instinct or force of habit, we set new resolutions at the beginning of the year. More recently, there’s been a move to take a wider lens and set new intentions, referring to a bigger-picture idea of what we want to change. Either way, by now there are many resolutions that have already failed and many of those January 1stoptimists are now full of self-recrimination. We should put the brakes on that, though. Feeling we’re hopeless at changing, lazy, or worse, will keep us stuck in that behavior and certainly won’t help in getting us nearer to our goals. 

Why did we fail to stick with our shiny new resolutions? The step that we’re often missing, the vital step without which we’re not exactly doomed to failure but definitely making things too hard for ourselves, is clear-eyed reflection—beforehand. 

Most resolutions are not blinding new ideas we’ve had. Most are about making changes we’ve been considering for a while, maybe correcting some bad habits we’ve slipped into over time. As such, we’re often aiming to change habits that are entrenched. To make these alterations successfully, we need more than a dewy-eyed hopeful focus on New Year’s Day.

This was brought home to me a few years ago, one November, when I came across an unmarked manilla envelope in my desk drawer. Inside, I read some old resolutions. 

Each year, our family gets together to share our resolutions, and one time I was using my family as guinea pigs (nothing new there) and asked them to put their commitments down on paper. On re-reading, I was rather disappointed to realize that the resolutions I had been mulling over for this coming year would be exactly the same as last year. I was even more appalled when it dawned on me that the resolutions were not a year old, but two. Now, I do have some resolutions that remain more or less constant year in and year out: eat less sugar, exercise more, etc. but I thought I usually made effective progress on the stand-alone projects. The evidence of the failed intentions, goals, and objectives, all written in irrefutable ink, was more sobering than a “dry January”. 

No surprise though. Our habits are habits for a reason—they are truly engrained in us. We are often told that “we are what we do,” that our behaviors are hard-wired to us through well-worn neural pathways and, often, emotional attachments or specific meanings. As such, no early January resolution or intention will shift them without some good, hard thinking about what keeps us stuck in certain behaviors. Unfortunately, the end of the year being what it is—busy and rushed—we have little time to properly reflect on what surrounding beliefs and actions hold us in place before setting ourselves up for likely failure a few weeks into the new year.

Have a ‘Happy New Year’ by Not Searching for Happiness

Hurray, it’s a new year! At least symbolically, this change is a great relief as the last three years have left an indelible mark on many people who are still trying to come out of an existential abyss. Although the recognizable signs of spring are not yet in the air, at least not in terms of the weather conditions, the emergence of 2023 portends spring-like conditions ahead as we wave goodbye to the trials and tribulations of the recent past.

Spring, as we know, is seen as a time of new life (both plant and animal) being born, as well as a time of growth and renewal. More generally, however, the spring season is perceived as a metaphor for the start of better times. So let’s begin spring—in our spirit, mind, and body—early this year. And let’s proclaim “’tis the season” to be optimistic and enthusiastic about the future. 

To be sure, wanting people to be happy throughout the year is a meaningful resolution for the New Year that is well worth keeping. Good intentions notwithstanding, “happiness” has become sort of a buzzword these days. For instance, besides a plethora of books and other publications on the subject, the happiness theme can be seen in advertising campaigns by businesses intent on squeezing out as many dollars as possible from consumers. It is as if buying a particular product or service will make people happy as a result, no matter what their personal circumstances.

Now don’t get me wrong, I would like very much to see everyone be (and remain) happy. And, yes, I’m a true believer that the key to authentic happiness lies within all of us, and therefore is within reach. However, I just don’t believe that true happiness is a commodity that can be purchased, no matter what the price. Nor do I believe that happiness comes from simply embracing the lyrics of the 1988 Grammy Award-winning song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” by musician Bobby McFerrin. As much as I like this song, I think that there is more to it than that. Much more.

Against the backdrop of the events of the past three years, there are still warning signs on the horizon that warrant serious concern, in society at large as well as in the American and global economies. Even people who are fortunate enough today to be gainfully employed are not necessarily “happy” in the face of so much change taking place, coupled with the uncertainty of what may lie ahead. And this sentiment applies not only to their personal lives but also to their work lives.

How to Push Your Hidden Buttons For Happiness

Pushing somebody’s buttons usually means to do specific things to anger them. But are there also buttons to push for happiness? 

Yes, there are, and those happy buttons are sometimes hidden in the brain. If you involve your partner in your quest to find those hidden happy buttons, your relationship with your partner can deepen and you’ll get closer.

Here’s my own example:

As I was preparing to visit my then 93-year-old mother in France and stay with her for the required three weeks, I started getting more and more anxious, agitated, and depressed. My life was really in California with my wonderful husband in our delightful house doing the job and activities I loved. The thought of leaving my husband for three weeks was unbearably painful. 

Yet, it was my duty to visit my mother twice a year. I was an only child and my father had died 20 years before from cancer. I had promised my dad to keep my mother happy, but the truth was that three weeks was too much for me. I was happy to visit for two or three days, but beyond three days with my mom in my childhood house, town, and country, visiting was extremely difficult and painful. Life in France wasn’t my life anymore. It was my mother’s life and she insisted that, to make her happy, I stay with her. Three weeks was the extreme minimum for her.

Two weeks before my planned departure for France, I started getting depressed and I could feel myself spiraling down even more than in previous years. I was dreading my trip.

My husband, sensing that I wasn’t my usual cheerful self, asked if I was okay.

My choices were to either tell my husband not to worry, that I had everything under control, or to confide in him and ask for his help. In the past, I would have chosen to tell him that I had everything under control, but this time I chose to take the risk of showing my vulnerability and asked for help.

I explained my spiraling down and asked: “I know there is a switch in my head I can flip to be my happy self again, but I don’t know how to find that switch. Can you help me find it?”

Together, we began brainstorming. The brainstorming felt wonderful and made us closer. It was exactly what I needed (short of canceling my trip). I wasn’t alone anymore. We brainstormed about how to transform a trip I dreaded into a trip I would look forward to. It involved finding the switch to change my point of view. That was a difficult task, but I intuitively knew it was possible. 

My husband suggested that I could find a new activity, like learning a new language, singing or dancing, anything new that I would enjoy doing in France during my mother’s nap in the afternoon or in the evenings after she went to bed. Nothing really clicked in my head, so we continued brainstorming.

Suddenly, something clicked when we talked about taking a different point of view for my visit: Taking the point of view of projecting myself 20 years into the future when my mother would not be on this earth anymore and imagining having the opportunity to come back one last time to spend three weeks with her. That was the switch, and I could feel the connections in my brain getting excited about that idea.

And that’s what I did. I went to France that time and all the following times imagining I was coming back to France many years after my mother’s death.

Because of that different point of view, I was able to fully appreciate the three weeks I spent with my mom. The last few times, I also used my husband’s other suggestion of doing a new pleasurable activity (I took dance classes) in the evenings after my mother went to bed.

What I used is called categorical perception.

What is categorical perception?

Categorical perception describes the fact that our brain puts things in different categories because our brain can only focus on one category at a time. Depending on the category our brain chooses to place a problem, our attitude towards the problem will be different.

An example is the well-known ambiguous picture of the wife and the mother-in-law, which first appeared on an 1888 German postcard.

When you look at the above picture, you can either see the picture of a beautiful young woman (the oval circle in the middle being interpreted as her ear) or the picture of a not-so-beautiful older woman (the oval circle in the middle being interpreted as her eye). You can either see one or the other, but not both at the same time.

If your categorical perception tells you to see a beautiful young woman, you will feel a completely different feeling than if you see the not-so-beautiful older woman. What you see, what you feel, and what you do will depend upon how you categorize the picture.

We can do the same thing in most situations. The same situation can be seen from a negative angle, triggering anxiety or depression, or from a positive angle, triggering happy feelings. It will be a different emotional perception depending on which category you place the situation.

In their advanced review published in WIREs Cognitive Science, Gladstone and Hendrickson study the influence of categorical perception in both speech and visual entities and conclude that “people organize their world into categories that, in turn, alter the appearance of this perceived world.”

But our mood can also influence in which category we place the situation. Research done by Liu and Colleagues, published in Psychiatry Research shows that depressed people have a perceptual bias towards unpleasant facial expressions versus pleasant facial expressions compared to healthy controls.

So, the key to finding our happy buttons is to find reasons to look at things in a positive angle in what I call “pushing the positive switch,” which is easier if done before spiraling far down and getting too depressed.


Asking for help and brainstorming with your partner early on to find a positive angle to the situation and to push your positive happy button can make you and your partner closer while making your partner feel actively engaged and useful. Those happy buttons can be deeply hidden, but once found can stop your spiraling down and start your spiraling back up. 

The power of our brain is bigger than we think it is and can be even stronger when we are in a deep, secure, supportive relationship.

As for me, in the last few years of our marriage, I have taken to the habit of confiding in my husband whenever I feel depressed and asking for help in finding that switch in my brain that makes me happy again. That switch has been different for each situation, sometimes easy, sometimes very difficult to find, but we’ve always ended up finding it.

Mental Health Expectations in a Post(?)-Pandemic World

For most people, the pandemic changed many aspects of everyday life. From the way we shop and entertain ourselves to the way we work and have meetings; how often we are in the physical workspace or meet up with friends; or even how we celebrate holidays or birthdays, nearly everyone has experienced some sort of adjustment. As the saying goes, “We are not all in the same boat, but we are all going through the same storm.”

The storm metaphor captures the fact that not everyone experienced COVID-19 in the same way: Some have endured greater stressful life events than others, such as losses of loved ones or employment. Whether the pandemic only temporarily inconvenienced your life or you’re continuing to endure adverse experiences, COVID-19 has led to some level of stress for individuals across the globe. 

How can we assess whether the weight of our stress regarding those varying experiences is bearable? Are individuals continuing with the same level of mental health as they were pre-pandemic? The World Health Organization reported a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide due to the pandemic. If you are a practitioner, how can you help your clients learn more about their thoughts and behaviors during and after COVID-19? 

What Types of Assessment Can We Use?

The COVID Stress Scales (CSS) have been developed to guide in the identification of those that may suffer from COVID Stress Syndrome (Taylor et al., 2020). COVID Stress Syndrome (Taylor et al., 2020), includes 5 domains of assessment:

  1. High emotionality regarding the health dangers of the virus and contamination (i.e., becoming infected or being able to seek treatment if infected; contamination of objects, money, or surfaces).
  2. Worries about socio-economic consequences (i.e., stores running out of food).
  3. Xenophobia (i.e., fear of foreigners who may be spreading the virus).
  4. Traumatic stress symptoms (i.e., nightmares and physical symptoms).
  5. Compulsive checking (i.e., repetitive online activity, reassurance seeking from medical professionals, etc.).

Just Say No to Constant Hustling

North Americans are well known for their hard-driving attitudes toward work. Blame it on the influence of the Protestant work ethic, immigrant ancestors, or the pressure of a 24/7 economy—it seems people are working longer hours than ever. Research is also revealing that even within the workday, people are not taking breaks to which they are entitled. This should result in greater productivity. Right? Wrong.

While there is much to admire about the moxie of the “hustle culture” it would appear that this has led to a place that is not conducive to either mental or physical health. Scarfing lunch at the desk is all too common. Increasingly, businesses are beginning to recognize the hazards of this “powering through” approach. As rates of burnout increase, attention is now being turned to this cultural phenomenon and its impact on both health and productivity.

The need for periodic breaks is equally true when looking at study habits. In research done on the motor skills of groups of university students, it was shown that those who took even a short break performed better. Researcher William S. Helton (2019) concluded, “No matter which type of break they were given, all of the students in the break groups performed better on the attention task than those who kept slogging away without an intermission.” (40).

Spiritual traditions have long counseled the need for periodic times of rest. They have always structured time ensuring that that period of activity is followed by relaxation. This is embodied in the idea of the Sabbath found in both Christianity and Judaism when all productive activity is halted once a week. Holidays (holy days) practiced by all the world’s traditions set aside days of the year when the focus is on rest, relaxation, and communal meals with friends and family. This is not simply a quaint and archaic practice but one that is vital to well-being.

The teachings found in spiritual works such as the Daoist text the Tao Te Ching (Daodejing) have a great deal to tell us about our relationship with time. This famously riddling text associated with the Chinese sage Lao Tzu (c 551-479 BCE) counsels the art of wu-wei or “action in inaction.” In which it is “necessary to do nothing in order to achieve all.” These periods of introversion naturally come to an end and give rise to times of action and manifestation. These cycles are, in turn, related to those of the natural world.

Our increasing tendency to push through in our tasks is no doubt related to the fact that we have become so disconnected from the natural world. Clock time increasingly overrules the rhythms of the body, which are pushed aside and ignored in the face of a time crunch.” Those whose occupations remain tied to natural cycles know that there are certain times that will result in a successful planting and harvest and all sailors know that we are subject to time and tides.

When a sense of the natural rhythms is understood, it begins to make sense that so many scientific and creative ideas have come about when the person stops actively trying to solve the problem. This is now referred to as the “shower effect.” Richard Sima (2013) writes, “Our ability to generate novel ideas and creative thoughts probably arises from our brain’s ‘default mode network,’ a constellation of brain regions that are active when our thoughts are turned inward, such as when mind-wandering.”

Spiritually based practices that press the pause button produce real and important psychological effects. They move us from the goal-oriented, driven modes of being and seeing the world. They also prevent the all too common phenomenon of rushing through life and never really engaging fully with the present moment. And they make us more productive in the long term.

How Have You Grown This Year?

It’s the season for New Year’s resolutions and reflecting on how the year has gone. As you think about what you’ve achieved this year, I encourage you to think about the following categories. You may have grown in ways you aren’t giving yourself credit for.

If you’re a member of a couple, it can be beneficial to answer these questions together. You may think of answers for your partner that they don’t think of for themselves and vice versa. It’s also a great way to let each other into your respective inner worlds.

If there is anyone you want to get closer to or deeply connect with, like a friend or family member, the same applies. Swap answers or answer these together.

1. Have you grown through making yourself vulnerable?

Did you open up to someone? Were you open about an area of insecurity or shame? Did you ask for advice? Did you attempt to turn around missteps from the past or address regrets?

2. What’s one thing you learned from someone else this year? Have you discovered any new learning channels?

For example, during the year I’ve participated in a Reddit “bumper” group, comprised of people who, like me, had babies due in October 2022. This group has all the best aspects of an internet community and I’ve learned so many small tips from others in the group. We’ve also experienced shared joy at our new babes, and taken comfort in the sense of solidarity from all going through a similar life experience at the same time. 

3. Have you finally acted on a piece of solid life advice?

We don’t always hear life advice and immediately act on it. Sometimes it takes years. This can be due to stubbornness or resistance, or simply because a relevant circumstance hasn’t come up.

For example, I’m someone who generally doesn’t like routines. I get bored by sameness. Routines make me feel restricted. All that said, as the mother of a newborn who has struggled with breastfeeding, I’ve religiously kept to a routine of pumping every three hours around the clock for the last two months. I didn’t know I had it in me to keep this up. In this case, I wouldn’t have succeeded without the routine. Although I normally resist routines, it’s been an essential tool in this instance.

4. What’s one way that cooperating with others (or just one other person) has enhanced your skills or results?

What have you achieved through cooperation that you wouldn’t have achieved on your own?

Personal growth isn’t something we do all on our own. Others are a bridge that helps us grow our skills and make accomplishments. 

Bonus: How have you benefited from cooperating with someone who you differ from in some important way? You don’t have to share someone’s outlook 100% to be able to benefit from cooperation. For example, I “work to live” more than I “live to work” but if I only worked with people who share my outlook, I’d unnecessarily limit myself. 

Another example: I’m a vegan but one of the doctors I worked with earlier in the year is a huge advocate for a carnivore diet. I ignore that aspect of his advice but take other aspects of it.

5. What’s one way that being more flexible helped you? What’s one way that being gritty and inflexible helped you?

Some situations call for flexibility. Sometimes we discover “the juice isn’t worth the squeeze” in the process of pursuing a goal, and choose to change our goal. Sometimes we realize the way we were going about achieving a goal isn’t working and we need to pursue it a different way, but keep the same goal. At other times, we benefit from being dogmatic and persistent, no matter what.

It’s not always obvious which situation calls for which approach. However, it can be useful to reflect on our capacity to alternate between these two approaches. How and why do you choose your approach in a given situation? How have both approaches benefitted you in different ways?

2 Reasons Overthinking May Be in Overdrive

Overthinking is often defined as thinking about something too much and for too long. Often overthinking can pivot around a massive self-analysis. For example, “Did I do the right thing? Am I a worthwhile person? Why can’t I turn off my negative thoughts? Am I selfish?” A person often spins on these thoughts for days. In addition, fixating on one worry can lure a person down a “rabbit hole” of spiraling worries that are somehow connected to the original anxiety. 

Either way, overthinking can create a wave of anxiety and depression that is difficult to shake. Often a person finds relief in the busyness of the day because the overthinking seems to occur at night. Although this is a tough situation, it may help to consider the precipitant for a person’s overthinking. Two factors may be at play.

Before articulating the two possible contributors to overthinking, it is important to acknowledge a common experience of the emotionally intelligent. It involves a critical aspect of emotional intelligence: self-awareness. This includes the capacity to look inward at oneself and introspect to assess personal accountability, gain insight, and understand uncomfortable feelings help a person grow and evolve. It is a sophisticated gift, yet when a person’s identity is under duress, it can induce overthinking.

For example, an individual may spin after receiving negative feedback about who she is. She wishes to trust the person who provides the criticisms, but she may not be entirely convinced the assessment of her is correct. This deep confusion can elicit shame and live inside her brain for days. The predicament may trigger an intense self-inventory because the person wants to figure it out. The confusion about her identity creates a surge of overthinking.

In combination with the emotionally intelligent tendency to self-reflect, two situations involving a person’s identity may create a susceptibility to overthink. One is developmental and the other is situational. 

The years between 12 and the early 20s are often referred to as the identity formation stage in human psychosocial development. In adolescence, a person is inundated with new independence. She begins to make decisions for herself that do not involve attachment figures. For instance, what to wear, what music to listen to, what activities to join, etc. This autonomy forces her to think about who she is in the world, a daunting and overwhelming task. As she moves through the teen and young adult years, her involvement with the outside world increases and she begins to attempt to carve her niche outside of the home—an exciting but terrifying journey. Self-reflecting questions naturally crop up, like: Am I going to be good enough? Do people like me? Am I worthwhile? Am I ordinary? Am I less than? 

Often a helpful analogy to better understand this stage is to imagine a log cabin that represents the young adult’s identity. Because it is under construction, it may have a great foundation and two amazing walls, however, the young person still needs to construct two additional sides of the cabin and nail down a roof. So, a strong wind blows on the young person’s cabin and she feels as if it may crash to the ground. She feels insecure and unstable. Conversely, a gust of wind blows against an adult’s cottage, which is fully formed, and the older person recognizes the structure is sound.

Learned Hopefulness: The Key to a Successful Life

If you want to be successful in life, learned hopefulness is the key. This concept refers to the ability to learn from past experiences and use that knowledge to maintain hope for the future. It’s about optimism that things will improve, even when they seem tough. Learned hopefulness is essential for anyone who wants to achieve their goals. It’s what allows you to keep going when you encounter setbacks and gives you the strength to continue fighting for what you believe in. If you want to be successful, start by learning how to be hopeful.

When you have learned hopelessness, you realize that you have the power to shape your own future. You understand that no matter what might happen in the world around you, you have the ability to make things happen for yourself. You know that if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen. This belief gives you the strength to keep going when things are tough and helps you stay focused on your goals, even when it would be easy to give up. This isn’t just a motivational pitch—it is the result of understanding the new science of hope. The findings point to two inescapable truths: Hope is essential—and teachable.

It’s a skill that will help you achieve your goals and make your dreams a reality. It’s a mindset that allows us to maintain our hope and motivation, even when things are tough. An old saying goes, “if you want something to happen, make it happen.” While there’s certainly truth to that, it’s not the whole story. The reality is that much of what happens in life is out of our control. Learned hopefulness is believing that we can control our immediate future and destiny—even when circumstances make it seem otherwise.

Learned hopefulness is based on a new finding in brain science. The two researchers who originally coined the term learned helplessness, Martin Seligman and Steve Maier, back in the ’60s and ’70s—revealed new findings from their work 50 years later, showing their original research was wrong.

Once they were able to use all the developments in brain science and biochemistry, they discovered that when we are confronted with an ongoing difficulty, setback, or disappointment, we don’t look backward to unlearn what happened. The brain looks forward to gain control.

These new discoveries explain how bad events cause us to be anxious and passive—by default. We are evolutionarily programmed to shut down when something bad and prolonged happens. We become passive because evolution has provided us with a switch that shuts us down to save our energy when the situation or circumstance seems bad. To get out of it, the brain assesses when it is okay to use our energy to make a change and make hope happen.

What this means for hope is that our very ability to detect and expect control in the future will pull us out of a slump. Focusing on what can be done in the future rather than on what happened in the past creates hope. It is the expectation of a better future that matters most. For more information on this, you can check out this post at Infijoy.

This has direct implications for where hope comes from and how to learn how to use it. How well we envision what is yet to come will determine our motivation. Focusing on what’s happened in the past keeps us sitting in the dark. When we concentrate on future possibilities, we can stand in the light. The pathway in the brain discovered by Maier and Seligman regulating this future forecasting is called, appropriately enough, the hope circuit. The question is: How can you develop learned hopefulness? There are three steps.

1. Become aware. Hope is the only positive emotion that requires negativity or uncertainty to be activated. We don’t need hope if everything is all right. That said, the most important thing we can do when something negative or uncertain happens is to pause. Rather than let ourselves be hijacked by emotion, which typically causes our brain and then body to have a threat response—pausing gives you a moment to become more aware of the situation. What am I feeling? What is happening? This might seem small, but pausing gives you immediate self-control and self-regulation. The key to being successful is not to let circumstances dictate your response. Pausing assures you are giving a thoughtful response rather than a reflexive reaction.

2. Make an assessment. Following a pause, the next step is to look and assess the situation and ask yourself what it is that needs to be done—and what you have the resources, ability, and motivation to do. You may not be able to control everything to make the change, but figuring out what you believe you can do will make the difference. The strength of belief will determine the degree to which you have hope.

3. Act. In my book Learned Hopefulness: The Power of Positivity to Overcome Depression, the main point of the exercises and examples is to demonstrate that hope is a verb. Pausing to ask yourself what’s happening, figuring out what needs to be done and what you believe you can do are great beginnings. But you have to act—you have to do something to test out your belief that you have control. If it works—then you have made a change that moves the situation forward. If it doesn’t, it is time to pause again and recalculate and repeat the process. The pause lets you become aware of what’s happening, the assessment lets you determine what needs to be done, and the action is what you can bring to the situation. It is a three-step process of becoming aware, assessing, and acting.

I’m Overwhelmed. What Can I Do?

Imagine you’re organizing your first dinner party: You spent all day cooking, and you’re excited for your five best friends to come over so you can all catch up on each other’s lives. The table is set, the candles are burning, and the champagne is about to be popped. Then, you get a text: Two of your best friends can’t make it last minute. You feel disappointed and sad.

How do you respond to these negative feelings? It turns out, how you respond to them (and whether you respond in a flexible way, that best fits the needs of the situation) can affect your mental health.

Do you try to see the situation more positively, by focusing on feeling grateful for your friends who were able to make it? If so, you are engaging in cognitive reappraisal, which involves reframing something in a more positive way.

Do you ignore, or suppress, those feelings of sadness? This is referred to as emotional suppression.

Do you think about why two of your best friends weren’t able to make it, over and over again? This is called rumination.

Cognitive reappraisal, emotional suppression, and rumination are just a few examples of emotion regulation strategies. Emotion regulation strategies refer to techniques that people use to manage their emotions. Research shows that certain emotion regulation strategies may benefit your mental health and well-being more than others. For example, cognitive reappraisal seems to lead to greater well-being and better mental health outcomes, whereas the opposite is true for emotional suppression and rumination.

Cognitive reappraisal (i.e., reframing something in a more positive way) is typically a helpful way to regulate your emotions and can be particularly helpful when a situation is uncontrollable. For example, you can’t control how many friends show up to your dinner party, so it can be helpful to focus on the positive and feel grateful for your friends that did show up to your dinner party. However, cognitive reappraisal may not be as helpful when you can control the situation.

Take this as an example—let’s say you failed a midterm exam in your physics class, you’re feeling sad, and you decide to use cognitive reappraisal to help reframe the situation. You might think, “Oh, the midterm exam is only 40 percent of my grade, and my physics grade doesn’t determine the rest of my life.” Though this might be true, making yourself feel better about failing your test could lead you to feel less motivated to work hard to perform well on your final exam. So, cognitive reappraisal might not always be the best strategy to use, since it can affect your motivation to respond to those feelings of sadness in a more adaptive way, by studying harder for your next test, in situations that you can control.

Working With Your Partner to Confront and Control Stress

At some point in our lives, we will be confronted by difficulties and stressors that not only will impact us as individuals but also have the potential to affect our relationships. Understanding how to come together as a team when these situations are encountered can lead to greater relationship satisfaction.

The Research

Dyadic coping involves the signals sent by one partner indicating stress, the response of their partner, and their joint coping efforts (Bodenmann, 2005; Bodenmann & Cina, 2005, as cited in Papp & Witt, 2010). When stress signals are sent by one individual, the partner has the option to do nothing, respond negatively and potentially escalate the level of stress, or engage in dyadic coping. Dyadic coping strategies may involve joint problem-solving, sharing feelings of commitment, and supporting one another, all with the goal of reducing stress. Papp and Witt (2010) conducted a study with 100 heterosexual couples to determine how individual coping affects dyadic coping, as well as how individual and dyadic coping strategies predict both partner well-being and relationship functioning.

To examine coping strategies in this study, the researchers looked at peoples’ negative mood regulation, which involves their expectations and beliefs as to how their behaviors will reduce negative mood and/or increase positive mood (Catanzaro & Mearns, 1990, as cited in Papp & Witt, 2010). Previous research has shown that negative mood regulation expectations “…are linked with indicators of relationship functioning, including attachment styles and conflict strategies (Creasey, Kershaw, & Boston, 1999, as cited in Papp & Whitt, p. 552).

The researchers found that there was a relationship between individual coping and dyadic coping, and that positive dyadic coping was positively associated with respondents’ own relationship satisfaction. Furthermore, female partners’ positive dyadic coping was positively linked with their male partners’ relationship satisfaction, and both males’ and females’ negative mood regulation scores were positively linked to relationship satisfaction.

Overall, the researchers found that dyadic coping was a stronger predictor than individual coping when it came to relationship functioning. Gender differences emerged in that dyadic coping appeared to be more important to relationship satisfaction for women and that “…women’s dyadic coping as compared to men may help to enrich broader relationship functioning for both partners” (Papp & Witt, 2010, p. 557). Taken together, one thing is clear: Working with your partner can affect the satisfaction derived from the relationship.

The Application

So now that we know that dyadic coping can enhance relationship satisfaction, how might we be able to initiate it? Below are a couple of suggestions:

  • Turn to your partner and explain the situation fully, using clear language and “I statements.” By focusing on what the situation is, how you’re being affected, and why it’s upsetting you, you are able to signal to your partner how you are feeling and what you need. Additionally, you are indicating that there is a problem without blaming your partner (should the stress be interpersonal in nature).
  • Indicate what you need and/or what you don’t need in that moment. Sometimes it’s easy to indicate the type of support we need, such as a person to lend an ear, someone to brainstorm potential solutions with, etc. In other situations, however, we may not know how to reduce the stress or handle a problem. If the latter is the case, that is OK, but share that with your partner. Even more helpful would be indicating what you don’t need to avoid situations in which your partner unintentionally escalates the level of stress experienced (for example, by constantly reassuring you that things will be OK, when you may not know if that is the case). The more information you can offer your partner as to what you need and don’t need, the more likely it is that you will be operating as a team.

The above points are just suggestions for opening up a conversation with your partner about how you would like to handle stress as a team. It is important to have this discussion proactively so that when difficulties arise, you will be prepared to handle them together.

Fall Is the Season for Building Mindfulness and Resilience

Whether you like it or not, fall is here. Soon the weather will get colder, the leaves will die and the nights will stretch longer than the days. Outdoor pools have closed and the holidays are coming. Another year is dying; that’s just how it goes.

At least, that’s the way autumn often is cast — as a time of aging and decay. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley compared autumn’s falling leaves to corpses in the grave. William Shakespeare called it “Death’s second self,” when youth burns to ashes. More recently, it’s become a time to acknowledge our existential dread.

For many of those who struggle with seasonal depression in the winter months, the fall is the beginning of their symptoms. A few small studies even suggest that if you are “ruminative,” or deeply preoccupied with your thoughts, in the autumn, you may be at more risk for depression in the winter. Changing the clocks in the fall is associated with depressive episodes (changing them back in the spring is not). It’s no wonder the season has so many celebrations to attempt to keep our spirits up.

Psychologists say that the feelings that often crop up in autumn stem from our discomfort with change, and an anxiety and uncertainty about what that change will bring. The melancholy we feel is a form of grief, mourning the lost sunlight, the ease of summertime, and the greenery that abounds in the warm weather.

But it’s not all bad. Fall also brings with it bright, brisk days, pumpkin patches and cozy sweaters. Somewhere in the crunching leaves, crackling fires and chilly air, you might locate a feeling of possibility, even electricity.

And all of these things — the anxiety, the promise and even the rumination — make it the ideal season to build resilience and practice mindfulness.

For Jelena Kecmanovic, the founder of Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute, the fall is reminiscent of exploring the mountains near her home in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, where she spent the first 20 years of her life, during one of that country’s most prosperous eras. But in the 1990s, she was forced to flee during a bloody four-year siege of her city.

Today, she is an expert in resilience, a concept centering on the capacity to adapt to challenging life experiences. Dr. Kecmanovic described autumn as the season when we can work on our acceptance of uncertainty — embracing that unsettled feeling we may have as we move out of our warm-weather routines.

Psychologists have found that the thought of change, the ending of one thing, the beginning of another and, yes, perhaps our own mortality, underlies a great deal of anxiety. Some of us struggle with “intolerance of uncertainty,” as experts call it, more than others. This tendency was first named in the 1990s by a team of Canadian psychologists and has since been identified as a risk factor for poor mental health.

Omega-3 may provide a brain boost for people in midlife

According to a new study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, people who have higher omega-3 levels in their middle ages may have an edge over people who take in lower levels of omega-3. 

The study was led by researchers at the University of Texas Health at San Antonio, TX, who were concerned about the lack of research on how omega-3 can impact people in their midlife.

Omega-3: Things to know

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), omega-3 fatty acids “are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are important for a number of functions in the body.” In addition to playing a role in heart health and cognitive functioning, omega-3 fatty acids are also part of the cell membrane and affect cell functioning.

As Professor Stuart Phillips noted during a Live Long and Master Aging podcast, “Some fats that we ingest, and particularly the omega-3 or long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are actually what we refer to as essential fats. We need to have them in our diet because we don’t have the ability to make them ourselves.”

Prof. Phillips is the director of the Physical Activity Center of Excellence at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. 

The NIHTrusted Source lists three types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

The daily recommendation for the omega-3 fatty acid ALA for adults and people who are pregnant or breastfeeding:

  • Men 1.6 g
  • Women 1.1 g
  • Pregnant teens and women 1.4 g
  • Breastfeeding teens and women 1.3 g

This recommendation is only for ALA as experts have not yet established recommendations for the other two fatty acids. 

While people can take omega-3 supplements, it is also in a number of foods. Some good sources of omega-3 include fish (such as salmon and tuna) and nuts and seeds (chia seeds and flax seeds).

Studying Omega-3’s effect

The researchers studied 2,183 men and women with an average age of 46. They excluded people who had dementia or a history of having a stroke from their participant pool.

Using blood samples, the researchers analyzed the fatty acid composition of each participant. The participants also consented to having their brains scanned using MRI technology. 

The researchers were interested in the volumes of gray and white matter present in the brain, particularly in the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a role in learning and memory, and a reduction in the volume can point to possible dementia. 

The participants also underwent a neurological assessment. The tests measured the participants’ abstract thinking, processing speed, executive function, and delayed episodic memory. 

Omega-3 and brain health 

The researchers placed approximately 25% of the participants in the low group where the participants had omega-3 fatty acids blood levels falling under 4%. This group had an average count of 3.4%. 

The rest of the participants were put into the high group; their average omega-3 level was 5.2%. 

Comparing the blood samples, MRI results, and neurological assessments, the study authors determined that higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids correlate to a higher hippocampal volume and better abstract reasoning. 

Researchers observed that the people in the high group also had higher gray matter volumes, better reading scores, and slightly higher logical reasoning scores. 

In contrast, the people in the low group tended to be less likely to have a college degree and more likely to be smokers and have diabetes compared to the higher group. 

“This exploratory study suggests that higher [omega-3 blood levels] are associated with larger hippocampal volumes and better performance in abstract reasoning, even in cognitively healthy middle-aged adults from the community, suggesting a possible role in improving cognitive resilience,” write the authors. 

“These results need to be confirmed with additional research, but it’s exciting that omega-3 levels could play a role in improving cognitive resilience, even in middle-aged people,” said study author Prof. Claudia L. Satizabal, Ph.D.

Prof. Satizabal is an assistant professor at the Department of Population Health Sciences at UT Health San Antonio, TX.

How Your Muscles Affect Your Mental Health

You’re probably underestimating your muscles. In fact, almost everyone does. While everyone knows, for instance, that muscles are important for function—activities such as walking, climbing, and lifting—few appreciate just how important muscles are for feeling.

If you haven’t noticed this mood-muscle connection yourself, take heart; it is only a recent discovery. Surprisingly, the entire scientific community remained in the dark until approximately 2003 (1) when a team of Copenhagen-based researchers reported a remarkable discovery: Muscles at work secrete tiny chemical messengers called myokines that exert powerful effects on organ function, including brain function (2).

Through the actions of myokines, muscle tissue communicates directly with the brain about its activity, triggering a cascade of biological responses that improve memory, learning, and mood (see Figure 1 below). This newly discovered mechanism implies that a person engaging in physical activities that build and maintain healthy muscle tissue can expect to enjoy a range of cognitive and mental health benefits. Recent clinical trials show precisely this effect (3).

If anyone has ever accused you of being complicated, they really had no idea. Although you can’t tell by looking in the mirror, the body you see reflected is comprised of more than 100 trillion cells. Cells are tiny; if you put cells side-by-side in a police lineup, for example, about 200 of them would fit in a single millimeter.

But that’s just the beginning of the miracle we call you. Every cell in your body is a thriving civilization in itself, populated by hundreds of millions of proteins and other molecules, each possessing a work ethic that would put John Henry to shame. Scaled to our size, your cellular citizens fly around at the speed of fighter jets, each busying themselves completing hundreds or even thousands of life-preserving functions per second. They must maintain this frenzied pace without interruption for you to survive, totaling billions of trillions of precisely performed chemical activities every day.

If you somehow possess a superhuman imagination capable of conceiving of this cellular cacophony, you may entertain a question: what powers all this? Remarkably, the enormous energy required to run your cells ultimately comes from the oxygen you breathe and the food you consume.

The latter seems important to remember the next time you don’t feel like eating your vegetables. Digested to the smallest denominator, nutrients are converted by mitochondria—arguably the VIP citizens of your cells—into billions of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) molecules per minute. Although even an ordinary cell may house thousands of these energy-producing mitochondria, muscle cells are mitochondrial beehives, possessing tens or even hundreds of thousands to power their operations. Once made, ATP is feasted upon by your cells like exhausted runners devouring PowerBars at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Emerging almost impossibly from this molecular mayhem is you. Every thought, feeling, and action results from and depends on this unceasing cycle of energy demand and energy production. And if it isn’t apparent from this description, the better your cells function at the level of the little, the better you feel and function at the level of the large.

This brings us back to resistance training. Given the vital roles your muscles play in energy production and brain function, perhaps it is time to begin appreciating resistance training and muscle building as being useful for more than athletes and magazine models.

Using your muscles against resistance, for example, is far more effective for strengthening your bones than any calcium supplement (4). Regular muscle activity also improves insulin resistance (the cause of diabetes and many other metabolic conditions) better than any prescription medicine.

And now we know that stimulating muscle tissue with resistance training has emotional effects rivaling those of conventional antidepressants and psychotherapies (3). Recent neuroscience suggests that we evolved brains for one primary reason: to move (5). Counterintuitive to our traditional preoccupation with thinking, the primary function of the human brain is to coordinate complex movement (this is probably why we have brains while giant but stationary redwood trees do not).

4 Mindful Steps to Lower Stress and Improve Well-Being

Awareness of our emotions can help us see clearly how deleterious factors, such as addiction, influence our lives and give us the energy to change them. For example, Paul shared, “When I put a substance of any kind in my body that feels good, it tends to set a chain of events into action that doesn’t make me feel good. Even the first one turns me into someone I don’t want to be. There’s this saying, ‘There’re certain things that control is impossible the moment it’s suggested.’ That’s alcohol and drugs for me. When addiction was manifesting itself in heavy ways for me, I think I was looking for something. I was looking for something the world isn’t offering—something that made me feel whole and connected. The practice of mindfulness is the most direct route to that feeling. It takes some hard work, courage, and commitment, but there is no moment at which it’s not possible.”

Through Paul’s self-awareness of his emotional tone, he was able to see how much better meditation made him feel overall compared to alcohol and drugs. Through this realization, he came to care for his emotions by fostering a personal mindfulness and meditation practice and acting on the insights that arose from it. There are specific practices that encourage us to take a moment to pause, check in with our emotional tone, and respond to that emotional tone in a considered way. One approach that we teach in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based College is the STOP practice. 

The STOP Mindfulness Practice

One way to connect with our emotions and emotional wisdom is to use the STOP practice. The STOP practice can be used periodically throughout the day. It’s a useful habit to get into. Evidence suggests that it helps with emotion regulation, especially when feeling depressed, anxious, or stressed. But you can use it any time, as it is good training for being “here” every moment, whether that moment is pleasant, unpleasant, or somewhere in between.

Here’s how to do the STOP practice:

  1. S: Stop what you are doing.
  2. T: Take a breath.
  3. O: Observe and open yourself to thoughts, feelings, and the physical manifestations of the experience (tension in the shoulders, for example).
  4. P: Proceed by doing something to support an effective response to the experience. This might include skillfully responding to someone who just asked you to do something, taking a short walk to take some space from what just occurred, hugging that family member or friend who just smiled at you, or deciding not to have another alcoholic beverage.

In our research, the STOP practice was frequently reported as useful. One participant shared: “Alarm bells go off in my head, and I know I need to stop, take a breath, open toward me, and proceed. And then I remember to be kind to myself” (Nardi et al. 2020). 

The STOP practice can help regulate strong emotions. The Mindfulness-Based College study showed significant protective effects against depression over the school term. In the people randomly assigned to be in the control group (who waited to take the course until the following term), depressive symptoms increased as exams and term papers mounted. The people randomly assigned to take the Mindfulness-Based College course, while facing the same stressors, showed resilience. Their depressive symptoms stayed stable in the face of the term’s stressors (Loucks et al. 2021). Other mindfulness studies in youths (ages 12 to 25 years) showed similar findings (Dawson et al. 2019).

I invite you to take a few opportunities each day to STOP—not only when you are feeling stressed or unsure but as a way to be in the moment, whether to feel the beautiful sun shining on your face, fully notice the smile of a child, or feel the sadness in your heart. A big part of mindfulness is coming to know yourself, including where your emotions are at right now, and recognizing that emotions may shift from moment to moment or have steadiness. One of the best ways to come to know our emotions better, and thereby care for and harness them to serve ourselves and others, is to stop and observe our feelings with curiosity, gentleness, and kindness. I invite you to try the STOP practice now, or at your next opportunity when the time feels right.

Take a Mental Vacation This Weekend

We all know that we work too much in the United States.

The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world without a minimum annual leave for workers—a minimum number of paid vacation days in a year granted to employees.1. 

The average American worker toiled for 1,791 hours in 2021.2 This was 428 hours more than the average worker in Denmark and 442 hours more than a worker in Germany. In 2021, we worked, on average, 184 more hours than a worker in Japan and 195 more hours than a worker in… Slovenia. I don’t know about you, but these numbers surprised me. I am not sure how many hours I was expecting someone in Slovenia to work, but I sure am jealous of their work-life balance over there. All I know is that a small part of each of us likely dies inside when we take stock of these comparisons.

There is a laundry list of problems with our work culture: lack of a national paid parental leave benefit, stigma around using vacation and sick days, the systematic undervaluing and under-compensating of professions like teaching, etc. It could be easy to become bitter and cynical and… stop there, but that is not what a reader of Psychology Today is about, right? What can we do?

Treat Your Weekend Like a Vacation

A group of researchers wanted to see if prompting employees on a Friday to “treat this weekend like a vacation” would allow them to enjoy their time off more and be more emotionally and mentally refreshed upon going back to work the following Monday compared to being prompted to “treat this weekend like a regular weekend.”They surveyed 441 full-time employees before and after the following weekend and found that workers who were primed to live out their weekend like a mini vacation reported that they were more focused on the present moment, which translated to more positive emotions, less negative feelings, and greater satisfaction when back at work. 

Takeaway: Actually behave as if your weekend is like a vacation. That means actually not working. Resist the urge to do one more thing for work, check or respond to work emails, or do work-like tasks such as chores or dealing with obligations (given any realistic constraints). 

Actually Take Your Vacations

A 2000 study following middle-aged men at high risk for coronary heart disease (CHD) for nine years found that taking more frequent vacations was correlated with a reduced likelihood of dying from any cause and specifically, with a reduced risk of mortality due to CHD.4 Another study investigating the impact of taking time off showed that three days after employees took a vacation, they reported improved mood, better quality of sleep, and less physical complaints than before vacation. Interestingly, five weeks after vacation, individuals in the study still reported having less physical complaints than before their vacations.5

Be Present

When you look back on your life, will you remember the work emails you responded to or will you remember the quality time you spent with your cat, dog, friend, family, love of your life, or even yourself? Will you remember the extra tidying you did around the house or will you remember the spontaneous adventure you had around town or in nature? As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

Readjusting and the Pursuit of Happiness

In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud observed that struggle is intrinsic to the human condition. As a psychiatrist, I help people deal with it. That includes helping them to direct that struggle towards finding happiness.

I help people identify the source(s) of their unhappiness and work through ways that help them 1) stop hurting, and 2) begin to experience a much-improved state of mind relative to their initial problem. Notice how contextualized and open-ended that second task is. 

Happiness (or, rather, getting there) involves work, tailored to each individual in some particular aspect of their lives. The goal, which many patients achieve at least to some degree, is to experience less conflict or struggle; more personal freedom; greater clarity about themselves and/or others; more contentment; and at the far end of the spectrum, maybe even joy.

Always, we focus on the patient’s learning to take the initiative, to direct his or her mind towards whatever they need to find in order to feel happy. At work, it could be finding a sense of purpose after aimlessly drifting. It could be finding a way to feel valuable after retirement. We examine a patient’s thought processes; their pratfalls; their finding the incentive to continue. 

Because the goal is proceeding towards happiness, the question of incentive—i.e., motivation, the will to keep going—turns up no matter what the patient’s ultimate concerns. Patients set about finding mental energy, the personal wherewithal to make a difference in how they proceed through life. Ultimately, I have observed people’s committed struggles to feel better about where they are, who they are, and what they still can accomplish.

I define the domains of happiness around those that continually (unremittingly) involve my patients:

Work and Money. This is about pursuing happiness in professional life. How do we balance the need to work with all the stress indigenous to a work environment? How do we choose an occupation when we love doing one thing but something else pays more? Work and sacrifice seem to run in tandem. It’s as if taking up a profession, or even just holding a job, is a constant balancing act where personal preference, financial reward, and even ethics are constantly jostling for importance in a complex calculus that changes over the course of our lives. 

My patients struggle to define their relationship to work at various, crucial inflection points along the way. They adapt and transcend disappointment. They find more in work than merely a source of financial security or a way to structure their lives.

Wellness and Personal Growth. Wellness refers to an individual’s continued growth across and balance among several dimensions of life: the physical, to be sure, but also emotional, social, and professional. It may also include a spiritual dimension, which is not so much a belief in God as a capacity to listen to your heart, live by your principles, and be fully present in whatever you do. In this posture, spirituality means curiosity and openness to experience; you learn about being human, and allow yourself and others to be who you (or they) really are; you see opportunities for growth in the challenges that life presents. Thus, whether “wellness” is or is not physical, it takes work. It takes commitment, and a sensitivity that extends beyond oneself.

Depression Might Be Trying to Tell Us Something

Until recently, a central tenet of biomedical psychiatry was that depression is caused by low serotonin levels. A recent study has debunked that claim, to great publicity. In response, some researchers have called for “doubling down” on the search for biological causes of depression. I want to present something radically different.

What if depression is purposeful, rather than pathological? What if it’s a designed response to a problem of life, not a disease?

Evolutionary Psychiatry

Some researchers over the past 30 years have argued that depression isn’t a disease but an evolved adaptation. Though there are a number of specific hypotheses, they all share the idea that depression is nature’s way of telling us that something in our lives isn’t going well—particularly with our social interactions. 

One of the first of these hypotheses was the social competition hypothesis. In this view, depression originated in prehistoric competitions over resources. When I find myself “outcompeted” by another person for a prized resource, depression saps my incentive to fight. 

A second, more general, view is that depression is nature’s way of helping us detach from unrealistic life goals. Low mood takes away my motivation to strive for unrealistic goals and lets me focus on realistic ones.

A third hypothesis is called the social risk theory. This view sees depression as a response to the threat of exclusion. Through depression, I communicate that I’m a “low social risk” to others, and I convey the need for additional support from close friends and relatives.

A fourth is the analytical rumination hypothesis. It stems from the observation that people with depression often mull over their perceived failures. This suggests that the purpose of depression is to help us focus attention on complex social problems.

Evidence for the Design Hypothesis

Unfortunately, evolutionary hypotheses cannot be tested directly. They require drawing evidence from a large number of different areas. And, the fact is, there’s not a lot of funding available for testing them. 

Still, there are some intriguing lines of evidence suggesting that depression is an adaptation, not a disease (see del Giudice 2018 for a review).

Depression occurs worldwide, with a high incidence and strong genetic risk. That’s often a sign that it’s playing some important role in our lives. If it were a disease, we wouldn’t expect it to be so common, especially among people of reproductive age.

It’s long been recognized that depression is more likely to be triggered by perceived social losses, rather than nonsocial losses. It’s more likely to be triggered by factors such as divorce or humiliation, rather than losing a house or car.

Depression shows high comorbidity with other disorders with a strong social component, such as social anxiety disorder. Also, depressed people tend to be highly vigilant to the threat of social rejection.

Even if depression is an adaptation, that doesn’t mean it always has a positive outcome. In some cases, depression can become unregulated and spiral into something quite destructive.

For example, depression can have a “self-reinforcing” character. Depression can lead to social isolation, which can reinforce depression. Rumination over one’s perceived failures can reinforce patterns of negative thinking.

Moreover, even if depression helped our prehistoric ancestors, that doesn’t mean it’s always useful today. For example, if depression is caused by having unrealistic life goals, it doesn’t help that we’re surrounded by media telling us our worth as human beings is connected to our accomplishments.

The Ripple Effect of Depression

Sometimes I can practically diagnose a patient with depression even before meeting them. Just hearing the exasperation of a family member who contacts me to schedule a consultation for their spouse, parent, or adult child is a telltale sign that major depression is at play. These are well-intentioned, caring people but they are worn out by trying to lift their loved one out of their depressive state. 

Depression Is a Family Affair

Depression doesn’t just affect the sufferer. Chronic depression has a ripple effect. Close family and friends often feel worried, scared, helpless, annoyed, frustrated, and guilty that they can’t cheer up or energize their loved one. It’s often only when they are totally exhausted—when they feel they “can’t do it anymore” and have given up on the idea that they can rescue their loved one—that they acknowledge they need outside help.

This was the case with Ruth.* By the time Ruth’s adult daughter called me, she and her husband were at their wits’ end. I heard the desperation in her voice as she described Ruth’s chronic lethargy. She and her husband had been caring for her mom for two years as she became a virtual recluse at home. Ruth had been a vivacious, active woman but now, in her 60s, she was physically and psychologically dependent on her children. They lived nearby, did her shopping, and arranged for her meals, cleaning, and home care. Terrified that they couldn’t bear the load any longer and guilty about feeling overwhelmed, they called me for a consultation.

“I’m a mess” were the first words out of Ruth’s mouth when I met with her. She looked disheveled, sad, and anxious and was as confused as her children about her condition.

“I don’t know what happened to me.”

It had been 10 years since Ruth’s husband had died. She’d adjusted to being a widow and had enjoyed time with a boyfriend until two years ago when she suddenly lost her appetite, couldn’t sleep, and became anxiety-ridden about “everything.” She became afraid to leave the house—with no apparent cause for her fear. She had a hard time getting to sleep and an even harder time getting up in the morning. She told me she only stayed alive because her kids are so devoted to her and “it would kill them if I did anything to myself.” She had considered canceling the appointment her children had arranged with me. “There isn’t anything or anyone that can help me,” she said in a whisper. “My mother had something like this. It’s just going to be how I die.”

Classic Signs of Major Depression

Everyone gets down from time to time. But major depression is not “the blues.” Ruth had classic symptoms of the condition. She lost her appetite for food and for life. She no longer wanted to go out and socialize. She had trouble falling asleep, lacked the energy or desire to get out of bed in the morning, suffered from anxiety, and her relationships with family and others were disintegrating. She felt helpless and hopeless. She had thoughts of suicide.

Like many family members who are caring but worn out with a loved one who becomes dysfunctional, Ruth’s children were losing sympathy and patience.

“My mother is just more of what she always was,” her daughter told me. “She’s just being passive-aggressive, trying to get more and more of our attention and time.” From her children’s viewpoint, there was no rational reason why Ruth was being so lethargic, ineffectual, and dependent. With no medical ailment to explain Ruth’s sudden inability to care for herself, they couldn’t understand why she didn’t just “snap out of it.” But people who are severely depressed—usually due to genetic, biological, hormonal, and/or situational factors—act paralyzed because that is how they feel. Their despair is so heavy that it seems almost tangible. Their depression cannot be overcome by sheer force of will. 

It was possible that Ruth hadn’t fully grieved her deceased husband and would benefit from exploring her unresolved feelings in psychotherapy. But, first, we needed to get Ruth’s depressive symptoms under control. I explained to Ruth that her disparate symptoms were all part of one condition: major depression, a condition that is very treatable. She sat up straight in her chair, eyes wide open, and, for the first time in our meeting, seemed energetically engaged. She seemed somewhat shocked but reassured to learn that there was a clear explanation for what she had been experiencing.

After establishing that there was no underlying medical condition contributing to Ruth’s depression, I presented some medication options and recommended an antidepressant that has an energizing effect. I told her we would start slowly, at a very low dose, and gradually increase to a therapeutic level to minimize any possible side effects. I explained that it can take a few weeks for the medication to “kick in” but she might see a slight lightening of mood early on, which usually bodes well for a successful outcome. I told her to call me if she had any questions and concerns and that we would meet in two weeks to review how things were going. Once she regained some energy, we’d start setting goals. Step by step, she would get back to grocery shopping, cleaning her home, and contacting old friends.

With Ruth’s permission, I invited her daughter into the consultation room and shared her diagnosis and treatment plan, Ruth and her daughter seemed visibly relieved. They had just been presented with a roadmap to recovery. They could see light at the end of the tunnel.

Head Trauma Can Result in Chronic Sleep Disturbances

A single, severe traumatic head injury, or repeated multiple concussions that are typical of collision sports, can result in chronic sleep disturbances that can persist several years after the incident. Recent studies describe the mechanisms that link sleep disturbance and neurodegeneration.

Concussions cause mechanical injury to the brain that has functional consequences. The sudden acceleration, deceleration, and or rotation of the head may cause axonal shearing or avulsion. This type of injury alters the functions of neural circuits that underlie mood, learning and memory abilities, and sleep. A large majority of brain trauma victims report trouble initiating and or maintaining sleep or sleeping for excessive periods of time. These symptoms may persist for several years after the injury due to the neurochemical changes that are induced by the trauma.

Repeated concussions may lead to excess accumulation of amyloid-β and τ-proteins, which are implicated in neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Sleep disturbances, even minor ones such as a single night of sleep deprivation, can result in the accumulation of toxic amyloid-β and τ-protein. The accumulation of amyloid-β and τ-proteins alone are also sufficient to disrupt slow-wave sleep. Head trauma initiates a vicious cycle of sleep disturbance leading to the accumulation of these proteins, which then leads to more sleep disturbance. One important phase of sleep, slow-wave sleep, appears critical for the clearance of amyloid-β and τ-protein by the brain’s glymphatic system. Most head trauma victims probably do not get enough slow-wave sleep.

A recent study examined various sleep parameters, including, total sleep time, difficulty to fall asleep, restlessness, time to wake after sleep onset, sleep efficiency, and how much each stage of sleep contributed to the overall night of sleeping, after head trauma in 896 athletes.

Sleep disturbances were commonly reported within a week of head trauma. Such disturbances included poor sleep quality, excessive daytime sleepiness, and perceived changes in sleep duration, with both sleeping longer and sleeping less being reported. There was an apparent dose-response relationship between the number of head traumas experienced and the severity of sleep disturbance reported. Although most of the athletes in this analysis were males, the study noted that females are more likely to report poor sleep quality following head trauma.

These changes are unfortunate given that good quality sleep may reduce the histological changes. Sleep scientists speculate that the brains of those people who reported sleeping longer than usual after head trauma may be trying to increase the amount of slow-wave sleep to maximize the glymphatic drainage. Conversely, those who report sleeping less than usual after head trauma may be susceptible to the loss of slow-wave sleep, which may be contributing to cognitive decline in later life.

Studies of head trauma victims have led to a better understanding of the connection between sleep quality, the deposition of toxic proteins, and the increased vulnerability to the development of age-related neurodegenerative diseases. Unfortunately, no clinical studies have yet identified effective ways to improve sleep quality in these victims.

Ultimate Mind Hack Flips Emotional Reactivity Into Calm

I vividly remember the time a client came to see me and was very upset by the rudeness of a friend she had seen that week. “Tell me what happened,” I said. “Well, I saw her crossing the street and I called out her name, but she just ignored me and kept on walking.” So upset and hurt was my client by her friend’s action—or rather, non-action—that she decided not to talk with her anymore.

We’ve all felt disrespected by others at some point or another. But in my client’s case, I felt there was a lot of room for misinterpretation because of a style of thought known as mind reading. As it implies, mind reading suggests that you fill in the blanks on what someone is thinking without really getting hard evidence. 

The mind hack I’m referring to in this post uses mindfulness to flip reactivity into peace and calm. 

In my client’s case, I suggested we brainstorm other possible reasons why her friend didn’t respond. After a while, the client came up with a list of reasons, such as 1) the friend was focused on traffic to safely cross the street, 2) the friend didn’t hear her name through all the noise on the street, 3) the friend was engrossed in her own world of thoughts and things she needed to do, and 4) the friend was late for an appointment. 

After our brainstorming, the client decided to call her friend and check in to see if she was okay. Later, my client reported back that her friend never heard her call. She was simply trying to navigate her way through several important errands that day. 

As we eventually dug deeper into the belief systems of my client, she described that she was never affirmed and truly seen in her family of origin. As a result, she was always on the lookout and ready to judge others as being non-affirming—even if they were friends walking along a busy street! The new awareness helped her become more curious about how her own mental schemas and beliefs were coloring her world and behaviors. 

With Mindfulness, It’s Not About You 

With mindfulness, we develop the mental habit of viewing persons and events—even those annoying and difficult ones—with a more curious, open, compassionate, and welcoming perspective. This seems like a good place to cue up a quote from Jesuit priest and spiritual teacher Anthony De Mello:

When you’re upset, your window is blurred. And … you’re going to straighten out all the buildings because your window is blurred with the rain. Could we clean your windows first? … We see people not as they are but as we are. And it’s amazing how in the beginning we saw people as rude; then when we change, we see frightened people. They’re so scared, poor things, that they’re driven to hostility. Then you’re understanding, you’re compassionate, whereas before you’d react with anger, with hate.

So, when our window is blurred by an inner landscape of beliefs, we can easily get upset for no reason. In fact, the case could be made that reality just happens as it is, and that we make ourselves upset. For example, it’s rainy and cold outside (or too hot and humid), and you don’t like it because it makes you unhappy or uncomfortable. But the rain is just the rain, the cold is just the cold, and the heat is just the heat. 

That doesn’t mean we can’t engage in changing things or making them better, but when we do so from a place of reactivity, we aren’t seeing things clearly. As a result, we may do more harm than good. Reactivity is suffering, and if you react from your reactivity, you can only produce more suffering. 

Practice: Turn Reactivity Into Calm

With this practice, you’re going to demonstrate to yourself how mindfulness can put reactivity to rest. Spoiler Alert: This won’t stop rude drivers from cutting you off or turn an insensitive boss into a caring leader. 

To begin, find a quiet place where you can reflect or journal for the next five minutes. 

  • Right now, think of an annoying event that occurred recently. Maybe someone cut you off while you were driving. Maybe you couldn’t meet a deadline for a work, school, or other project. Maybe you were stuck behind a long line of people at the store. Whatever your annoyance, what were you feeling in the moment? Write this down in detail, including how it affected tension in the body and change of mood. 
  • Now, let’s imagine we could turn back the clock. Only this time, you’ll re-experience the event as if you possessed a newfound superpower—the ability to be like Teflon to whatever comes your way. Actually, your superpower is the ability to be more open, curious, accepting, grateful and compassionate. For example, if your annoyance was with another person, your superpower would open your tender heart—so you would be aware of how that person might have been late for an appointment or not feeling well. You could also use your superpower to shift your attention to be more curious toward something you could have gratitude for—even during the annoying event. In other words, your superpower helps you to not take anything personally!
  • Again, visualize or journal a do-over of the annoying event, only this time picture yourself using your Teflon superpowers. What does this feel like? How different is this from your initial reactivity of the same event?

How to Be Happy

The United States ranks 19th on the World Happiness Index. What can we learn from the strategies of Finland (#1), Denmark (#2), Switzerland (#3), Iceland (#4), and the Netherlands (#5)? They’re not ideal places, and, yes, their affluence is key, but what are they doing that we can add to our lives here? 


Finland is known for sisu, which can be defined as selfless stamina and a rough, fearless outlook that is motivational. Applied to its housing policies, for example, sisu is behind the program called Housing First: You are entitled to have a permanent home, but the rest is up to you. The idea is that with a place of your own, you’ll have more sisu to solve your other problems, from ending substance use to getting job training to accessing mental health services.


Denmark is famous for hygge. That outlook is reflected in its generous approach to childcare. From paid leave for both parents to a 70 percent subsidy for childcare for children six months to five years old, the policy keeps families from stressing out. 


Gezellig, in Dutch, means, more or less, cozy-schmozy, a warm, head-to-toe feeling, an inner glow. When you’re physically and mentally healthy, you feel gezellig. The latest craze in the Netherlands is cow hugging, which takes gezellig to new levels.


Due to its small population and tiny geography, Iceland is a natural place for community cohesion. Well-being is a focus through increased government support for gender equality, fair housing, and access to medical care. 

As Icelandic governmental psychologist Dóra Guðmundsdóttir noted, “the biggest predictor for unhappiness is having financial difficulty. Those who find it difficult to make ends meet have the lowest happiness score of all groups, lower than those without a job and those with the lowest income.”

Who are the leaders creating policies that lead to happy people?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but all of the top-five happiest nations are either led by women or have a majority or near-majority of women in top posts. Sanna Marin is the Prime Minister (PM) of Finland. As the Social Democratic Party leader, she has a cabinet made up of 12 women out of 19 ministers. Mette Frederiksen is the PM of Denmark. Katrín Jakobsdóttir is PM of Iceland. Switzerland has a Federal Council of seven ministers rather than one leader, and the current Council has three women, all in prominent positions. Holland’s PM is Mark Rutte, but Sigrid Kaag is its First Deputy PM and there are five women ministers in its 12-person cabinet.

We experience happiness as individuals, but well-being is often due to situations far beyond our personal lives.

6 Strategies for Managing Disappointments

When outcomes don’t live up to our expectations, when our hopes are rejected, we feel disappointment—a distinctive combination of frustration, sadness, loss, and anger that can have ramifications for future behavior.

We can feel disappointment over a range of outcomes—large, small, and in between. The greater the disparity between outcomes and expectations, the greater the disappointment. Managing our disappointments helps us in the short term by tempering the initial sting of an unpleasant outcome. And it helps in the long run by showing that avoiding disappointment shouldn’t deter us from seeking change and opportunity.

Here are six strategies for managing disappointment.

1. Remembering Why We Took the Chance in the First Place

After a disappointment, it’s useful to set aside the outcome for a moment and recall the reasons and motivations for our efforts. Most of us concentrate on getting through the present, so afterward, it takes effort to remember what led to our actions. Outcomes often obscure the primary influences.

By placing ourselves back in time and recreating the original context, we can better understand our initial choices. In that way, we can accurately evaluate our reasons and motivations without the influence of hindsight bias. 

2. Acknowledging Our Feelings

We really did want the job, and the rejection was unpleasant. We shouldn’t dwell on the outcome, but we also shouldn’t engage in premature positivity. Accepting the emotion of disappointment, however painful, allows us to understand our disappointment more fully.

This understanding then removes the power of disappointment and diminishes its future influence, opening us up to a wider spectrum of opportunities later. If we know how disappointment feels, it’s not as ominous when deciding about future endeavors. Moreover, recognizing our disappointment makes us more self-aware in general.

3. Evaluating Our Expectations 

Were our expectations realistic? Depending on our answer, we may change our approach or our expectations. In Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett wrote, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Although Beckett didn’t intend inspiration, his words can be interpreted that way. And they can also be augmented. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Try again differently, possibly succeed.

5 Good Ways to Construct Habits

Many people are interested in establishing better habits. There are easier and harder ways to do this. We have more affinity for developing some habits than others. When you utilize this knowledge, it can make habit curation easier.

1. Use natural deadlines.

Have you ever tried to construct a “fake” (self-imposed) deadline to get yourself to do something? That rarely works very well.

In contrast, research shows that externally-imposed, short deadlines successfully influence our behavior.

This quirk of human nature can work against us when it leads us to prioritize relatively unimportant tasks with imminent deadlines ahead of more important work that has no or a far way deadline. However, we can also use this phenomenon to serve us. How?

Use natural deadlines to support your habits.

Two examples. 

  • I currently have monthly doctor’s appointments. I get labs drawn the day before each appointment. I don’t like having blood drawn, so often I will put this off. However, I want to review the results with the doctor. That motivates me to keep up the habit. The doctor also complimented me on how conscientious I am about it, so now I want to keep up my ‘star pupil’ status!
  • My trash company picks up our trash and recycling on Wednesday mornings. That motivates me to tidy up and fill up the bins on Tuesdays. If I don’t use that space in the bins each week, it’s permanently lost as I can only put out what fits in the bins. 

2. Observe when you already do the behavior you’re trying to make a habit.

My latest book, Stress-Free Productivity, is about using self-knowledge to personalize your productivity. Instead of adopting other people’s systems and suggestions, you can reverse-engineer your own. If there is a behavior you do sporadically, identify if there is any pattern to when you do it.

“When” could be related to time (e.g., day of the week, month of the year), or it could be related to circumstance (e.g., when your partner is out of town or when your kids go back to school after vacations).

If you already have a bit of a habit, you can strengthen it, including to built habits of doing behaviors you enjoy more. For example, I like listening to author Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast specifically on road trips. But, I don’t always think about doing this or downloading episodes ahead of time if I have poor service.

3. Observe your best windows of self-regulation.

Most of us have windows of time when we’re more focused and on-task than other times. My best windows are Mondays to Wednesdays, from when I wake up until about 1 pm.

Work with your natural rhythms rather than against them. If a habit is critically important, plan to do it within your best windows of self-regulation.

Too often, people plan to do their most important tasks when they’re already exhausted from other work. For example, you think you’ll work on your most important long-term project at 3 pm after you’ve finished all your urgent work to-do’s.

4. Use “resets.”

Research shows that when our existing habits are disrupted, we’re most apt to build new habits. You can engineer this through different types of “resets.” For example, periodically delete all your YouTube or podcast subscriptions, and see which ones you miss.

If you’re even more game, you can do the same with paid memberships, like Costco or Netflix. Periodically cancel all (or some) of them and try a habit reset.

What other ideas do you have for how you could “reset” your current habits and allow new ones to emerge in their place organically?

How to Regulate Anxiety

We might call the times we live in, ‘”The Second Age of Anxiety.” 

Surveys and clinical data indicate the highest levels of anxiety since the post-war publication of W. H. Auden’s legendary poem, when the shadow of nuclear holocaust loomed.

Young people are especially afflicted in this second coming of the Age of Anxiety, faced with uncertain futures and threats permeating their phones and their schools. Men are by no means beyond the grip of noxious worry, but women suffer more disorders, with a wider range of worries about the well-being of others.

Now more than ever we need to understand the function of anxiety and how to reduce its negative effects, while enhancing its positive aspects. Yes, anxiety does have positive effects.

The First Signal

Anxiety is the first signal of the mammalian alarm system. In all animals it signals a possibility of harm, deprivation, or sexual failure. In social animals, it also signals possible abandonment or isolation. In humans, it also signals loss of status or esteem. 

Types of Anxiety

Temperamental: We’re born with an emotional tone that includes a certain propensity to anxiety.

Situational: Test-taking, driving, public speaking, performance, first dates.

Symptomatic of something else: Emotional disorder, stress, depletion of physical resources (tired, hungry, ill).

Beneficial Anxiety

In small doses, anxiety is a vital feeling. Without it, we’re ill-prepared for the important tasks of life. We’d be killed crossing the street.

Actual or anticipated change in the environment, memory, or imagination stimulates anxiety. Anxiety tells us to pay attention—something bad might happen. It shuts out most information to keep us focused on the pending change. Anxiety about accidentally starting a fire gets us to stop thinking about what we’ll have for lunch, and focus on prevention—checking the gas, turning off the iron, servicing the furnace.

Among anxiety’s beneficial signals are those that tell us to improve:

Self-acceptance—when we’re too self-critical

Self-care—when we need to sleep, eat-well, exercise, practice self-compassion

Relationships—when they need attention and repair.

Problem Anxiety

We lose the benefits of anxiety when we construe it as a stop signal, rather than a caution signal. When we interpret anxiety as a red light, rather than a yellow light, we undermine its motivation to improve our health, well-being, safety, and relationships.

In problem anxiety, all signals mean that something bad will happen, and we’ll be unable to cope with it, or the cost of coping will be too great.

Characteristics of Problem Anxiety

Scanning—taking in lots of superficial information, making focus more difficult, increasing error rates

Thought-racing—thoughts that occur rapidly bypass the brain’s reality-testing

Thought-looping—thinking the same things over and over

Self-consciousness—I might be judged

Vigilance— looking for negatives; judging others.

Anxious people tend to be controlling, but not with malicious intent or desire to dominate. They try hard to avoid feeling “out of control” by keeping the environment from stimulating anxiety. Never mind that people hate to feel controlled, which means continual frustration. Attempts to regulate emotions by controlling the environment increase vigilance and worsen anxiety.

Anxiety vs. Fear

Spirit and Soul: Discovering a Personal Meaning

In late 1991, I was walking down the hallway of the hospital visiting a friend. I glanced in a room and saw a young man that I had briefly known, named Mark. He was lying quietly with his eyes closed and a tear running down his cheek.

I walked in the room and asked him if he remembered me, which he did. He explained to me that the doctors had told him that morning that he had little time left. 

Mark had moved to the city recently and hadn’t made any close friends. His parents had “disowned” him because he was gay. He was all alone.

I asked Mark if he had any thoughts about what was next on his spiritual journey. Did he believe in an afterlife? His response was profound: “I just want to die and be forgotten.”

Because of the profoundly intense sadness of that statement, he is one of the lost souls of the AIDS crisis whom I remember most. That response burned into my heart. No one should have to die alone. No one should die with that level of shame. Mark is a soul that will live with me forever.

I sat with Mark for quite a while, simply holding his hand while he cried, and hopefully giving him one small hint of connection.

Wherever Mark is today, his light still shines bright in my heart. Most of us perceive death and afterlife from different perspectives, however in my mind, the souls that have left us physically still remain in our hearts and memories. As long as we remember them, their soul is alive.

Is that a form of spirituality? Are spirit and soul connected?

What is soul? It’s easy to recognize the soul in artists and musicians. Not only do they feel compelled to release their talent and expression, but others are moved by the reflection of their soul. Many of us are not gifted to create music, but we feel the incredible connection to the soul when we hear it. The same is true for art or performance. So many statements express it: “I felt in awe.” “I can’t explain it.” “It brought tears to my eyes.” Tears are the number one symbol for feeling your soul. They are your emotions solidified.

That feeling of spirit and soul can be expressed in our everyday lives. Seeing a young child play and giggle, or watching them explore something new, or crying in fear … we are watching their souls be created. We feel animated. It is their soul that animates our spirituality.

For many, religion is the basis of spirituality. It is community. It is motivation and purpose for why we are here and where we are going. A modern definition of religion is, “The subjective experience of a sacred dimension. It is the deepest values and meanings by which to live. It is one’s own inner dimension.”

For others, spirituality is not about religion. It is connecting to an energy outside of oneself. It is about connecting to the universe. Humility. Finding meaning.

It is these beliefs that can make us strong through a challenge in life. 

Finding the purpose and discovering a personal meaning can completely change perspective when living in fear and hopelessness.

We might very well have broken our closest connections when we go through a trauma. Finding something to trust, other than ourselves, can begin a new journey when we feel like no one can help us. Hope is always waiting in our souls.

Spirituality can also be defined as acceptance. Acceptance of others can be calming and result in greater awareness. Acceptance of yourself and your life as it is at this very moment is as important as acceptance of others. Accept yourself. Be compassionate for your life. And please, more than anything else, accept and respect the beliefs and spirituality of others. It is beautiful, not competitive.

Difficulties in our lives will challenge our faith. The reality is that those difficulties can only strengthen it, but we have to truly contemplate and make every attempt to find the positive forces of our soul, or our spirituality, whatever that might be. Mark did not have time to find that last stage of acceptance. At the young age of 23, he never had the chance to find hope.

Ask yourself three questions:

  • If I could tell the entire world one message, what would it be? Pretend you just won an Oscar, you are standing in front of the microphone, and the entire world is waiting for your message. It is criminal to say something as horrible as, “I really don’t have anything planned.” Or, “I guess I just want to thank my family.” As an old entertainment writer, I can tell you that when you thank someone in an acceptance speech, you make one person very happy, and the rest of the world is bored. So what is the message that you would like to convey to everyone?
  • Secondly, what is a gift you have that you think you are meant to give to the world? I don’t mean a literal gift, but a trait, a talent, or knowledge. What is your soul?
  • The third question is what you still hope to learn from the world that it can give back to you. What is something that you still hope to experience or learn?

As Mark faded in his final hours crying, there was no question that his soul was completely filling the room, and yet he was not aware of it. He felt he had no purpose. 

His soul wrote this post.

How to Learn a Valuable Lifetime Skill: Self-Soothing

Most people don’t give much thought to self-soothing. Yet it is a powerful ability to have and one of the most important life skills you can learn.

Self-soothing can get you through some of the most challenging days or moments of your life by helping you manage feelings of hurt, anger, sadness, or grief. It can make you more resilient as a person. In fact, a 2019 study, (Sar and Sevda, et al.), found that shame-prone women who engaged in purposeful self-soothing were better able to get their emotional needs met.

For many, self-soothing comes naturally because they learned it organically from their parents. This happens simply and automatically when parents soothe their children.

By listening carefully to a long story about something hurtful or unfair that happened to their child that day; by sitting with calm, quiet empathy through their small daughter’s tantrum; by lying next to their child to help him fall asleep after a nightmare; by smoothing their distraught child’s forehead. These are the ways that emotionally present parents teach self-soothing to their children.

Children who receive enough self-soothing from their parents grow up having it for a lifetime. They never need to give it much thought. But this is typically not the case for those who were raised by emotionally neglectful parents.

Why Emotionally Neglectful Parents Can’t Teach Self-Soothing

There are many different types of emotionally neglectful parents. They may be so self-focused that they’re not aware of their children’s emotional needs, much less meeting them. They may be doing their best to keep the family afloat financially so that they’re too exhausted, or not present enough, to respond to their children emotionally. Or, they may seem like wonderful parents in every way, providing their kids with virtually everything they need except for one essential, powerful thing: emotional awareness and support.

Some of these parents are unaware of emotions in general, not just their children’s. They didn’t receive soothing themselves when they were growing up, so they don’t know how to give it to their kids.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter why your parent fails. What really matters is that they failed you. Now, as an adult, you can learn how to provide it for yourself.

The Good News

Fortunately, self-soothing is not complex or difficult to learn. In fact, for most people, it’s mostly a process of self-discovery, trying different ideas, and observing the outcome. As you go through the process of learning self-soothing, an added benefit is getting to know yourself better on an emotional level.

Since every human being is unique, the things that will be soothing to you will be specific to you. 

4 Steps to Learn Self-Soothing

  1. Make a list of possible activities that you think might be soothing for you. You will have this initial group of possible strategies ready to try when you need them.
  2. Watch for strong feelings of anger, hurt, sadness, or any other feeling that is too sharp or painful to manage. These are your chances to try out your list.
  3. Try different strategies at different times, since different strategies may work in different situations and with different feelings. Try one strategy and if it doesn’t work, try another.
  4. If one of your strategies isn’t good, mark it off. Add new ones as they occur to you.

It may be helpful to think back to your childhood. What comforted you as a child? How about earlier in your adult life? Perhaps you’ve already found and used some things that work for you.

Make sure any strategy you add to your list is healthy. Avoid eating, spending, drinking, or anything that is excessive. Also, keep in mind that we are not looking to avoid a feeling altogether. Avoiding just makes a feeling more powerful. We are trying to soothe the feeling enough that you can tolerate and think through what you’re feeling and why which reduces its overall power now and forever.

7 Benefits of Temporary Habits

When people think of habits, they often consider any habit that’s not permanent as a failure. For example, Jack starts running every day, then stops. Jack might consider that a habit failure.

In terms of public policy, the goal is also usually for the public to develop permanent habits—for example, recycling or conserving water.

However, in ordinary life, temporary daily habits can have a lot of value. 

The value of temporary habits

Temporary habits can:

1. Help you become efficient.

Let’s say you take on a temporary habit of making a homemade lunch from scratch every day. When you force yourself to do this daily, you’ll find ways to become efficient at it. Even if you don’t keep up the daily habit forever, you’ll still have those efficiency hacks in your toolkit. Unlike hacks you read about, when you develop your own hacks, you’ll know they work for you personally. They’re not gimmicks. (I teach how to develop your own efficiency hacks, in a lot more detail, in Stress-Free Productivity.)

2. Help clarify your values.

When you do an activity every day, it’ll help you see whether it really reflects your values, likes, and priorities. When you’re actually doing the activity every day (rather than imagining doing it daily), does it seem like you’re living your best life? Or does it seem like you don’t want to spend a big swath of your life doing that activity?

Here’s an example:

  • When I write most weekdays, that feels really good to me. I feel creatively energized by it. It makes my life feel on track. That creative act seems to infuse my life generally with more creativity.
  • In contrast, when I go to the gym every day, I realize I don’t want to be spending my life inside a dark gym. It makes me realize I prefer more naturalistic exercise. 

3. Distinguish reality vs. ideals (and false social messages.)

In our minds, we often think doing an activity every day, with extreme consistency, would be ideal. Sometimes when we attempt to do that activity daily for a sustained period, we learn that it’s not sustainable to do it every day, and a frequency less than that would actually be more ideal for us.article continues after advertisement

4. Help you understand how your priorities fit together. 

Daily habits are incredibly limited in real estate. Often it’s not so much time that’s the limiting factor, but focus and energy. Many of us have too many activities we highly value in our lives to do them all every day.

For example, I homeschool my child. Sometimes, I can “phone this in.” For example, I can print a worksheet with questions and hand it to her.

On other days, I need to devote some time, energy, and attention to helping her manage an aspect of her school work she’s struggling with emotionally. For instance, she’s a really confident reader, but much less confident at writing her own stories. On days I need to help her manage her emotions, I will drop some of my personal habits to make room for this. Sure, technically I might have time to do both, but I might not have the mental energy for both.

When you attempt to do an activity every day, you’ll gain an understanding of how your priorities sometimes compete. You’ll sometimes learn that, even though a certain activity is valuable to you and you enjoy it, doing it daily crowds out other things that are important to you. There’s a science and an art to figuring out how you can swap your habits in and out to make enough room for all your priorities without jeopardizing your habits.

5. Make behavioral sequences automatic.

Habits are effective because they make behavioral sequences automatic and save us from using unnecessary brainpower and excess decision-making. Because of this, habits make behaviors easier. The more automatic a habit becomes, the less conscious self-control it requires. 

But habits don’t need to be permanent to have these benefits.

I used to live in New York City. I took the subways multiple times almost every day. Subway riding became an automatic habit. I could’ve used the ticketing machines and swiped my ticket with my eyes closed. Before entering a subway car, I’d always glance to make sure it wasn’t more empty than the other cars (as that was a sure sign there was a bad smell or the air conditioning was broken in that car.)

Subway riding is enough of an over-learned habit for me that, when I’m back in New York visiting, all my prior learning takes back over. 

Our habits are sometimes the most useful for a season. For example, I’m currently pregnant. When I switched to side sleeping, I started getting a sore shoulder. Within a few days of this happening, I reinstated the system of pillows I used the last time I was pregnant so that I stopped getting the sore shoulder. I resumed the habit of setting up the pillows upon getting into bed each night.

Many habits work best as daily habits but are most useful for specific seasons of your life, rather than a lifetime. 

What habits are like this for you? You might literally have different summer, spring, fall, and winter habits, as an example. 

It’s useful to keep up temporary habits long enough that the sequence of behaviors involved becomes automated in your long-term memory. But, you don’t necessarily need to keep doing the habit every day to maintain that benefit. 

6. Build a skill quickly.

Sometimes concentrated learning (through daily doing) is the best way to build a skill. Once you reach the level of proficiency you’re after, you might not need to do it daily to retain the skill.

Cognitive impairment has more than doubled since 2009, study suggests

Dementia is characterized by a gradual deterioration in cognitive function, impacting memory, judgment, language, and other cognitive abilities. Over 55 million people live with dementia worldwide, and there are around 10 million new cases per year. 

Initial concerns that point to dementia include subjective memory concerns (SMC) — when no clear impairment is found from psychometric testing, and mild cognitive impairment (MCI) — when there is objective evidence of decline.Both SMC and MCI increase dementia risk. 

Until now, few studies had examined people who present symptoms of SMC and MCI to healthcare providers, and even fewer have explored their prognoses. 

Recently, researchers from University College London examined records of SMI and MCI and their progression into dementia. 

They found that at a 3-year follow-up, 45.5% of those with SMC and 51.7% of those with MCI received a dementia diagnosis. 

They also found that rates of SMC and MCI as recorded by healthcare providers are lower than those reported in community surveys, suggesting that a minority of people who experience memory loss consult their general practitioner (GP) and have it recorded. 

“Given the increased understanding of the importance of cognitive concerns over the past decade, and how this may signify incipient dementia, it is likely that the increase in recording of cognitive decline is a result of doctors’ better understanding of the need for more detailed assessment of objective cognitive function,” Yen Ying Lim, Ph.D., associate professor at Monash University, not involved in the study, told MNT

The study was published in Clinical Epidemiology

Data analysis

The researchers used the IQVIA medical research database, which collects over 18 million anonymized patient records from over 790 U.K. primary care facilities. 

They used data from 1,310,838 individuals with memory concerns and 1,348,796 individuals with cognitive decline. The people were between 65 and 99 years old and contributed data to the database between January 2009 and December 2018. 

Data included diagnostic records of SMC, MCI, and dementia, alongside covariates including age, sex, and social deprivation. 

The researchers noted that SMC reports remained stable over time and affected 4.3% of individuals. However, they increased with age from 3.66 cases per 1,000 people among those aged 65–69 to 17.89 cases per 1,000 between 80 and 99 years old. 

They also noted that females and those with higher levels of social deprivation were more likely to record SMC.

Over the study period, 1.1% of the participants reported MCI, with 38.4% of these people also reporting SMC. 

Unlike SMC, MCI reports increased over time, from 1.32 cases per 1,000 people in 2009 to 3.5 cases per 1,000 people in 2018. 

Rates of MCI also increased with age from 0.65 cases per 1,000 people aged 65–69 to 5.17 cases per 1,000 among those aged 80–99.

Involuntary Memories and Depression

Have you ever been for a walk or a cycle and suddenly had memories of your past popping up in your mind? Tried to get some work done but found yourself constantly distracted by unintentional memories of past events? Or suddenly been flooded by memories while doing the dishes? These spontaneous memories that seem to arise from the blue are often referred to as involuntary memories, and most people experience them quite often in everyday life. Because these memories can have quite an impact on mood, they have also become an increasingly hot topic among researchers studying depression. So let’s have a close look at what exactly involuntary memories are, and the role they play in depression.

1. Involuntary Memories Seem to Arise Out of the Blue

Involuntary memories pop up in our minds spontaneously and without any deliberate effort to think about a personal past event. In that way, they differ from memories that we think about voluntarily or intentionally, such as when we reminisce about a holiday with a friend or try to remember what we did for our birthday last year. Unlike voluntary memories, which are typically experienced as deliberate and effortful, involuntary memories are normally experienced as sudden and unexpected.

Because of this sudden and unexpected nature, it can often feel like involuntary memories arise out of the blue. However, if we take a closer look at their content, we might realize that they relate to cues in our environment or to our own thoughts or feelings in some way. For example, on a summer day, we might spontaneously start thinking about a sunny day in the past when we went to the beach with friends. Or, if we are feeling happy or sad, this might evoke memories of past events when we felt happy or sad. So, although involuntary memories feel like they arise out of nowhere, they are, in fact, evoked by cues in our current situation or environment.

2. Involuntary Memories Often Refer to Specific Events

Involuntary memories also differ from voluntary memories in that they more often refer to specific events, such as a lunch date you had last week, as opposed to more general descriptions of repeated events, such going to yoga class on Monday mornings, or events that stretch over an extended period of time, such as traveling by train through Europe last summer. In addition, some research suggests that involuntary memories are higher on characteristics such as clarity, vividness, relevance to current life situation, and personal importance. Researchers believe that this may be because past events that provide a distinctive match with our current environment, thoughts, or feelings, or grab our attention due to factors such as vividness or importance are more likely to spontaneously come to mind than memories that are less attention-grabbing or do not provide a distinctive match with our current situation or surroundings.

3. Involuntary Memories Can Have a Large Impact on Mood

Involuntary memories also differ from voluntary memories in the way they impact our mood and emotions. Compared to voluntary memories, involuntary memories more often cause physical reactions such as smiling or crying. They also more often have an impact on mood, especially negative mood. Researchers believe that one possible reason for this may be that involuntary memories arise so suddenly that it may be difficult to prepare for and engage in effective emotion regulation when they come to mind. Emotion regulation refers to different strategies that people use to manage their emotional experiences, some of which are more effective than others in reducing negative emotions and mood.

Knowing Your “Why” Will Get You Through Just About Any “How”

What are you living for? Why do you invest your time, talent, and treasure in the things you invest them in? Are you working just to earn a paycheck, or does your work mean something more to you? Do you volunteer somewhere? Why there?

I am not asking these questions to be nosey or make idle chit-chat, but to make you think about your life and how you choose to spend your time. Not to seem grandiose, but your responses go straight to the heart of what it means to be human. They also reveal how you manage to carry on in spite of the setbacks and suffering life doles out to you—as it does to each of us in the wavering balance of joy and sorrow on which our lives pivot.

How you answer my questions reveals whether or not you have a sense of purpose and the vital role that purpose plays in giving life a sense of meaning and helping to make and keep you resilient.

Having a “why” is the key to powerful resilience.

In his profound book about how he survived the horrors of four different Nazi concentration camps, including the notorious Auschwitz, the late German psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “He who has a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.’”

Frankl described how the people in the camp who fared best, who managed to hold onto their sense of personal dignity and humanity amidst the most degrading circumstances imaginable, were those who had rich interior lives. Even during the back-breaking toil and deprivation that they were subjected to, they were able to focus their minds on happy memories of wonderful meals and concerts and loved ones who represented life’s blessings. The memory of those blessings was their “why,” the vision that kept them from surrendering to despair.

Our purpose, or vision, is what helps keep us going even after being knocked down by one of the punches that are as much a part of existence as the sweet moments that will become memories we savor for the rest of our lives.

Having a purpose is how we find meaning. It involves having a goal or ideal, something bigger than ourselves toward which we aim and aspire. It’s what we consider important enough to devote our energy and time to, the ultimate prize for running the race, the thing that keeps us going even if the race is not finished within our lifetime.

Discovering my own purpose

In the Jewish concept of “Tikkun Olam,” each of us is called to practice actions that contribute toward repairing and healing the world, restoring it to the harmonious state for which it was created. Tikkun Olam is frequently related to social justice and environmental awareness, though even ordinary acts of kindness and everyday relationships offer opportunities to manifest it.

Although I am not Jewish, discovering the concept of Tikkun Olam helped me understand the purpose I first sensed for myself as a young journalist reporting on the HIV-AIDS epidemic beginning in the mid-1980s. Chronicling and publishing stories of the extraordinary acts of heroism and love I witnessed in LGBTQ communities around the United States gave me a sense of contributing my time and talent to something bigger than myself.

When I found my “why,” I had a brand-new master’s degree in journalism. I was full of the youthful energy that let me bang out feature-length articles in record time. I was heartbroken at the suffering I witnessed and experienced from my own losses. And, maybe most importantly, I choose to live out my sense of “gay pride” by writing stories about the lives of LGBTQ people as being equally important, instructive, and valuable as anyone else’s—the reason I write mostly for “mainstream” publications and take particular pride that recorded interviews and notes from my HIV-AIDS reporting have been collected by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., where they not only document some of LGBTQ history but comprise part of the nation’s own history.

Over the years I reported on HIV-AIDS and worked on-staff for national and global organizations addressing the challenges of the pandemic, we spoke of the “AIDS movement” to describe the massive effort to move society toward a compassionate, generous, and just response to the deadly plague that was killing our friends, coworkers, neighbors, and children. The movement offered a vision of a better world where all were equal and equally deserving of loving-kindness and respect. I was—and still am—deeply gratefulto contribute to and be a part of it. It has given me a deep sense of purpose and, in some of my own dark and painful times, helped to keep me going.

Improve Your Well-Being With A Gratitude Journal

According to researchers, there is a solid link between practicing gratitude and your social, emotional, and physical wellbeing. As we age, it’s more critical than ever to adopt routines that improve our health, and starting a gratitude journal is one of the more straightforward steps to take. Here’s everything you need to know about gratitude journaling.

What Is a Gratitude Journal?

Gratitude is the practice of recalling and expressing your appreciation for the good things in your life. Thus, a gratitude journal is a continuous document where you write and store these observations day after day. Having a daily record of what you appreciate in your life is a wonderful way to purposefully focus on the positives in a world where it’s easy to get bogged down in the negatives. Many people who keep a gratitude journal like to incorporate the writing into a daily meditation or relaxation routine, while others prefer to take a mid-day gratitude break to refocus for the afternoon ahead.

Mental Health Benefits

The practice of noting and acknowledging what we’re grateful for each day can quickly transform our mental health. Shifting your focus away from negative emotions, like envy or fear, to focus on gratitude means you’re spending less time ruminating over ideas that could generate toxic energy. Researchers at Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine noted that (based on brain scans of various groups in a gratitude-related study) “simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain.” The more you actively process gratitude, the more your brain includes that emotion in its decision-making processes. Gratitude begets gratitude!

Overall Wellness Improvements

Gratitude isn’t only about mental health. The link between gratitude and physical health is becoming more apparent with research from experts like Glenn Fox at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. His years of work have led to the finding that “benefits associated with gratitude include better sleep, more exercise, reduced symptoms of physical pain, lower levels of inflammation, lower blood pressure, and a host of other things we associate with better health.” Psychology Today reported on a 2012 study that found that “grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people.” Other studies have found that writing in a gratitude journal can fortify resilience in overcoming trauma and stress.

Journaling for a Sharper Brain

Beyond general wellness improvements associated with practicing gratitude, the act of journaling itself has many mental benefits. The process of recalling and writing specific events can improve memory and focus. In addition, the routine of daily journaling helps many seniors stick to other essential practices (like sleep, meals, and exercise). Trying new activities, including journaling, can also bolster mental fitness as it activates pathways in the brain that aren’t used for ingrained habits or old skills.

Where to Start

It’s never too late to start incorporating a daily gratitude journal into your routine, and beginning the process is easy!

Start with a goal to write three things you’re grateful for each day. It’s important to choose a physical journal that is aesthetically pleasing as well as accessible. If you have fine motor or vision challenges, select something with wide lines (or no lines at all!) that can open and lie flat to minimize your physical discomfort while writing.

Make sure that you have plenty of light in your journaling space, too. If physically writing isn’t an option for you, don’t shy away from technology! You can type in a special document on your computer or even dictate to your phone.

The best time to write your notes of gratitude for many is in the evening before bed. Focusing on the positives in your life will help calm your mind and body as you ease into sleep. If you find that you don’t have anything to write on a given day, flip back through your journal and re-read past entries for inspiration. Revisiting a past moment of gratitude isn’t cheating! In fact, the repetition will only strengthen that memory and feeling.

Start your gratitude practice today to start reaping the benefits. “Finding a new wellness practice” can even be one of your three items on day one!

A Brain Changer: How Stress Shapes Cognition and Memory

Some of us have visceral responses to stress—we struggle to focus; our recall is… not great; we feel disorganised, overwhelmed, and exhausted; we can’t sleep; our head hurts, our neck aches; we’re tearful; and we may even feel like we’re on the brink of a meltdown. What does this stress do to the brain, or beneath the skin? Here, we explore the neural mechanisms that underlie how stress and strain shape the brain and its impact on our memory.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Stress triggers an evolutionary-based, psychobiological response to the precarious environment we find ourselves in on a day-to-day basis. But that is not to say that we cannot experience eustress (more commonly known as “good stress”).

Good stress can elicit excitement—it can be motivating, even performance-enhancing. It can propel us to greater heights during exams, interviews, and speeches. Our pulse hastens, our heart races, our hormones surge—in other words, we feel alive.

Alas, eustress tends to be short-lived. Without it, we can feel listless, rudderless, or just plain unhappy. Good stress is, thus, key to vitality.

But bad stress often creeps up on you like a stranger in the night. It can be chronic in nature or acute and intense. While the healthy brain processes good stress adaptively, bad stress can lead to maladaptive processing with lasting effects on brain structure, function, and plasticity, with changes seen also to neuron shape, connectivity, and cell count. Together, these changes impede cognitive processing (Bremner, 1999).

More Than a Side Effect

Whether on a social or occupational basis, stress can overwhelm cognitive load and evoke aversive neural reactions that disrupt our physiological equilibrium—with knock-on effects seen to our mental well-being and overall health. Stress increases our vulnerability to a range of well-known (and more obscure) physical and mental health conditions—including systemic lupus erythematosus (Morand, 2018), Cushing’s disease (Orsini et al., 2021), cardiovascular disease (Kivimäki & Steptoe, 2018), depression (Hamilton et al., 2021), and psychosis (Dykxhoorn et al., 2020), to name a few.

But what of memory? Deficits in declarative and non-declarative memory (i.e., recall of events and facts vs. conditioning and skill learning), in addition to cognitive difficulty and issues with overall executive function (e.g., flexible thinking and self-control) often coincide with conditions such as these. While they are typically passed off as inconvenient side-effects, there is much more to it than that.

Where Memories Are Made

The hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex are crucial components of brain circuitry involved in learning and memory. The hippocampus, however, is the anatomic basis for memory, responsible for memory encoding, consolidation, and retrieval (Lindau et al., 2016).

Although it does not operate in isolation, the hippocampus is the temporal lobe brain structure most sensitive to stress (Calcia et al., 2016). Hippocampal vulnerability stems from the incitement of glucocorticoids and neurotransmitters that are elevated in the stress response (McEwen, 2007). Even in fit and healthy people, stress can elevate glucocorticoids. Soldiers tested at wartime, for example, had excessive levels of urinary cortisol, but notable reductions in cortisol were detected when they were no longer in immediate threat (Howard et al., 1955).

Stress Shrinks the Brain

Stress-induced hippocampal atrophy (aka shrinkage) has been associated with spatial and working memory deficits in both humans and animals (Conrad, 2008). This type of shrinkage occurs through inhibitory effects of prolonged stress exposure on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which causes glucocorticoid hypersecretion and the modulation of excitatory neurotransmitters (McEwenn, 2007).

Chronically elevated glucocorticoids and excitatory amino acid neurotransmitters can permanently alter brain architecture. This level of exposure can cause a number of neuronal changes, from reduced dendritic branching, synaptic terminal structural alterations, neuron death, and neuronal regeneration inhibition in the hippocampus (Bremner, 1999).

8 Effective Strategies to Calm Your Nervous System

It may seem counterintuitive and even impossible to remain calm amidst chaos and uncertainty. Exposure to news media is disturbing, and it would be reasonable to feel anxious, worried, helpless, and hopeless. Thoughts of fear can activate the threat and danger response in the brain. The amygdala, located in the middle brain, sends out signals to the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal systems, mobilizing oneself for protection. This is commonly called the fight-or-flight response. But without actively engaging in a fight or fleeing from a situation, the response is experienced as anxiety. Anxiety includes rapid heart rate, excessive nervous energy, tension in the body, and impaired mental functioning. It can also lead to disrupted sleep, and panic attacks. If one has a history of trauma, anxiety about current issues can trigger old traumas in the form of flashbacks and nightmares, intensifying the experience of anxiety and lack of safety.

If exposure to the news media is causing you increased anxiety and agitation, consider a reduction of media or even planned media fasts. Maybe limit your exposure to 30 minutes a day, or to once every other day, or even consider a fast of several days in a row? A reduced diet of news media may help you reset and calm your mind.

Nonetheless, we have to continue to live our daily lives and continue to be productive. Being anxious does not help. Anxiety interferes with problem-solving, concentration, and focus. Anxiety does not help the world, and it does not help you either. Call upon your inner strength and resources, focus on a productive goal, and free your mind so you can be proactive. Avoid substances that will intensify a negative mood or disrupt your sleep. It is very natural to reach for food or drink when you are anxious. Most commonly this includes having a drink of alcohol, eating crunchy salty foods, or eating sugary treats, chocolate, or ice cream. Caffeinated soda, coffee, and marijuana are particularly linked to increased irritability, agitation, and anxiety. Do you have a favorite stress food or drink? These may be momentarily satisfying and can temporarily mask uneasy feelings, but in the long run, may work against your stated goal to reduce anxiety. Can you find a satisfying substitute?

Consider these eight strategies to stay grounded and calm the nervous system.

1. Shift your diet. Choose whole (not processed) foods, sufficient protein, and a balance of nutritious fruits and vegetables. Some vitamins can help restore balance in times of stress, such as B vitamins, Omega’s, Ashwagandha, potassium, and magnesium, and/or a good multivitamin may help.

2. Drink water. Dehydration disrupts sleep, can cause headaches, and overall poor mental and physical functioning. Drinking water helps flush the system of toxins, restores Ph balance, helps with cognitive functioning, the digestive and elimination systems, temperature, sleep, and can reduce pain.

3. Engage your senses. When anxious, it helps to get grounded by engaging your senses. For smell: aromatherapy helps improve mood as the olfactory nerve is located in the limbic system, which is the control center for the emotional part of the brain. Touch: hold a smooth rock, soft blanket, or press your feet into the ground. Attention to the feet is a natural anxiolytic and a way to feel grounded. Sight: slowly look around from left to right, scanning your environment. Sound: Listen, what do you hear? Birds, or other sounds? Taste: let an ice chip melt in your mouth or savor a single bite of food. These strategies will help you feel more present in your body.

How Creating a Sense of Purpose Can Impact Your Mental Health

What is your purpose or your meaning in life?

A sense of purpose is generally thought of as the most important thing for an individual to guide their behaviors, make decisions and attain their goals. For some, it is raising a family, commitment to their community, their passions, and for others, it may be their careers. Purpose can be as simple as bringing happiness to someone you love or taking care of your child. A fundamental misconception about purpose is that purpose is not fixed. It is not uncommon for individuals to change their sense of purpose, especially after a significant life event such as a death in the family, grown children leaving home, retirement, or entering or leaving a meaningful relationship. Regardless of what brings you meaning and purpose, it is essential to have a sense of purpose. 

The positive mental health benefits of purpose

Research shows that individuals who have a strong sense of purpose and meaning in life tend to have better mental health, overall well-being, and cognitive functioning compared to those who lack a sense of purpose. Individuals with a sense of life purpose are less likely to have heart attacks, strokes, and dementia. Several studies also show that individuals with a strong sense of purpose tend to engage in healthier behaviors and lifestyle choices such as practicing regular physical exercise and participating in preventative health services. A study in 2013 found that individuals with a strong sense of purpose in life were better at stress management and had better sleep than individuals without a strong sense of purpose. 

Having a positive and meaningful aspect in life may improve brain function, including overall cognition and memory. Additionally, individuals with purpose tend to have lower instances of depression. However, just because it is healthy to have a sense of purpose or meaning does not mean that a sense of purpose is easy to find.

Purpose anxiety

Purpose anxiety is a relatively new term that relates to the anxiety and negative feelings such as stress, worry, and frustration that arise when seeking a sense of life fulfillment. This type of anxiety often occurs during times of significant transitions, when people start to look for their purpose in life or find a new purpose to correlate with a new chapter in their life, or times when people are actively trying to fulfill their sense of purpose.

Signs of purpose anxiety include the following:

  • Constantly switching jobs hoping that one will be more fulfilling than the next.
  • Constantly comparing yourself to others. 
  • Recognizing your failures instead of your accomplishments
  • Jumping from one relationship to another, hoping you find “the one.”

How to create a sense of purpose

Creating a sense of purpose means that you seek meaning greater than yourself. Approximately 25% of American adults say they have a clear sense of purpose about what makes their lives meaningful, while 40% either claim neutrality on the subject or say they don’t have a sense of purpose.

Purpose comes from a sense of self-knowledge and must be created, not found, meaning that you may need to put in some work to create your purpose. Creating your sense of purpose may take time and require a lot of tough questions and deep conversations. You may even consider talking to a life coach or therapist. Below are a few key points when searching for your sense of purpose:

  • Donate your time, money, or talent 
  • Explore different interests to find out what you love to do
  • Reflect on what type of injustices bother you the most
  • Meet new people
  • Ask for feedback from others 
  • Surround yourself with positive people
  • Ask yourself the “why’s”: “why do you live where you live”?, “why do you do what you do”?, “why are you happy in certain moments”?, “Why are you bothered by certain things”? “why do you buy the things you buy”?

How Mental Stress Can Affect Physical Health

A recent Cleveland Clinic survey indicated that 41 percent of Americans have experienced at least one heart-related issue since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The most common symptoms cited by the survey of 1,000 American adults included shortness of breath (18 percent), dizziness (15 percent), increased blood pressure (15 percent), and chest pain (13 percent). 

The survey documented that, during the COVID pandemic, frequent sitting throughout the day increased by 5 percent, while frequent walking throughout the day decreased by 4 percent. 

Alternative Conclusions

While it is true that patients with heart disease can develop shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain, and elevated blood pressure, these symptoms can occur because of many physical and mental health problems other than heart disease. Therefore, it is misleading to suggest these are all heart-related. 

It is also important to note that shortness of breath, dizziness, and chest pain do not cause heart disease. Elevated blood pressure, if sustained for a long time, can cause increased heart strain.

The Cleveland Clinic survey also documented that 65 percent of Americans experienced increased stress because of the pandemic. The top reasons cited for this increase included fearing that a loved one might become ill and feeling disconnected from their loved ones.

Thus, increased stress may actually the likeliest cause of the symptoms reported in the survey. Stress is well recognized as causing shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain, and elevated blood pressure (Searight, 2007).

Additional Essential Advice

Dr. Samir Kapadia, chairman of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic was quoted as saying the survey was conducted because “We wanted to see what kind of effect the ongoing pandemic is having on Americans’ heart health and in particular their healthy habits.” He advised that “We know 90 percent of heart disease is preventable through a healthier diet, regular exercise, and not smoking, so now is the time to refocus on our heart health.”

The American medical establishment often fails to advise patients on how emotions can affect physical symptoms, and how the self-management of emotions can help improve their symptoms.

Given the known connection between stress and the development of heart disease (Levine, 2021), best practices for heart health would be to also recommend Americans employ more stress-reduction techniques. Such techniques include biofeedback, cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnosis, meditation, and yoga (Anbar, 2014).

In addition, patients should be educated about the benefits of a positive psychological state for heart health. For example, many studies have shown that optimism, having a sense of purpose, happiness, mindfulness, higher emotional vitality, and a feeling of psychological well-being are associated with better heart health (Levine, 2021).


Stress can aggravate many medical conditions including heart, lung, stomach, and brain disorders. Therefore, a recommendation for enhanced stress management should be offered early in the course of treating the majority of medical disorders.

Giving Up? Challenging the Desire to Mentally Check Out

Zhuang Zhou, a Chinese Philosopher from the late 4th century BC, espoused the following thought:

“Flow with whatever may happen and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.”

In many ways, I believe the philosopher was illustrating the potential of letting go of our will and desire to react to events emotionally, and to simply accept and flow through them. 

The continuity of stressful experiences from something like the pandemic can leave some individuals with an overwhelming desire to “check out” mentally or respond defensively in a robot-like, emotionally numb way. Such stressful situations engaged routinely can lead to fatigue. In fact, “pandemic fatigue” has become something therapists are seeing more of these days.

Whether it is the enduring aspects of a phenomenon like the pandemic or any other major impacts to our life, such as the prolonged effects of grief, substandard economic conditions, persistent health issues, or other negative experiences, the eventual costs can add up.

When People Give Up

During any persistent, adverse experience, life still marches on for many. Being caught up in anything negative and persistent also comes with the daily tasks of simply living alongside it. This requires a sense of control and mental effort to maintain. Herein, the extensive subjective experience of mental fatigue can set in and eclipse our motivation to fight the good fight. The outcome of fatigue is currently observed in health care as burnout. Researcher Christina Maslach sees the artifacts of fatigue showing up as cynicism, sarcasm, compassion fatigue, and a lack of efficacy—not doing a good job or doubting one’s ability to sustain.

Motivation and Cognitive Control

Humans have the potential to plan and execute on things they have never encountered before. For instance: wearing a mask, using hand sanitizer, social distancing, and so forth. Further examples include the care-taking of a family member, or working through a major life transition. Experiences like these initiate a sequence of thought processes like envisioning a flurry of outcomes, examining actionable paths, and weighing one’s ability to execute on them. According to Dr. David Badre, professor at Brown University, what we call cognitive control is motivated by our control system in the brain, which evaluates the value of engaging something, the cost of doing it, and our mental efficacy (mental investment required) for enduring it (Badre, 2021).

In fact, researchers have found that acute and lasting stressors tend to impact the lateral habenula (LHb) area of the brain, which has been implicated in depression but is also activated during stress. This area can transform reward responses into punishment-like neural signals. This is further likely transformed into anhedonic behaviors where activities begin to feel pointless, useless, etc. (Shabel et al., 2019).

As such, confronting a persistent negative experience involves some heavy mental investment and for some, this may be viewed at a great cost with no value return for the day-to-day expended effort. 

Perception Rules Our Internal Kingdom

In the movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her companions eventually encounter the great Oz as a larger-than-life, disembodied face with a commanding voice. However, later they discover that Oz is simply an ordinary man behind a curtain with all his gadgetry designed to manage others’ perceptions of him. Dorothy and her friends see that not everything is exactly what it appears to be.

Our minds, similarly, may read situations like words on a page at face value, without any deeper attenuation to context. And as we tire of day-to-day challenges, it becomes easier to slowly devolve into more exaggerated contextual evaluations of our situations (Barrett et al., 2011). Perception, as it relates to what we do, what we engage in daily, and how we see the world, requires daily care-taking, psychological calibration, and fine-tuning.

Burnt-Out and Struggling to Prioritize Tasks?

It’s been a while between blog posts. Sometimes life occurs and other tasks are paramount.

One of the key psychological competencies in our hyper-connected and busy lives involves understanding how to prioritise tasks and how to manage time. These sound like simple skills, but they require some complex executive functioning abilities, including the capacity to forecast the future, evaluate various options, consider the consequences of actions (or inactions) and plan the use of our resources. Psychologically, a few things stop us from engaging in appropriate task prioritisation—an incapacity or discomfort with saying no, the sunk costs fallacy (i.e., a tendency to follow through on an endeavour if we have already invested resources into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits), a lack of understanding of opportunity costs (the opportunities we give up once we decide to commit to a course of action) and internal or societal pressure.

In my psychotherapy practice, I have noticed that clients are increasingly struggling with burnout and difficulties with task prioritization. Some of this is an inevitable result of two years of pandemic-living and utter exhaustion at the demands life has placed on us all, with a concurrently reduced capacity to engage in pleasurable activities, such as socialising or vacations. Many people have struggled to adjust their commitments to account for the tiredness they are feeling, or reduced energy levels. Strong emotions, such as the fear, anger and worry we have felt over the pandemic also utilise cognitive resources and thus impact our capacity to bring full attention to tasks. There has been a sense that life must continue as usual—though of course, nothing has been as usual. When working with clients who are experiencing burnout, I encourage them to consider carefully the tasks and commitments they have and to determine whether any of these can be reduced or temporarily amended, to allow themselves more time to invest in themselves and in rest. This process has a few steps.

1. List the tasks and the different roles you inhabit

Sometimes we might feel like we do not do much, but writing down our various commitments can help us notice the smaller tasks (such as walking the dog, or taking the children to school) which might add up to a substantial amount of time. It is important to notice roles and tasks within the personal and professional realms, as well as those we might choose to do for ourselves (e.g., exercise).

2. Notice the costs of each task

Opportunity costs involve recognition of the range of resources tasks might absorb, including finances, time, energy and social capital. Each task, no matter how small, has a cost.

3. Determine which tasks are essential

It is important to be pragmatic and to notice that there are a range of tasks which must be completed, including fulfilling the basic requirements of our work roles and primary caregiving tasks, such as feeding our children or walking our dogs. There are other tasks which might however be optional, including extra projects or promotions at work, or optional extras such as extra-curricular activities for children.

Why We Struggle with Living in the Moment

After the holidays, it is easy to feel as though time flew by before you got the chance to stop and soak it all up. You might blame a brutal work schedule that dominated your holiday season or an insurmountable pile of stressors that stole away any chance of feeling truly present for the festivities. In reality, however, being present is something that is easier said than done, regardless of your schedule or stress level.

So why is something that sounds easy to do actually so difficult? Isn’t living in the moment supposed to happen organically? The truth is, not exactly.

Feeling present during daily life is something that many would consider synonymous with being mindful. Wherever You Go, There You Are, a book authored by Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” This definition of mindfulness is widely used in research, and it highlights exactly what makes being present so difficult. Being present requires a purposeful, yet unforced, recognition of the moment for what it is, not for what we wish it were or what we think it can be. And, quite frankly, that’s a difficult balance to strike.

There are endless reasons why this perfect blend of mindfulness and mindlessness is so hard to find, but you can likely relate to at least one of these reasons:

  • You’re not used to slowing down and allowing your mind a break from productivity or planning ahead
  • You let small things feel bigger than they are and allow them to consume more mental energy than they deserve
  • You anticipate the end of a “good” moment before it is over and are letting the anticipation of the end interfere with your appreciation for the present moment.

Controlling the emotions that lead to any or all of the reasons listed above is where the purposeful part of being mindful comes in. Contrary to popular belief, being purposeful about mindfulness doesn’t equate to clearing your schedule or only doing things you enjoy; in fact, a study found that increased stress can actually boost mindfulness because of the level of awareness that stressful events require (Nezlek et al., 2016).

Rather, being purposefully present is a not matter of seeking out the perfect time to appreciate the current moment, such as during a holiday or on a vacation, but instead seeking out the imperfect times and acknowledging those too. It takes practice, but any good habit does.

There are many ways to help yourself feel more present through practices that boost mindfulness. Research shows that activities such as meditation, journaling, exercise, and talking with a psychologist can help you feel more mindful and learn to feel present in the moment (Xia et al., 2019), regardless of whether it is exciting or ordinary.

9 Signs Your Partner Needs Help Staying Focused

Mindfulness is a state, but it can also be seen as an ability, one that’s important to promote health and well-being. Perhaps you’ve practiced your own mindfulness skills to help you take advantage of these benefits. You are pretty good now at being able to focus your attention on what you’re doing, are able to label your emotions, and can handle stressful situations without becoming panicky.

As good as your mindfulness might be, though, how does your partner measure up? Do you find that their attention seems to drift elsewhere while you’re having a conversation, that they seem unable to put their feelings into words, and often get lost in the middle of a task? How do these behaviors make you feel? It can be hurtful to have a partner who doesn’t seem “present” when you’re having an important conversation or just trying to enjoy a pleasant moment as a couple.

Is Mindfulness a Noticeable Quality?

Being mindful means that you are actually engaged in your interactions with another person, so when someone isn’t mindful, it can detract from the quality of those interactions. The question then becomes, can you accurately gauge just how focused your partner is at any given time?

According to a newly-published study headed by the University of Tasmania’s Larissa Barden and colleagues (2021), the answer is yes. The Australian authors note that mindfulness is a valuable tool in “cultivating both the will and skill to navigate social situations and relationships” and, as such, can be seen “as a noticeable quality that is instrumental in supporting prosocial behaviours” (p. 2).

There are several reasons, Barden et al. maintain, that mindfulness promotes good relationships, including “sacrifice, forgiveness, partner acceptance and limiting stress spill-over” (p. 2). You may be perfectly capable of adopting this mindset, but if your partner is not, this can create a potential chasm in your ability to feel close and connected to them.

Quantifying another person’s mindfulness is yet another matter. The available mindfulness instruments, according to the U. Tasmania research team, are based on a self-report of your own inner state. These self-report mindfulness measures do link up to observable behaviors that other people can rate about you, suggesting that mindfulness is noticeable, but they only indirectly provide evidence of the extent to which someone brings this mental state into their relationships.

There’s another problem with self-reports of mindfulness in that they are subject to the kind of bias that makes people want to be perceived positively by others. There’s also the matter of whether people actually can have the insight needed to provide accurate self-reports.

Awareness of similar problems with self-report in the realm of personality measures provided researchers with the impetus to develop so-called “other” ratings of traits that could be compared with “self.”

Based on the assumption that mindfulness can be noticed in others and that, furthermore, not everyone can accurately describe their own abilities in this quality, Bartlett and her team set about to convert existing self-report measures to one that could be used in the ratings of others. The key test of their measure’s success was whether it would relate in predictable ways to other qualities in the “nomological net” (i.e., related features) of mindfulness, including emotional intelligence, empathy, and “non-attachment,” or the tendency to avoid awareness of your own emotions (indicating lack of mindfulness).

The 9-Item Observed Mindfulness Measure (OMM)

Using three separate adult samples, Bartlett and her colleagues worked through the series of steps needed to establish whether their new measure reached appropriate levels of statistical acceptability. Having developed a tentative list of items from their first, community sample who provided self-ratings only, the authors then went on to compare participants with people who knew them well, feeding the scores into a statistical analysis intended to identify the best items from the initial pool. Participants in the third sample, also consisting of self-other dyads, completed the final version of the OMM to provide validation of the results from the second sample.

Key to understanding the OMM is its fundamental assumption that it taps not “the internal experiences of the subject being observed,” or inner state, but “the degree to which the subject noticeably acts or responds mindfully in social contexts” (p. 6). You can’t jump into someone’s head to find out how tuned in they are to a situation, but you can provide your own evaluation of whether the person behaves as if they are. In the case of your partner, you don’t literally know what they are thinking but you can infer from their behavior that they’re trying their best to be aware of the situation.

Starting with an initial pool of 30 potential items, the Australian authors then narrowed the list of those that met acceptable standards to the following nine. Rate your partner (or another person you’d like to apply these to) on a 1 (not at all) to 5 (all the time) scale:

  1. The person has difficulty staying focused on what is happening to/around them as it occurs (reverse-coded).
  2. The person seems to ‘run on automatic’ without much awareness of what he or she is doing (reverse-coded).
  3. The person doesn’t pay attention to what he or she is doing, because of daydreaming, worrying or other distractions (reverse-coded).
  4. The person seems aware of how emotions affect his or her thoughts and behavior.
  5. When asked how he or she is feeling, the person can identify their emotions easily.
  6. The person seems aware of his or her own emotions when interacting with others.
  7. The person seems to recover well from unpleasant or stressful experiences.
  8. The person can pause before reacting to difficult situations.
  9. The person remains calm, even when things get hectic and stressful.

Simply thinking about your partner on the basis of these items may have been informative enough, as the statements themselves can lead you to new insights.

You might also find it helpful to divide these items into the three factors into which they statistically grouped: attentiveness (items 1-3), awareness (items 4-6) and acceptance (items 7-9). Unfortunately, the authors didn’t provide the mean scores on these scales, but you can use a rough guide of the mid-point of the 1-5 scale to indicate how tuned in you think your partner is to the three key components of mindfulness.

Creating Meaningful Resolutions for 2022

When you read this statistic, you may be tempted to save yourself the time by not setting any resolutions for the year ahead. But before you abandon the process altogether, consider reevaluating your usual method. Try following these five simple steps to create more meaningful resolutions.

Create a comfortable, safe space to let your mind and heart explore.

In order to create meaningful aspirations for the year ahead, you have to be able to delve into the depths of who you are. It is easy to get caught up in the busyness of your world and avoid reflection. However, if you do not set aside the time to understand what is meaningful to you, it will not be possible to create meaningful resolutions. You know yourself best: What is the best environment for you? Is it in the comfort of your bedroom? On your favorite bench at the local park? Try to minimize distractions. Gather materials that will help you to relax and explore. Examples may include candles, aromatherapy, music, colored pens, cozy blankets, or a warm beverage.

Set aside adequate time to reflect.

Resist the urge to pack all your reflection into one session. One condensed session is insufficient to reflect thoroughly. This can be an intimidating experience. This overwhelmed feeling can become associated with the process and can cause a sense of dread when you think about your dreams for the new year. Try to explore this process over multiple sessions.

If you feel comfortable, you can jump right in with open-ended reflections. If you prefer prompts, consider asking yourself these 3 questions:

Who am I?

What matters most to me?

Where am I (in reference to the past, especially the year behind me)?

If you are intimidated by the process, seek resources for your reflection. That may include incorporating a guide such as my Self-Love Workbook, addressing this topic with a therapist, and gathering close loved ones for encouragement and mutual support. If you do opt to incorporate others into the process, try to set aside at least one session that allows you to explore independently.

Time for reflection should be prioritized throughout the resolution process. It is important as a foundation for setting your hopes for the year ahead, however, it is also essential to carve time to revisit in the days ahead.

Consider key concepts that you wish to infuse into the year ahead.

After you have established a more meaningful foundation, remain connected to that depth as you move into considering your wishes for the next year. If possible, start this step in one setting. You can refine your intentions over time, however, what comes to mind at first is often what genuinely means most to you.

Find a medium that works for you. If you have gathered with others, this may be done in conversation. Perhaps you choose to explore through journaling. Some find it helpful to use visual aids, such as through a vision board. To broaden your perspective, it can be helpful to brainstorm and refine later by using methods such as voice recording or mind mapping.

A word, phrase, or image may come to mind. These key concepts serve as a framework for your intentions in the year ahead. It is natural that examples will pop up, especially if you already have events on your calendar or have been deeply influenced by lessons of the year past. Be mindful of your self-talk. Don’t allow space for judgment or criticism.

Familiarize yourself with the steps associated with each intention.

The beauty of intentionality versus specific goal setting is that it allows for the reality that change is inevitable. It is possible that what you wish for today will remain exactly the same in the months to come, but more often than not, things shift. For one, you change as you learn and grow, so a resolution made in January may no longer fit you in August. Stubbornly attaching yourself to that wish can cause you to be disconnected from your true self. Beyond yourself, the world around you changes. Utilizing intentionality allows you to reassess and re-calibrate to match your surrounding context.

As you consider each concept from Step 3, reflect on what it would look like to take steps towards those intentions at this current time. It is also beneficial to reflect on what it would look like to take steps away from that intention at present. Come up with as many examples as you can. These lists will create a guide for you to notice signs of when you are aligned, and when you need to reroute your journey.

Create a habit of checking in

New year’s resolutions shouldn’t be a “set it and forget it” process. As noted earlier, the best intentions are often formed when you allow yourself time to reflect, reassess, and refine. Once the year begins, it is important to create a habit of checking in on your resolutions. Come up with a rate that fits your lifestyle, but consider doing so monthly at a minimum. 

Utilize the steps you clarified to help you discern if you are centered or veering off your path. These checkpoints are also helpful points for you to incorporate new information you have learned, consider any changes in context, edit your steps, and, of course, celebrate the moments you find yourself in alignment with your intentions. 

There are a variety of reasons as to why your New Year’s resolutions may have failed in the past. Here we explored how to foster intentional resolutions to help you live a more meaningful year.

Is Mental Health Stigma Decreasing? It’s Complicated

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines stigma as “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something… a mark of shame or discredit.” Borrowed from Latin, it ultimately comes from the Greek “stizein” meaning, “to tattoo,” and refers to marks used on slaves and criminals in Ancient Greece.

Throughout history, people with mental and behavioral disorders were routinely blamed, ostracized, isolated, imprisoned, tortured, or killed. And while our treatment of—and attitudes about—mental illness have improved dramatically in the 20th and 21st centuries, mental health stigma has not disappeared. A 2016 review of the research by Zurich University psychologist Wulf Rössler concluded: “There is no country, society or culture where people with mental illness have the same societal value as people without a mental illness.”

When mental health problems are stigmatized, those who cope with them are consigned to wrestle not just with the disorder, but also with the attendant social prejudice and rejection. The effects of stigma are profound both personally and socially, as they may compel people to hide or deny their issues, refrain from seeking help, and engage in self-blame (AKA self-stigma).

A 2010 systematic review of the literature by Jessica Sharac of King’s College London and colleagues looked at 27 studies of stigma and its effects, concluding, “Mental illness stigma/discrimination was found to impact negatively on employment, income, public views about resource allocation and healthcare costs.”

Columbia University stigma researchers Bruce Link and Jo Phelan concur: “Stigmatization probably has a dramatic bearing on the distribution of life chances in such areas as earnings, housing, criminal involvement, health, and life itself.”

Laypersons may intuit that stigma is one thing—a negative, prejudiced attitude about something. Yet research suggests that stigma, like most everything else in life, is a complex construct. 

Contemporary research has tended to divide the construct of stigma into three separate elements. As Graham Thornicroft of King’s College London and colleagues explain, those are “a lack of knowledge (ignorance), negative attitudes (prejudice) and people behaving in ways that disadvantage the stigmatised person (discrimination)”

In other words, stigma involves a cognitive component (ignorant beliefs), an emotional component (negative feelings of dislike, loathing, fear), and a behavioral component (acting to ostracize and oppress the stigmatized person or group).

Bruce Link and Jo Phelan (2001) proposed a model in which a stigma is defined by the process of convergence among five distinctive components:

The first component involves distinguishing and labeling human differences. The second involves the process by which “dominant cultural beliefs link labeled persons to undesirable characteristics-to negative stereotypes.” The third component occurs when “labeled persons are placed in distinct categories so as to accomplish some degree of separation of “us” from “them.” The fourth component has labeled persons “experience status loss and discrimination that lead to unequal outcomes.”

Finally, the fifth component is access to social, economic, and political power, which allows “the separation of labeled persons into distinct categories, and the full execution of disapproval, rejection, exclusion, and discrimination.” In other words, “when people have an interest in keeping other people down, in or away, stigma is a resource that allows them to obtain ends they desire.”

The multi-dimensional structure of stigma makes plausible the prediction that different aspects of stigma may operate quite independently of one another. For example, we may come to fear depressed people less, but still believe ignorantly that their depression is their fault. Likewise, a stigmatized group may simultaneously gain in social status and incur increased prejudice and hostility. If this is so, then addressing one component of stigma successfully may prove insufficient in reducing its overall ill-effects. 

A recent (2021) study by sociologist Bernice Pescosolido of Indiana University and colleagues provides an illustration of this complexity. The authors used data from face-to-face interviews conducted three times between 1996 and 2018 with a representative sample of over 4,000 U.S. adults.

Participants were asked to respond to one of three vignettes showing people who met DSM diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia, depression, and alcohol dependence or a control case (showing a person dealing with mere daily troubles). Participants then answered questions about the underlying causes (attributions) as well as the likelihood of violence (danger to others), and rejection (desire for social distance) regarding the person in the vignette.

Results showed a mixed pattern. The period between 1996-2006 saw an increase in the endorsement of genetic attributions for schizophrenia, depression, and alcohol dependence. In the later period (2006-2018), the desire for social distance decreased for depression across domains such as work, socializing, friendship, and marriage. At the same time, regressive changes were also observed. In 2018, participants saw people with schizophrenia as more dangerous and were more likely to attribute alcoholism to bad character than did 1996 participants.

The researchers found that demographic factors such as race and ethnicity, sex, and educational attainment failed to predict significant differences in the overall time trends. The one demographic factor that appears to have the most influence on stigma is age. “Older individuals in each period were significantly more unwilling to have the vignette person marry into the family.” 

The researchers identified five robust patterns in the data:

First, they concluded that the turn of the century (1996-2006) “saw a substantial increase in the public acceptance of biomedical causes of mental illness.” This shift toward a greater acceptance of scientific data did not, however, translate into a reduction in social rejection (desire for distance). 

Second, they concluded that the recent survey period (2006-2018) documented the first significant, substantial decrease in stigma for major depression, although like decreases were not found for schizophrenia or alcohol dependence.

Third, the researchers found that participants’ demographic characteristics “offered little insight into stigma, generally, or into observed decreases for depression.” Thinking and attitudes about depression appear to have changed across the board.

Fourth, age matters to stigma in a predictable way. The authors note: “change over time may be associated with age as a conservatizing factor, a cohort process in which older, more conservative individuals are replaced by younger, more liberal US residents.”

Fifth, while findings for depression were encouraging, other results disappointed. “For schizophrenia, there has been a slow shift toward greater belief of dangerousness… the increase was substantial and relatively large over the entire period (approximately 13 percent).” With regard to alcohol dependence, the results came up similarly mixed. “Although there was an increase in the selection of alcohol dependence as a mental illness with chemical and genetic roots, the problem was also trivialized as ups and downs. Moreover, we observed a return to a moral attribution of bad character in the first period that remain stable into the second period.”

Why 1,320 Therapists Are Worried About Mental Health in America Right Now

Social workers, psychologists and counselors from every state say they can’t keep up with an unrelenting demand for their services, and many must turn away patients — including children — who are desperate for support.

“All the therapists I know have experienced a demand for therapy that is like nothing they have experienced before,” said Tom Lachiusa, a licensed clinical social worker in Longmeadow, Mass. “Every available time slot I can offer is filled.”

The New York Times asked 1,320 mental health professionals to tell us how their patients were coping as pandemic restrictions eased. General anxiety and depression are the most common reasons patients seek support, but family and relationship issues also dominate therapy conversations. One in four providers said suicidal thoughts were among the top reasons clients were seeking therapy.

“I regularly wished aloud for a mental health version of Dr. Fauci to give daily briefings,” said Lakeasha Sullivan, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta. “I tried to normalize the wide range of intense emotions people felt; some thought they were truly going crazy.”

The responses to our survey, sent by Psychology Today to its professional members, offer insights into what frontline mental health workers around the country are hearing from their clients. We heard from mental health providers in all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. (You can learn more about how we conducted our survey at the end of this article.)

While there were moments of optimism about telemedicine and reduced stigma around therapy, the responses painted a mostly grim picture of a growing crisis, which several therapists described as a “second pandemic” of mental health problems.

“There is so much grief and loss,” said Anne Compagna-Doll, a clinical psychologist in Burbank, Calif. “One of my clients, who is usually patient, is experiencing road rage. Another client, who is a mom of two teens, is fearful and doesn’t want them to leave the house. My highly work-motivated client is considering leaving her career. There is an overwhelming sense of malaise and fatigue.”

Here are some of the findings from the survey.

Demand has surged.

Nine out of 10 therapists say the number of clients seeking care is on the rise, and most are experiencing a significant surge in calls for appointments, longer waiting lists and difficulty meeting patient demand.

“I live in a rural town, but I still get approximately seven to 10 inquiries a week that I have to turn away,” said Amy Wagner, a marriage and family therapist in Carrollton, Ga. “I know the other therapists in my area are also full and have been since the pandemic started.”

“Every single day there are new inquiries,” said Jacent Wamala, a marriage and family therapist in Las Vegas. “People are having to deal with the aftershock, emotionally and mentally, of what has happened.”

Respondents said the higher demand was coming from both former patients who had returned for care and from new clients seeking therapy for the first time for anxiety, financial stress, substance use, job worries and other issues that have surfaced during the upheaval of the past 18 months. Many therapists say they are counseling health care workers who have been traumatized by caring for Covid-19 patients.

“The pandemic has functioned like a magnifying glass for vulnerabilities,” said Gabriela Sehinkman, a licensed clinical social worker in Shaker Heights, Ohio, who specializes in serving the Latino community.

And while the pandemic has been polarizing, our analysis found that the higher demands for therapy are happening in every region, and at similar rates in red and blue states.

“Even if some clients don’t recognize certain scientific aspects of the pandemic, they’re still feeling the isolation and separation,” said Nathan Staley, a licensed professional counselor in Kansas City, Mo. “Political disagreements are increasingly a source of distress.”

3 Mental Health Strategies to Defeat Stress and Anxiety in the Workplace

Since the pandemic, business leaders have expanded their mental health benefit offerings to make their teams feel more comfortable and capable. Still, in many cases, employees are not taking advantage of them. Instead, more people than ever are choosing to voluntarily leave a company to take their chances somewhere else, driving unprecedented levels of disengagement and turnover.

According to a new study from Lighthouse Research & Advisory and LifeSpeak, there’s a significant gap between employers and employees concerning the perceived value of existing mental health support in the workplace. And the data shows a clear correlation between this misalignment and the recruiting and retention challenges most companies currently face.

Employers Receive an ‘F’

The 2021 Employer Mental Health Report Card surveyed more than 1,000 large employers and more than 1,000 employees across all industries in the United States. As part of these surveys, each cohort was asked to assess their company’s workplace mental health support on a scale of 1 to 10. The results reveal substantial disparities between employers and employees when it comes to their perception of company-provided mental health support. This was clearly demonstrated in some of the study’s most significant data points:

  • 4.4 – The average score employees gave their organization when asked to rate the mental health support they receive.
  • 7.6 – The average rating employers gave themselves when asked to rate the mental health support they provide.

“In the 10 years I’ve been doing research on employer priorities, this is the first time I’ve seen this big of a gap between the reality that workers and employers perceive,” said Ben Eubanks, chief research officer at Lighthouse Research & Advisory, and primary author of the study.

Despite receiving an extremely low grade from the workforce and giving a relatively modest grade to themselves – an “F” and a “C” using academic grading scales – the research shows that employers are making an effort to address mental health challenges. Among employers surveyed, 58% said they made significant positive changes to their mental health and wellbeing support over the past 18 months.

Eubanks says looking at these datapoints in their entirety indicates that “employers are trying to implement solutions to support mental health needs for the workforce, but the reality is these efforts aren’t being seen, felt, and received by many of the workers they are meant to support.”

3 Strategies to Addressing Gaps in Workplace Care

Nearly half of the surveyed workforce indicated the presence of a relevant mental health program would make them more inclined to remain at their current job and recommend one to a friend.

“Senior leaders are realizing the enormous business value in doing right by their workforce and ensuring they have the mental health support they need,” said Michael Held, CEO and founder of LifeSpeak.

It is more important than ever that business leaders align with their employees on what mental health benefits they desire most. When probing for the best methods to support mental health, the research found consensus on three strategies:

1. Access to qualified experts

Despite being part of their job description, most HR, training and benefits leaders are not certified mental health professionals. Workers have expressed that a critical component of perceived support is making experts available for education, guidance and advice on the topics they care about.

2. Leaders openly supporting mental health conversations

Fostering a strong culture of mental health support starts at the top. The most successful business leaders exhibit openness, honesty and authenticity, and the discussion surrounding mental health should be no exception.

Click Read More to read the full article on Inc.

The Guilt of Living with Chronic Pain

A recent study by Danijela Serbic and colleagues, in press in the British Journal of Health Psychology, suggests guilt in chronic pain is associated with “pain and pain interference, functional impairment, and poorer psychological and social functioning.”

But why should chronic pain patients feel guilty? How does guilt affect pain symptoms? And how can we help pain patients avoid guilty feelings?

Before we consider some answers provided by the study, let’s first define chronic pain.

Chronic Pain

Pain is an aversive experience, usually involving unpleasant sensations (e.g., tight, sharp, burning, tender, or throbbing sensations) and negative emotions (e.g., fear, anger, sadness, distress).

In the case of acute pain or short-term pain, these experiences are typically related to tissue damage (e.g., stubbing one’s toe). However, in chronic painor long-term pain—pain lasting three months or more—clear tissue damage is not always present.

Examples of chronic pain conditions, or illnesses sometimes associated with long-term pain, include fibromyalgia, chronic low back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, post-surgical pain, neuropathic pain (e.g., related to diabetes), cancer pain, arthritis pain, and headaches and migraines.

As noted, the link between chronic pain and tissue damage is weak. This may be one reason some physicians seem unwilling to accept that patients complaining of chronic pain are suffering from real pain. And why many chronic pain patients research their symptoms to convince their health providers of the genuineness of their pain—to legitimize their suffering and pain-related behaviors.

But chronic pain is real. It affects one in five people around the world and is linked with depressed mood, negative changes in identity and social roles, and disability. It is also highly costly—in terms of medical costs, informal care provided by the family, absenteeism or reduced productivity at work, etc.

Chronic Pain and Guilt

Many people living with chronic pain experience pain-related guilt. Why? Let us look at the research.

To synthesize the available evidence on the role of guilt in pain, Serbic et al. searched multiple databases and selected a final list of 12 investigations for the qualitative synthesis (410 participants) and six for the quantitative synthesis (2,316 participants).

Synthesis of the qualitative evidence revealed these guilt-related themes:

  1. Others assuming the patient’s pain condition is not legitimate. Patients who had not received a diagnosis yet or were exposed to opinions questioning the legitimacy of their condition reported feeling guilty or feeling like a fraud (i.e. as if they were faking their symptoms). Example: The pain “made me feel kind of guilty… You know, there’s not real proof with back pain, anybody can say my back hurts.”
  2. Others assuming the person is not managing the condition well enough. Some people living with chronic pain felt guilty for not complying (or being able to comply) with the treatment. Example: “You feel like you’re letting the doctor down.”
  3. Assumptions regarding how one’s actions affect others in terms of the person’s inability to work or fulfill social roles (e.g., parental duties or duties as a coworker). Example: “As your children grow up with you in pain, you are likely to feel guilty because they have to face issues and shoulder burdens that other kids don’t.”

The results of the quantitative synthesis were grouped into the following categories:

  1. Pain and pain interference: Pain-related guilt was positively associated with pain behaviors and with pain interference with relationships, sleep, work, etc.
  2. Functional impairment: Guilt correlated with worse physical functioning and greater fatigue and disability.
  3. Psychological functioning and coping strategies: Pain-related guilt was linked with diagnostic uncertainty, lower pain acceptance, and greater pain catastrophizing (more magnification, rumination, and helplessness).
  4. Psychological functioning and emotions: People who experienced pain-related guilt tended to feel anxious, depressed, and angry.
  5. Social functioning: Guilt correlated with social isolation and perceived criticism (e.g., by treatment providers).
  6. Demographics: Here, the results were inconsistent. While one investigation found women felt more pain-related worry and guilt, another investigation found no gender differences.

5 Tips to Be Happier Today

It’s gloomy outside of my window as I type. Everything is gray. The days are getting shorter. And at mid-life, there are all kinds of stressors! If you’re at all like me and could use a pick-me-up on this, the Monday after Thanksgiving (or, as my friend Becky Burch writes, The Monday-est of All Mondays), here are five Darwininian-inspired tips. 

The evolutionary perspective on human emotions holds that our emotions, including happiness, evolved as they did to serve important evolutionary functions for our ancestors during the bulk of human evolutionary history.1Under these conditions, largely when ancestrally modern humans lived in the African savanna in small, tight-knit groups, people experienced happiness when they encountered outcomes that would have been associated with survival and/or reproductive success. Such outcomes would have included, for instance:

  • Finding a great new food source
  • Creating something that is admired by others
  • Natural phenomena such as a fresh water stream during drought conditions
  • Sharing laughter and stories with family members
  • Experiencing mutual love with a partner who is adoring, trustful, and attractive

As we experience the time of year associated with waning sunlight in North America, here are five ways to harness happiness based on this evolutionarily informed approach.2

1. Eat something healthy and yummy.

Under ancestral conditions, humans evolved to prefer foods that put fat on one’s bones, anticipating drought and famine. For this reason, we evolved to prefer foods that are high in things like carbohydrates and salt. Ironically, the modern food industry has hijacked these food preferences. And this is why places like Burger King are so good at making money but also at distributing food that is obnoxiously unhealthy.

For these reasons, eating something that is simply tasty does not always have happiness-inducing effects in the modern world. Tasty foods, such as chocolate chip cookies that are fresh from the oven, come with a price. And such foods might come with guilt from not being able to control one’s impulses.

Natural foods, which map onto the kinds of foods that our ancestors would have eaten before the advent of agriculture, can be tasty but they are also generally guilt-free. Find your favorite tasty natural treat today. It may be grapes, clementines, salmon, sweet potatoes, etc. Eat something tasty and natural today, and do it with a guilt-free smile.

2. Create and share something today.

The creative spirit is a basic part of our evolved psychology. We admire creative others and we tend to take joy in the creative process. Under ancestral conditions, creativity was widely respected, likely as it had all kinds of benefits when it came to surviving and reproducing.3 Further, creativity is an inherently social endeavor. And sharing with others is a critical piece of happiness in a species such as ours with sociality being so foundational.

When it comes to forms of creativity, the options are nearly endless. Write a quick story or joke to share with a friend. Or a poem that captures your spirit today. Or maybe draw something. Perhaps a doodle during that department meeting will emerge into something that makes you really smile. Whether it is big or small, I say try to create something every day. And share it with someone who will appreciate it. And maybe see if they will share back. Sharing creative products, no matter how small, provides a simple route to joy on a daily basis. 

3. Get out into nature. 

Sure, it’s harder to get out into nature when it’s cold and gloomy outside. Add a saturated schedule to this and you’ve got a recipe for staying indoors and doing not much of anything. But remember, for the lion’s share of human evolutionary history, our ancestors were outside constantly. We evolved to be surrounded by fresh air as well as both plant and animal life. Natural water features, sky, and sun were all regular players in the daily lives of our ancestors. As such, we evolved a strong love for nature that goes deep into our evolved psychology.4

It might be a two-mile run before work. Or a quick walk in a park near the office. Or maybe, if time allows, an intensive hike deep into the woods. But whatever your schedule allows, make sure to get some outside time with some elements of nature in it. Nature experiences famously go hand-in-hand with happiness.

4. Share and communicate with family members today. 

As is true in many species, kin matter quite a bit in the human experience. From an evolutionary perspective, kin are those special people in the world who disproportionately share specific genetic combinations with ourselves. As a consequence, kin have an inherent evolutionary interest in our successes. This is why “blood is thicker than water.”

Think of a family member whom you get along with well and send them a text or give them a call. No agenda is needed. Just make sure that there are some laughs involved. 

5. Make time for love. 

In the human experience, love and happiness go hand-in-hand.5 For this reason, finding and cultivating loving relationships is a critical part of being human. And love has a way of facilitating happiness that truly cannot be matched.

How to Increase Your Motivation and Change Bad Habits

These reward centres secrete a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which creates a feeling of pleasure and motivation in an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). Other centres of the brain such as the rational prefrontal cortex (PFC), the memory-holding hippocampus and the emotional amygdala are also connected to the NAcc and can increase or decrease the levels of pleasure we experience with the judgments they make.

Imagine you are eating a delicious dinner and loads of dopamine molecules are ‘tickling’ your NAcc as you bite into an amazing Florentine steak. Suddenly, you get a call to tell you that somebody in your family is ill, or your boss calls to give you some bad news on the project you were working on. How is your dinner now? The PFC has made a calculation about what this news means, using some facts taken from the hippocampus’s library of memories and triggering relevant emotions in the amygdala. Anxiety, fear, stress, and shock can completely block the satisfaction of even the greatest pleasures.

The opposite can happen too, the PFC’s positive expectations can boost the sensation of pleasure. Imagine that you are in a Michelin-starred restaurant. You have been waiting for this day. Finally, it is here. And what is this? Waiters dressed in white tuxedos bring huge plates with small blobs of red mash. You have no idea what the food is, but you take a bite of it on the end of the spoon and you expect nothing but total deliciousness. And it is indeed delicious, partly because of all the amazing combinations of flavours, and partly because your PFC has been expecting it and has amplified the pleasure even more.

Emotional pain and fear centres are another part of the story. The main area for these is the amygdala, which keeps track of all the things that might have caused you damage in the past. However, the amygdala, being part of the mammal brain, is relatively primitive and often looks at immediate consequences rather than long-term effects. The same applies to the reward centres of the brain, namely the areas called nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which create a feeling of pleasure.

For example, the delicious creamy pastry you might have for afternoon tea today will definitely give you a big dopamine kick, causing pleasure and a desire to have it again. A few hours later you might feel sluggish and have difficulty focusing on the task at hand, but the mammal brain centres might not have linked it to the coffee and sugary snack you had before. As a daily habit, long term this can cause weight gain, loss of productivity and type II diabetes, with the gruesome possibility of losing your toes, as well as brain and body inflammation – loads of unpleasant, health-threatening consequences. Doesn’t sound good, does it? But does your mammal brain want to think about that? Of course not. And that’s why we need to use our powerful rational PFC.

First, we have to come up with a list of as many benefits of changing that habit as we can and another list of negative consequences now and in the long term if we don’t change it. Let’s take replacing sugary snacks with healthier options as a desired change. We are aiming to write down around 50 benefits of the new behaviour and 50 drawbacks of being stuck in the old pattern to reinforce our motivation to change. To come up with such a large number of benefits and drawbacks for the new and the old behaviour, think of eight main areas of your life such as work, family, romantic relationship, social life, hobbies, physical health, mental health, and personal growth or spiritual practices. Now go through each of these areas one by one and come up with as many benefits of the new behaviours and as many drawbacks of the old as you can for each of them. It might be helpful to take an A4 piece of paper, draw one vertical line in the middle and three equally spaced horizontal lines crossing it. That would divide the paper into eight equal squares. Dedicate each square to a different area of your life and label the squares. Draw a ‘+’ on the left of each square and write as many benefits as you can think of for replacing sugary snacks with healthier options.

America’s Going to the Gym Again.

lison Phillips, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, grew so, so tired of using the elliptical machine in her home, day after day, for over a year during the pandemic. First off, the repetition was aching her feet. But even worse, it hurt her mind. “It’s boring,” says Phillips. “Same thing, all the time.” So two weeks to the day after Phillips received her second COVID-19 vaccine shot, she returned to her local gym. “I needed the variety of activities,” says Phillips. “For not just my feet, but for interest sake.”

After going back to the gym, Phillips noticed that she was much more outgoing than she had been during her pre-pandemic workouts. “Seeing people was really important to me,” she says. “This was funny to me.” Before the COVID-19 pandemic, says Phillips, “I didn’t go to the gym for social ties, because I had small children and a full-time job. I was there to be efficient. I would avoid people so I didn’t have to talk.” Now, Phillips found herself budgeting ten minutes or so of extra time at her gym in Ames, Iowa for chit-chat. “I started talking to people that I had seen for years before the pandemic, and I had never talked them,” she says. “But I got back and I said, ‘I’m so happy to see you.’ I was motivated to chat with people. That was nice, to see people and be recognized by others. We had this shared sense of, we want to be here. And we’ve made it through this pandemic. It was just a breath of fresh air socially. And I changed as a person.”

Plus, socializing at the gym has improved her workouts. “My mood has been better,” says Phillips. “And when your mood is better, you have more energy to put into exercise.”

Many Americans, it seems, share Williams’ newfound affinity for the gym. Visits have nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels; gym visits were down just 8% in early October compared the same period 2019, according to data cited by CNBC. On Nov. 4, Planet Fitness, the gym chain with more than 2,000 locations, reported a solid rebound in the third quarter: revenue increased 46% to $154.3 million compared to the same period a year ago. Net income increased to $21.9 million, versus a $3.3 million net loss in the third quarter of 2020. Planet Fitness CEO Chris Rondeau said during an earnings call that membership was at 97% of pre-pandemic totals, at more than 15 million. Planet Fitness’ stock price rose 16% over the next two days.

Meanwhile, shares of Peloton, the web-connected home exercise bike and treadmill that grew in popularity as Americans were cooped up in their living rooms during the pandemic shutdowns, have fallen more than 40% since the company announced worse than expected earnings on the same day as Planet Fitness’s results. Peloton posted lower-than-expected revenue and a higher-than-expected net loss of $376 million, or $1.25 per share, for its most recent quarter.

During the height of the pandemic, such a reversal of fortunes for Planet Fitness and Peloton seemed almost unimaginable. Home exercise proved convenient, while crowded gyms seemed ripe for the spread of the virus. Phillips—who has studied the benefits of group exercise, which include lower stress levels and significant improvements in mental, physical, and emotional quality of life—worried that gyms would go under. “People were working out at home and became good at it,” she says.

But it turns out that people missed their old routines. And this news doesn’t just bode well for Planet Fitness. The comeback of gym workouts mark a return to pre-pandemic normalcy. And assuming countless people like Williams are embracing lost human connectivity at the gym, the success of chains like Planet Fitness could make America a happier place.

The Museum of You

We may think about our most memorable experiences but less often about memorable objects. Those can illuminate who we were and perhaps are.

What would the Museum of You include? It may help to think of any old things you still have or that your parents are keeping for you.

Start with the first object of emotional significance that you can recall. Recent research finds that most people’s first recollections start in toddlerhood, earlier than previously thought. Do your first-recalled objects say anything about what mattered or still matters to you? For example, if an early memory is of hugging a teddy bear, that could foreshadow that affection is primary to that person. If a person’s earliest memory is of sneaking into the cookie jar after the parent said, “No more cookies!” that might hint of an incipient rebellious or even dishonest nature.

Now move on to your school years. Maybe you recall a friendship note from a classmate. Or the AAA TripTik from the family driving vacation to Niagara Falls. My favorite possession was a big hi-fi speaker. It was the first big thing I bought from saving up from my allowance. It signified how important music was to me and still is. It also presaged that I’m comfortable in delaying gratification. 

Here are some examples from adulthood that might help evoke important items from your life.

From young adulthood: that dyed T-shirt, basketball uniform, your only A+ on a paper, a picture of or love letter from your college sweetheart, your college transcript, the trophy from finishing second in a road rally, a memento from that study-abroad program.

Later on: Your wedding ring even if you divorced, your first offer letter of employment, your best performance review or worst one—a wake-up call, a meaningful thank-you letter, the book you choose to reread. One of my favorites is the tiny toy rat that sits at the base of my computer monitor. I had an actual rat that was scurrying around at night in my attic and told a client about it. When she returned from a business trip to Beijing, she brought me that toy rat. I keep it not just because it was funny, although it was, but because the client liked me enough to search it out for me on her business trip.

So, as you look at your Museum of You, do you find any common threads, perhaps that say something about your essence? Or your aspirations?

Now think about what common things you excluded from your Museum of You: Those pertaining to travel? Family? Work? Romance? Recreation? Materialistic items? What does that say about you?

Finally, do you want to assemble those items in one place, an actual Museum of You?

Yoga and Meditation Are Not Enough

Studies are recording rates of mental illness during the pandemic never before seen, with 21 percent of us experiencing clinical levels of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. Of those who report mental health problems, 68 percent say their condition is worsening, with the greatest burden falling on young people who are four times as likely as seniors to show signs of mental illness. Add to this the problem of loneliness which was already skyrocketing before the pandemic, and there doesn’t appear to be much hope without some serious attention to the services people need to cope. Even worse, recent studies show that among those suffering from mental illness, addictions are four times as likely to occur.

There are solutions, but they may be arriving too late for many, especially minorities, people who are gender diverse, and anyone with precarious housing or work. For these individuals, the mental health challenges that confront them are becoming far too common.

The solutions, though, have to be more than individual changes to thoughts and feelings. Looking globally, as Vikram Patel from Harvard and others have, we know it’s time to think about our community’s mental health instead of just our own. Indeed, a healthy, vibrant community that inspires trust and social justice is one where fewer people will experience the social isolation or unwanted stress that pushes people into depression and anxiety.

In practice, this means cushioning the impact of the pandemic by promoting fair housing policies and opportunities for employment and training. That requires government initiatives aimed at helping those whose lives have been disrupted.

Even more, we will need to address the anxiety which has accompanied our collective feelings of unpredictability. The more people feel the rules changing around them, and the less they trust science, the press, and government, the more ill at ease they become and the more at risk they are for both mental health problems or social disruption.

The way out of this situation is not just a little more yoga or offering meditation courses to leaders. I was recently attending a global conversation hosted by the Templeton Foundation, and while inspiring, it felt like the panelists were far too focused on asking people to transform their character, to hold better values, and become more empathetic than they were on changing the conditions around people that put mental health at risk. Of course, individual change is an admirable goal, but naïve at best and potentially harmful at worse. Such a focus ignores the fact that individual transformation is going to take decades, if it occurs at all, while collectively rates of mental illness continue to rise. Instead of individual change, what if we convinced our leaders that it was in their own selfish best interest to:

  • Encourage everyone to draw meaning from our collective sacrifice and remind us that our individual recovery from the pandemic relies on our neighbor’s right action (that means vaccinations, tolerance of differences, and some reasonableness when it comes to hearing out the facts, whether about diverse communities being healthier and more economically vibrant places to live, or the need for social benefits like paid sick leave that increases both productivity and health).
  • Our successful recovery from the psychological dumpster we’re in also requires new opportunities for individuals to use their talents, to retrain when our economy decarbonizes and green energy replaces industries that were formally powerful economic engines.
  • Help people turn to their families, turn off their social media (sometimes), and find more human ways of being in close proximity to one another. That will mean ensuring that we get past social distancing and masking once it’s safe to do so, and ensure those who are vulnerable (like the elderly) are given safe spaces in their communities. It will also mean making it easier for people to advance their education, something we know people are keen to do (my own university has seen a steady increase in enrolments during the pandemic). And we will need to remember that people need the chance to grow emotionally and through their careers.

If these collectivist solutions to individual mental health seem odd given our focus on pharmacological solutions, consider that despite all the medical interventions and psychological self-help tools available, the statistics on mental disorders are only rising. Alone, person-centred solutions will fail. Together, however, we stand a chance.

Depression Explained

Depression is a frequently used word, but what exactly does it mean? Since October 7 is National Depression Screening Day and October 10 is National Mental Health Day (see NAMI learn more about Mental Illness Awareness Week that Congress initiated in 1990), I thought I would take this opportunity to delve deeper into the diagnoses and symptoms of depression and some of the most compelling research to treat depression and enhance mental (and physical) health.

Depression affects more than 264 million people worldwide. Of those impacted, 76-85% of people with mental health disorders in the middle to lower-income countries lack access to treatment. While depression is decreased with higher incomes, it is essential to recognize that the leading cause of death among non-Hispanic white, middle-aged adults in the U.S. was due to poisoning, with the third leading cause of suicide. This reveals the gravity of depression and its associated costs even among people in a higher-income country with broader access to care. Unfortunately, it also highlights one of the biggest challenges in treating depression, as one of the main symptoms of depression is the tendency to withdraw and isolate. It’s also a biological norm because the body naturally withdraws to conserve energy and heal when it feels sick. However, untreated depression is less likely to recover in a state of isolation and depression-driven behaviors.

What are the depression diagnoses?

According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), depression has various physical and non-physical symptoms, with depressed mood and anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) being primary symptoms. That is why you cannot coax someone into looking at the bright side, trying to get them to laugh, or telling them to get over it. (All bad ideas that only serve to reinforce the depressed person’s emotional and physical isolation from you.)

Physical symptoms of depression may include sleep difficulties, weight changes (gain or loss), trouble concentrating, fatigue, and accelerated or decreased psychomotor activity. In contrast, non-somatic symptoms can be depressed mood, lack of pleasure, hopelessness, worthlessness, guilt, and suicidal thoughts.

Not all of the listed depression symptoms have to be met to attain a depression diagnosis, yet having a cluster of the described symptoms combined with onset, length of time, and accounting for other existing medical conditions can result in the diagnosis of depression (based on the severity of mild, moderate, or severe). Some depression diagnoses are disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, major depression disorder (MDD) (with episodes and features), persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia), premenstrual dysphoric disorder, postpartum depression, and depressive disorder due to another medical condition.

Systemic Consequences of Depression

Depression can lead to trouble concentrating, making one withdraw from social and physical activities (including work and/or school), and can have the reinforcing isolating impacts of being socially rejected, losing essential relationships, and/or getting let go from a job. Social isolation increases depression, so it’s a vicious, mutually reinforcing cycle.

Depression can also have devastating effects on a newborn when their mother is unavailable and disinterested. Ahmed et al. (2021) found mothers who had poor mental and physical health during the pregnancy and up to 15 months after the baby’s birth resulted in their infants having significantly poorer health scores and decreased functioning.

Unfortunately, numerous studies reveal that neglect and mistreatment in childhood have long-lasting harmful effects on health and often result in depression. Duprey et al. (2021) found neglect and childhood maltreatment to result in internalized shame, cognitive distortions. They blunted cortisol production (like in Addison’s Disease, where the body cannot produce cortisol and features a flat effect). Liebermann et al. (2018) showed that women with childhood maltreatment had higher depression, pelvic pain, and endometriosis rates. Zarse et al. (2019) identified a long list of early-onset health conditions and mental disorders among people with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including high rates of depression, substance abuse, and reduced lifespans.

Depression becomes reinforced through the generations as depressive parenting creates depressed adults combined with a depressive culture that often employs unhealthy habits for coping (like poor sleeping habits, excess nervousness and anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse, junk food preferences, lack of exercise, and poor self-care). Additionally, the inability to concentrate in school can lead to higher school drop-out rates, job instability, difficult relationships, trouble maintaining household chores and bills, reduced income, and reduced use of medical check-ups and healthcare. Consequently, it is not surprising that many studies have shown increased inflammation and diseases in chronically stressed and depressed people.

Recommendations for Treatment

One of the consistently researched and recognized interventions for treating depression (and chronic pain) is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This may help because it reduces distorted thinking patterns that pervade depression. Depression is akin to wearing blurry glasses, and one’s perceptions about the world and other people are not always correct. CBT helps to regain more accurate perceptions and overcome rumination, catastrophic thinking, fear, and self-abuse. It should be noted that CBT works best when it is with a trusted therapist. As so many studies and theories echo, good therapy outcomes result from a good therapeutic relationship. People often report improved relationships in other areas of their lives due to therapy, which aids in overcoming depression and sustaining mental health.

The Healing Power of Nature

A craving for contact with nature slipped into my consciousness almost as soon as the pandemic began. I found myself itching with enthusiasm for my long daily walks along the ghostly avenues of NYC in the environs of my neighborhood. I would venture into Central Park, where I sought out empty pockets that offered me the privacy to conduct a phone session with a patient while being enveloped by the eerie and deserted beauty of the urban nature preserve of Central Park during the pandemic. I began to need these walks in a visceral way. They, along with the five pieces of candy I allotted to myself each day, became my daily treat. I felt calmed, soothed, and exhilarated by my walks.

Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer and creator of Central Park, wrote that “beautiful natural scenery, employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and re-invigoration to the whole system.”

Escape to Nature

After I escaped to the suburbs to wait out the rest of the worst part of the pandemic, I eagerly embraced the quiet green and flowered spaces that had caused me impatience in an earlier part of my life. There too I reveled in my long walks. I began to enjoy such outdoor activities as sitting around my outdoor fire pit well into the January cold, with friends, enjoying food, drink, and conversation while throwing logs on the fire. I no longer shrank from the cold as I had throughout my life. Instead, I greeted it energetically and readied myself with layers of warm clothes and brisk movement. My daily bike rides stretched well into winter when precipitation permitted.

What happened to me? I’m the woman who preferred to walk on a hard city block rather than a grassy turf and to be surrounded by crowds of sleek and polished New Yorkers over Duck shoe-clad suburban and rural dwellers. I thought the quiet of the suburbs was hugely overrated and the bustle of NYC was poorly understood by its detractors.

I began to examine exactly what I was getting out of this intense need for interaction with nature and the outdoors.

How Nature Benefits Us

After being sequestered first in my city apartment and later in a suburban house, being outdoors in nature felt freeing. Since we were not allowed to be indoors with other people, we essentially became locked indoors either alone or with a small pod of people. The outdoors represented freedomfrom the constraints of the pandemic. It was the only place where we could openly interact with people who were not in our pod. That was most people.

As I deepened my forays into nature and the outdoors, starting to hike more than ever before and venturing beyond the suburbs into the beach and the country, I noticed that the smell of the earth and foliage, the feel of the air on my skin and nostrils, and the sight of the beauty of the earth’s offerings gave me a sense of hope and comfort. A sense that life goes on no matter what and keeps renewing itself. If COVID brought disease and death, nature brought renewal and a connection to life without the demands that human relationships bring with them. If everyday life during COVID (and a destructive political environment) brought about turbulence, nature endowed us with a sense of peace and calm. If our COVID existence is angst-filled, nature comforts us.

The wonder of 21st-century technology gave us a way to connect to people virtually even if we couldn’t connect with them in person. I write extensively about that phenomenon in my recently published book How Are You? Connection in a Virtual Age; A Therapist, a Pandemic and Stories About Coping with Life. Yet, most of us found that we developed Zoom or screen fatigue. Living life online, as I call it, Has an alienating effect on our human senses and sensibilities. Nature with its gentle appeal to the basic components of all that is life-giving and sustaining is the balm for over-exposure to technology. Immersion in nature offered freedom not only from our pandemic isolation and imprisonment but from technology.

Outline of Benefits

  1. Sense of freedom
  2. Sense of renewal
  3. Hope
  4. Comfort, peace, and calm
  5. A connection to life without the demands that human relationships bring with them
  6. Freedom from technology

The Well-Gardened Mind

As I was contemplating my amazement over my love affair with nature, the outdoors, and what they stand for, a book called The Well Gardened Mind; The Restorative Power of Nature by Sue Stuart-Smith came out that addressed these phenomena. In it, Stuart-Smith cites ample research that has taken place over the last decades, showing that gardening and immersion in nature boosts mood and self-esteem and may help alleviate depression and anxiety. I am making a connection between gardening (which is a part of my infatuation with nature) and my experiences of making fires, hiking, biking, and just plain being in nature. Paraphrasing the 12th-century theologian and composer St. Hildegard Von Bingen, Stuart-Smith says that “our nervous systems are primed to function best in response to aspects of the natural world … When we work with the nature outside we work with nature inside us”

How Spending Time Outside Can Improve Your Mental Health

Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild, went on a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike while grieving the loss of her mother. Many millennials have left a traditional lifestyle to travel in a camper van to experience natural wonders. Our national parks have been at capacity from visitors throughout the pandemic. There are a lot of examples of people seeking nature for the benefits it has.

Here are some reasons spending time in nature can improve physical and mental health:

  • Exercise. A lot of activities in nature at minimum involve walking in order to get there, which boosts serotonin, lowers blood pressure, strengthens your heart, and keeps you fit.
  • It can boost your energy
  • Fresh air (free aromatherapy)
  • A break from screen time, which is good for your eyes
  • Scenery. Who doesn’t love looking at pretty things?
  • Quietness and the sounds of nature.
  • Getting Vitamin D, an essential vitamin the lack of which can sometimes lead to depression
  • It can lower your adrenaline from stress build-up

How much time do we need to be outdoors to get the benefits? You may see many benefits from increments of just 15 minutes. Taking time for extended vacations and trips during the year are special occasions, but we can incorporate time outside daily.

Here are some ideas of things to do outside regularly:

  • Go for a walk in your neighborhood
  • Visit a local park
  • Go to the beach, lake, or river
  • Ride your bike or skate
  • Do some yard work
  • Take your pet outside
  • Sit outside and listen to music
  • Eat out on a restaurant’s patio
  • Have a picnic with a friend
  • Park your car farther away in a parking lot
  • Play an outdoor game or sport with your children
  • Enjoy your coffee or tea on your porch in the morning
  • Go camping
  • Take a hike
  • Go kayaking or canoeing
  • Go out on a boat
  • Join a sports league
  • Go to a farmers’ market

A great way to incorporate more time outside is just to set a goal or intention for the day or week. If you feel short on time, just turn something you already do into an outdoor experience. Also, note if you are the type of person who doesn’t feel as comfortable in nature. That is perfectly fine; getting some sunlight however possible can still have added health benefits, though, and exercise can always be done indoors. Try to do some new things outdoors that feel comfortable for you and see how you feel.

Do some cognitive functions improve with age?

For years, most research indicated that older adults experience a decline in brain functioning across the board. However, a new observational study, which appears in Nature Human Behaviour, suggests that may not be true. 

The study’s authors found that rather than seeing a decline in all cognitive functions, older adults instead demonstrated improvements in some domains. 

Cognitive functioning

According to the American Psychological Association, cognitive functioning refers to “performance of the mental processes of perception, learning, memory, understanding, awareness, reasoning, judgment, intuition, and language.”

Cognitive functioning includes executive functions, such as flexible thinking, working memory, and self-control. People with neurological conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can experience deficits in these functions. 

The study authors described executive function as:

“The critical set of processes that allow us to focus on selective aspects of information in a goal-directed manner while ignoring irrelevant information. This set of functions is crucial for everyday life and supports numerous higher-level cognitive capacities.”

Researchers have long thought that there is a point where people stop making cognitive functioning progress and begin experiencing a decline. 

In particular, some experts consider memory to be one of the most affected brain functions in older adults. For instance, the author of a review paperTrusted Source on the impact of age on cognition writes:

“The most noticeable changes in attention that occur with age are declines in performance on complex attentional tasks, such as selective or divided attention.”

Study on functioning skills 

The latest study paints a less negative picture than other studies. The new research shows that older adults may improve in some areas. 

“People have widely assumed that attention and executive functions decline with age, despite intriguing hints from some smaller-scale studies that raised questions about these assumptions,” says senior study author Dr. Michael T. Ullman. 

Dr. Ullman is a professor in the Department of Neuroscience and director of Georgetown University Medical Center’s Brain and Language Lab in Washington, D.C.

The researchers studied 702 participants who were aged 58–98. They tested the participants for the following three cognitive functions: 

  • alerting
  • orienting
  • executive inhibition

First study author Dr. João Veríssimo, an assistant professor at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, describes how these three processes work.

“We use all three processes constantly,” Dr. Veríssimo explains. “For example, when you are driving a car, alerting is your increased preparedness when you approach an intersection. Orienting occurs when you shift your attention to an unexpected movement, such as a pedestrian. And executive function allows you to inhibit distractions, such as birds or billboards, so you can stay focused on driving.”

The researchers tested the functioning of the participants using the computer-based Attention Network Test (ANT). The ANT tests how well participants can respond to the target stimulus shown on the computer screen.

The study authors say the ANT “simultaneously measures the efficiency of all three networks.”

While previous studies thought all three processes declined with age, the researchers found that only alerting abilities declined. The other two processes — orienting and executive inhibition— improved. 

“These results are amazing and have important consequences for how we should view aging,” says Dr. Ullman. “But the results from our large study indicate that critical elements of these abilities actually improve during aging, likely because we simply practice these skills throughout our life.”

What We Really Talk about When We Talk about Self-Help

Our appetite for self-help has never been greater: The self-help market is valued at $11 billion worldwide and is forecast to grow rapidly over the next few decades. We consume self-help literature voraciously, ever hungry for the latest guidance. The personal-development sector, too, is booming. We spend large sums on therapists, life coaches, and wellness experts, while our employers invest heavily in developing our soft skills. But a rapidly growing number of people see the cultural imperative of constantly having to improve ourselves critically. 

The self-help industry is based on the assumption that we have many serious and debilitating shortcomings that need fixing. It hooks into our dissatisfaction with who and what we are, often promising unrealistic quick-fix cures for our deeper existential ailments. The self-improvement diktat, moreover, implies that we alone are responsible for our own happiness, that it is our personal responsibility, and indeed obligation, constantly to work on our character, interpersonal skills, health, and the adequate management of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Many self-help regimes do not acknowledge the structural and political causes of some of our predicaments, nor the differences in our ability to self-improve that may be related to our upbringing, life experiences, and character traits.

The very idea of self-help implies that the self can be helped and that it is in all our powers to do so. Many self-help regimes assume that we have infinite agency to shape our own fate, and that we must be lacking in willpower if we don’t succeed in doing so. The perhaps most extreme form of that kind of thinking is at work in texts like The Secret (2006), which suggest that everything that happens to us is our own doing, because our thoughts are “magnetic” and attract matching psycho-spiritual energies to us. If we fail to think happy thoughts, the “law of attraction” ensures that bad stuff will happen to us. According to that logic, assaults, illnesses, accidents, and even genocide are ultimately all the victim’s fault.

When we talk about self-help we can therefore not just discuss whether specific psycho-technologies are effective or not. Self-help is also a political topic with wide-ranging ethical implications. Self-help regimes always rest on very specific concepts of the self, as well as on assumptions about agency, personal responsibility, and our wider place in the systems of which we are a part. These assumptions are rarely made explicit, but substantially shape the suggested improvement regimes. To what extent are we able to shape ourselves and our lives? If we believe in the infinite possibility to transform ourselves, we may blame or look down on those who do not manage to take positive action. If we believe that our potential is predetermined, we may feel helpless and depressed.

Do we conceive of ourselves as solitary, autonomous agents, out there to secure personal advantages in hostile territories? Or do we think of ourselves as relational and interdependent, embedded parts of a much larger whole? Do we believe in fixed qualities and potentials, or in more fluid and context-dependent notions of selfhood? These conceptions change throughout history and across cultures. The Stoic philosopher Seneca, for example, writes: “Our relations with one another are like a stone arch, which would collapse if the stones did not mutually support each other, and which is upheld in this very way.”

13 Ways Yoga May Improve Mind-Body Function

Yoga (from Sanskrit “yoke” or “union”) is a darśana (from Sanskrit “to see”), it’s traditionally been a path toward enlightenment or freedom from karma or the illusions of suffering. Yoga originated more than 5,000 years ago in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization1.

Yoga, in sickness and health

In their recent review in the journal Mindfulness, Pascoe and colleagues (2021) note research showing different forms of yoga increase mindfulness and spiritual well-being, alleviate symptoms of anxiety, stress, pain, and depression in clinical populations, and decrease stress and improve well-being in non-clinical groups. There are many different types of yoga, each integrating different practices and approaches, complicating research.

The researchers included 22 studies culled from multiple databases to identify a broad array of articles. They did not assess the methodology of studies, as the goal of this narrative review was to capture the state of the current literature in the field. From these studies, they identified common proposed mechanisms for yoga’s physiological effects.

13 areas where yoga may affect psychobiological functions

  1. Interoception: Our ability to perceive the internal state of our bodies is a key factor in health, and for having a healthy relationship with our own bodies, especially in trauma. Mindful interoceptive awareness has been associated with better pain control, along with other benefits. Yoga practice trains people to build interoceptive awareness, as shown in smaller studies. However, more research is needed to better understand how yoga, interception, and health are related.
  2. Self-compassion: When we are suffering, being self-critical, experiencing feelings of failure and insecurity, self-compassion allows people to respond with kindness to one’s own state of mind, helping to ground us and foster soothing, positive self-parenting, helpful for well-being. This review found several studies connecting different forms of yoga with increased self-compassion. Research suggests that facing fears of compassion may help people make progress.
  3. Emotional regulation: Smoothly managing challenging emotional states is considered a core self-regulatory skill, and part of overall good personality functioning, working with reflective function (mentalization) and executive skills to help us best deploy our resources in times of stress and repose. Authors found no large studies of emotional regulation and yoga, but noted two smaller studies showing improvements in this area in adolescents and yoga practitioners.
  4. Avoidance/Exposure: Avoidance is a cardinal feature of maladaptive responses to trauma, which, while preventing triggering, leaves people vulnerable to distress when triggers cannot be avoided, and preventing adaptation, or desensitization, to traumatic reminders. Given that many reminders are out of one’s control, internal or in the world, learning to attend to distressing cues without being overwhelmed or needed to steer clear is important for recovery2.
  5. Rumination: Excessive attention to unpleasant thoughts, memories, experiences or sensations is associated with less robust coping with trauma and distress. To an extent, the ability to mull over thoughts, to make sense of them, cope with emotions as noted above, and move on, is helpful and associated with resilience. Self-compassion has been shown to decrease excessive rumination. The literature on yoga and excessive rumination is inconclusive but a small, controlled study suggests there are benefits for women with depression.
  6. Meta-cognition: Related to emotion regulation, executive function and, mentalization—the ability to accurately sense others’ inner states—meta-cognition refers to being able to partially detach from thoughts and feelings, to “let go” of distress and hold suffering more lightly, as well as to reflect upon such experiences mentally, make sense of them, and keep them in context. Yoga has been shown to increase meta-cognition around physical sensations, notably pain. There is no specific research on meta-cognition with yoga, but one study of MSBR which included hatha yoga found increased meta-cognition in depressed patients.
  7. Attention and Memory: Improving cognitive capacity can help to facilitate positive changes, contributing to good executive function in the deployment of resources. Being able to focus on and remember plans and goals helps in changing habits, making better choices when one is unwell, and sustaining healthy routines. Authors report that multiple studies show improvements in working memory, attention, and inhibitory control with yoga. Less robust findings suggest that yoga may improve some aspects of memory, due to factors which may include improvements in sleep, neural connectivity, and mood.
  8. Blood Pressure: Elevated blood pressure, when more severe, results in hypertension and requires medical treatment. Less severe elevated blood pressure is associated with high stress, and reductions in blood pressure with relaxation response and better health outcomes. Different forms of yoga have been shown in numerous studies to have a limited impact in reducing blood pressure through different mechanisms, including mindfulness practice and importantly, aerobic exercise. 
  9. Heart Rate: As with high blood pressure, increased heart rate is associated with acute and chronic stress reactions, and also positive excitement and arousal. Similarly, several studies have found that yoga modestly decreases heart rate.
  10. Heart Rate Variability: Perhaps more than blood pressure or heart rate per se, heart rate variability (HRV) has been shown to be a marker of health and illness3. Numerous studies of yoga and HRV have found beneficial effects on measures of HRV associated with increased parasympathetic activity via vagal effects and improvements in cardiac parameters as reflected in detailed HRV analysis (i.e. increases in low-frequency HRV are thought to connect with greater parasympathetic response), and with benefits over and above exercise alone.

The 9 Silver Linings of the COVID-19 Pandemic

A new study forthcoming in Frontiers in Psychology sheds light on some of the pandemic’s unforeseen positive consequences—such as a newfound appreciation for working from home, finding solace in a slower pace of life, and working closely with community members to achieve a common goal.

“We identified positive aspects, or silver linings, that people experienced during the COVID-19 crisis using computational natural language processing methods,” said the authors of the research led by Stanford University’s Juan Antonio Lossio-Ventura. “These silver linings revealed sources of strength that included finding a sense of community, closeness, gratitude and a belief that the pandemic may spur positive social change.”

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers fielded a large-scale online survey on three social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, and NextDoor) in which they asked participants to respond to the question, “Although this is a challenging time, can you tell us about any positive effects or ‘silver linings’ you have experienced during this crisis?”

They used a combination of computational and qualitative natural language processing methods to identify themes in participants’ text responses. (For readers unfamiliar with natural language processing, it is a technique used by researchers to extract meaning from large quantities of text such as millions of Facebook comments or Tweets.) They then assigned each of these themes a “sentiment” score, based on how positive or negative their algorithm rated the theme.

As expected, they found that the average sentiment of participants’ responses was positive when describing the pandemic’s silver linings. Moreover, women’s responses were slightly more positive than men’s responses.

The researchers grouped participants’ comments into nine categories listed below and ranked from most to least common.

  1. Spending quality time with loved ones. Example comment: “I’m in touch with my family who [lives] faraway a lot more. Kids are starting to help more in the house with cleaning and cooking. I’m getting two walks a day with my husband, therefore, having more quality time together!”
  2. Life slowing down. Example comment: “Having real-time to do nothing, guilt- and FOMO-free, and the headspace to take up low-stakes hobbies just for fun, as in caring more about enjoyment than talent.”
  3. Community coming together. Example comment: “People reaching out to friends and family to make sure they are okay, physically and emotionally. People helping neighbors who can’t go to the store on their own. People saying hello (at a safe distance) on the trails, respecting the rules, and the importance of staying friendly/civil. People ordering from local restaurants and other ways to keep local businesses solvent.”
  4. Feeling gratitude for what people have. Example comment: “Appreciating the small things in life that have disappeared.”
  5. Benefits of technology use. Example comment: “Friends and family members are getting much better at technology and joining me on Facebook and Instagram where I’ve always done a lot of my socialization. So my physical contact with the world is a lot smaller, but my community also feels a lot bigger and closer now.”
  6. Benefits of working from home. Example comment: “I don’t have to drive 1.5 hours to and from work daily.”
  7. Improved health and health literacy. Example comment: “Trying to prioritize sleep and my physical and mental well-being. Doing all my cooking at home and not buying take-out/restaurant/convenience food.”
  8. The impetus for positive social change. Example comment: “My therapy and psychiatry firm previously refused to make appointments via telehealth. Given the pandemic, they have been forced to adopt telehealth practices. I’m hopeful that they will continue this practice afterward.”
  9. Positive environmental impact. Example comment: “Greenhouse gas emissions are down.”

“In a time of limited resources, understanding the silver linings that have given people hope, strength, and solace can inform efforts to support individual and collective recovery from the psychological and emotional challenges of the pandemic,” said the authors. “As a result, we may be better able to heal from this crisis and better prepared to respond to potential future crises.”

7 Tips for Coping When Life Is Bumpy

A task I had expected to be simple would now require two more errands, and more money. Grrr!

Often, this is how life goes. Mistakes happen, things don’t work as they should, processes are inefficient. Or, we get more bad news when we’re already feeling fragile.

Here are seven tips for learning to roll with the punches, and not feel knocked out of kilter.

1. Don’t expect life to go smoothly.

In modern, developed countries, we often expect our transactions to go very smoothly. If we reserve a hotel room, we expect it will be available when we arrive. We expect clean water to come out of the tap. We expect that if we buy a product and it’s faulty or not as described, we’ll be able to return it. We expect the product we order will be the product that arrives, and not some other random item.

We expect reliability, and we expect physical comfort (e.g., air conditioning). And this can extend to us also expecting emotional comfort. Perhaps over-expecting it. But the more you think of discomfort (of all kinds) as something to be expected periodically, the easier it can be to handle when it arises. It’s helpful to think of these experiences as universal rather than personalizing them.

2. Notice when you are personalizing events.

I haven’t seen my mother in over two years because of the pandemic. I live in the U.S, she lives in New Zealand, and their border is essentially closed. Many New Zealanders aren’t personally affected by the border restrictions, and are grateful the border closures are keeping their lives COVID-free. However, part of me thinks, “No one cares about families like ours” who are affected by it. When I think like this, I get upset about New Zealanders in my circle who are choosing not to vaccinate, because it likely means a longer wait until my family can freely see each other again. It took me a long time to realize how much I was personalizing other New Zealanders’ attitudes to the border closure. When I did realize it, it helped me to see the big picture more.

3. Use self-compassion.

We often criticize ourselves that we should be able to handle blips, frustrations, disappointments, sadness, etc., better. You might think, “Other people wouldn’t be rocked by this. Other people would take this in stride.” Self-compassion skills should help a great deal if you’re doing this type of criticism.

4. Understand what pushes your buttons.

Cars and mechanical or electrical issues feel pretty foreign to me. Therefore, anything to do with those makes me feel out of my comfort zone. I didn’t want to figure out a car problem.

Other People Are Really Not Your Problem

Have you ever thought how curious it is that when you are having a bad day, don’t feel well, might be rushing or otherwise distracted, and you do or say something to someone else, you want them to be understanding; however, when the converse is true, you have no ability to cut some slack and give someone else the benefit of the doubt? 

“If he wasn’t like he is, I wouldn’t respond this way.” “I try so hard, but she doesn’t reciprocate.” “His approach sets off something in me, and I just have to respond negatively.” The list of excuses offered as to why you are not the person in the wrong is endless; it’s the other person who is causing the angst and upset. If they would get themselves right, all would be well with the world.

If you have ever had children, teenagers, a significant other, family members, or friends who rub you the wrong way, you know the so-called pain of a difficult relationship. People you care about just don’t do what you want and need them to do! It is eternally frustrating that they can’t understand how good you are to them, and they don’t reciprocate in kind. Much of people’s lives are spent looking at others and lamenting how they should or shouldn’t do something differently. People truly believe if they could fix the other person and get them to behave in ways they dictate as necessary and appropriate, all would be well.

The most important lesson you can learn in life is that you can’t fix others.

You can’t dictate their behavior, and you can’t change them to suit your needs. As a parent, you can guide your child; you can nurture them and provide a role model to show positive behaviors. In any relationship, you can address something that is amiss; you can bring up issues that are troubling and might need to be examined or corrected.

You don’t have to hide your viewpoint. You don’t have to ignore what’s meaningful to you. You don’t have to take abuse and say nothing, but you do need to recognize that your way is not always the only way or the right way. 

Other people are not your problem. Yes, they can be mean, they can do things that hurt, they can behave in ways that are not mature and appropriate, but they aren’t your problem. Figuring out what triggers you and why, and understanding how to modify your approach and your behavior, is going to serve you much better—both in the short and the long run.

What to do when others are difficult:

Try the following instead of working to be “right” and convince them of the error of their ways:

1. See your triggers in action.

Everyone has something that triggers them. Ever considered why there is no one single definition of the “difficult” ones? Some people love forceful people; others find them intimidating. Some parents love children at certain ages, while others loathe those ages and stages. Some people enjoy quiet, unassuming people, while others think they are conceited and disengaged.

If there was one definition, everyone would agree, but there is not—because each person is triggered by different things. Try and see what triggers you, what you want to control, and what you “can’t stand” about others. Once you see it, you can start to recognize the triggers in action.

2. Consider the “why?”

Why does this behavior or approach trigger you? Again, assuming it is not someone physically abusing you or stealing from you, why does someone speaking in a sharp tone set you off, for example? Why does someone who gets upset about something you might have done irk you? Why do you want to chew out that person who doesn’t agree with your point of view? Is it because they are wrong, or because you have some background or prior experience or belief that you should be treated a certain way? Consider the why, and often you will find a connection between what you consider acceptable behavior and what is crossing your (imaginary) line.

3. Focus on what you want out of the relationship.

How to Choose a Therapist

Are you looking for a new therapist? Or thinking of trying therapy for the first time?

Therapy is most effective when there is a good fit between therapist and client. The alphabet soup behind everyone’s names, the therapy jargon you might not understand, the multitude of certifications, trainings, and treatment models simply adds to your confusion. Even we therapists can experience this when trying to find therapists for ourselves or are providing referrals for family and friends. Let’s break this down into more manageable pieces.

Before you start your search:

  1. Get clear about what you want to accomplish in therapy or are needing support around.
  2. Decide if you want in-person or telehealth sessions.
  3. Know your accessibility needs and what will make it easier for you to commit to the process.
  4. Determine what values or life experiences are important for your therapist to have in common with you.

Once you have the above figured out, narrow your search based on these. Knowing what you want to accomplish or need support around allows you to search therapists’ sites and database profiles using keywords like “couples therapy” or “anxiety management.” Most therapists state clearly whether they offer in-person or virtual sessions. Many practices have both available. If you know you’re wanting one or the other be sure to add it to your search.

When considering accessibility, think about more than ADA compliance, languages spoken, and a schedule that fits with yours. You want to make sure your therapist takes your insurance, offer a sliding scale for payment, or that their session fees fit your budget. Additionally, if you’re going to do in-person sessions, is their office conveniently located? Because let’s be real, if the office is a challenge to get to, or going to therapy is going to require a three-hour time commitment, you’ll be more likely to cancel sessions and maybe quit sooner than you’d intended.

There are some who suggest a therapist’s values and life experiences should not impact the therapeutic relationship as therapists are trained to remain neutral, and to keep their personal beliefs, values, and life experiences out of the therapy. I suppose maybe if therapists weren’t also human beings that would always be true, but alas therapists are all humans first, and therapists second. Shared life experiences, dimensions of culture, and/or value systems can create a sense of safety and trust that only a “me too” connection creates.

Wait, Smiles Do Make You Happy?

When I taught my first undergraduate social psychology course, I was excited to explain one of my favorite findings to the class: smiling makes you happier. In the original study, participants were asked to rate how funny they thought a series of cartoons were while holding a pen in their mouth. The trick was that the way they held the pen varied: in one condition, they held it with their lips, preventing them from activating smile muscles; in another, they held it with their teeth, forcing them to activate their smile muscles. When the smile muscles were active, participants rated the cartoons as funnier! You may not realize it, but smiling changes your feelings! Activating muscles associated with a specific emotion seemed to influence people’s emotional responses in a subtle, unconscious way.

Then, that finding turned out to be wrong. In 2016, a large-scale study that collected data from 17 different labs found that the original study’s results did not replicate. Activating smile muscles did not change how funny people found cartoons. This result felt definitive because this new replication included many more people, from a more representative sample (since it wasn’t just students from one university), and with a more constrained methodology and analysis plan (because they ran everything by experts in facial feedback research who provided feedback on everything). But was it?

Just two years later, new evidence was added to the debate. Tom Noah, Yaacov Schul, and Ruth Mayo keyed in on what they believed was an essential difference between the original and the replication study: the use of a video camera. Based on feedback from one of the experts they consulted, the replication group had decided to video record each session to make sure everything had worked smoothly (including the pen being held in the mouth the right way!). But having a video camera facing you might make you more self-conscious. Different literature in psychology suggested that you’re less willing to rely on “gut feelings” when making decisions when you’re aware you’re being watched. This might have messed up the results of the replication study.

So Noah and colleagues decided to run a new study, where they randomly assigned participants to one of two different versions of the experiment: the original, no camera version, versus the replication, camera-included version. When comparing people in front of a camera, they replicated the replication; there was no effect. When they didn’t include the camera, they replicated the original; there was an effect. It was the video camera that made the difference.

It is easy to interpret this as a fight between science reformers and their opponents among social psychologists. A traditional finding was rejected, and then a counter punch was thrown, rejecting the rejection. (Editorial comments by Noah and colleagues imply that replicators’ claims “decrease cumulative science” don’t help). Yet this is actually a great example of how science is meant to work. Scientists are meant to question each other’s findings, and it’s essential to find out whether results hold up. This includes questioning the results of replications and thinking through why results might be different when a study is replicated. 

One potential outcome of re-examining earlier research always needs to be “we got it wrong, this effect is not something reliable about the world.” This can be because of statistical noise–the way the data came out, it looked like there was a difference between groups, even when there really wasn’t. That’s no fault of the experimenter, but it’s something we can check by doing replications. Finding out that an earlier belief was wrong should always be an acceptable outcome of the research, and that does indeed contribute to a cumulative science.

Hope in the Face of Adversity

It has been a tough couple of years. As the U.S. gradually starts to return to something like normal, many of us are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic. Death, illness, grief, job loss, businesses closing, and mental illness are just some of the challenges we face as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed, and it’s hard not to feel hopeless.

The reality is that many of us have already experienced substantial adversity, in one form or another. And, unfortunately, many people experienced that adversity at a young age. Experiences like these are so common, in fact, that the CDC has a term to describe them: adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)1. It’s an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of really difficult experiences, stretching from abuse, to domestic violence, to living in a household with someone who was abusing substances, incarcerated, or experiencing mental illness, to the divorce or separation of parents2. ACEs are alarmingly widespread. The CDC reports that 61% of adults have lived through one or more ACE, and 16% have experienced four or more different categories of ACEs1.

A lot of what researchers have learned about ACEs is hard to hear, and links being exposed to ACEs to even more challenges later in life, like diagnoses of heart disease and cancer3 and mental illness during college4.

However, academic research also suggests that the picture is more complicated than that.

Investigating Opportunity for Adversarial Growth 

For a surprising number of people, overcoming adversity leads to positive outcomes. One of these outcomes is resilience. In fact, one study measured resilience in the aftermath of another large-scale traumatic event—9/11. Researchers determined that 65.1% of study participants demonstrated resilience in the wake of these terrorist attacks.5

Another positive outcome is known as adversarial growth. When people experience adversarial growth6, they actually end up in some way better off than they were before7. What might this look like? They might renew old friendships, turn more meaningfully to religion, or gain confidence in their abilities after realizing they can handle adverse situations8.

Adversity, resilience, and adversarial growth could be experienced at different points in peoples’ lives. However, they present particular challenges and opportunities for college students. What’s more, nearly one-third of college students nationwide have endured at least two adverse experiences4.

What happens to these students?

For several years, our team, led by Dr. Gregory Wolniak at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia, has been tracking a large group of students across the U.S. as they make their way through their college experiences. These are not your average college students—over 80% of these students have been through at least one experience of childhood adversity—many have gone through much more. In fact, these students have experienced an average of two adverse experiences prior to college, with 32% experiencing 3 or more ACEs. Yet in emerging research, we have also identified a remarkable tendency toward positive growth and change.

2 Simple Actions to Help Curb Mental Illness Stigma

Mental health and substance abuse advocacy is a growing movement. Each May, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) declares a week as National Prevention Week. It’s defined as “A week dedicated to bringing an annual health observance dedicated to increasing public awareness of, and action around, mental and/or substance use disorders.” The focus is on preventing suicide, substance abuse, and undue suffering from untreated conditions.

Unfortunately, despite such campaigns and mental health being more “out of the shadows” in recent years, stigma and misunderstanding are alive and well, and contribute to lack of care and, ultimately, undue suffering.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 51.5 million Americans have a diagnosable mental illness (2021), yet fewer than half seek care. Contributing factors include lack of providers and people not understanding that their condition is treatable. However, the stigma of mental illness is quite possibly the most significant contributor. According to trauma psychotherapist Lisa Ferentz (2021), “Our culture still perpetuates the belief that people suffering from mental illnesses are not intelligent, extremely violent, or incapable of making decisions that profoundly impact their lives.”

In 2015, the University of Memphis published four disturbing facts about mental illness perception:

  • 4 in 5 think it’s harder to say they have a mental illness than other illnesses.
  • 1 in 2 are frightened by people with mental illness.
  • “Psycho,” “nuts,” and “crazy” are the most common description of those with mental illness.
  • Mental illness ranked as the most stigmatized type of illness.

Ironically, even some treatment facilities contribute to the problem. Despite the push to destigmatize and encourage people to seek treatment, many facilities adopt names devoid of the words “psychological,” “mental,” or “behavioral.” While the intention is to make sure it is a place people feel comfortable entering without stigma, it is a double-edged sword; modeling associated with mental health care is unfavorable.

In 2019, The Austen Riggs Center, a private psychiatric care facility in Stockbridge, MA, published a newsletter devoted to stigma. The most remarkable statement was as follows:

In both entertainment and news media, individuals with mental illness are often inaccurately and disproportionately depicted as dangerous and unpredictable. This has negative repercussions for both those struggling with mental illness and for the public’s understanding of mental illness. The fact is that people mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence.

Flatten the Mental Health Curve

Picture this: Tenth-grade Laura checks her Instagram after a long school day. And she finds something that is absolutely horrific. Her long-time adversary, Gertrude, has posted a nude photo on her Instagram story. The photo is a bit blurry, but it kind of looks like Laura. And, although it’s actually not Laura in the photo, Gertrude claims that it is and she even tags Laura with some very nasty verbiage. The post goes viral.

Laura’s anxiety level shot through the roof as she stood there alone on her driveway. She had never experienced this level of hurt before and she had no clue whatsoever as to what she was going to do about it. Feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and depression engulf her. 

The Skyrocketing Nature of Mental Health Issues in Modern Times

In a large-scale study of the prevalence of various mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and mood disorders, it was found that steep increases in each and every such condition were found for adolescents and young adults between the years of 2009 and 2017 (see Twenge et al., 2019). We are talking about increases in major depression, for instance, from 8 percent to more than 13 percent among those in the 12- to 25-year age range across these nine years. This same general trend seems to exist for mental health issues in general. Anyone who works on a college campus will tell you that counseling centers are running beyond capacity across the US. 

Mental health issues are on the rise. And this trend is particularly true among our young people (Twenge et al., 2019).

A year ago, when people talked about flattening the curve, they were referring to the COVID pandemic. I think it is time to revise our usage of this phrase. As we work as a global community to put the COVID pandemic behind us, I say that the phrase flattening the curve be rebranded to refer to the steep increase in the prevalence of mental health issues in the modern world—especially among young people. 

Three Potential Causes of the Problem

Twenge et al. (2019) offer a few suggestions to explain the trends found in their data. Generally, they refer to “birth cohort effects,” suggesting that people born after 1982 have access to digital media and other online resources that have had unintended adverse consequences regarding the mental health of adolescents and young adults today. While this explanation is speculative in nature given the non-experimental quality of the data in their study, I think it’s certainly a perspective that warrants further study. With this said, here are three specific potential causes that I think warrant our deepest consideration.

1. Cyberbullying. 

In line with the analysis presented by Twenge et al. (2019), we can consider cyberbullying as a specific trend that has risen hand-in-hand with rises in communication technologies such as the internet and social media. 

According to data compiled by Comparitech, rates of cyberbullying have increased sharply across the globe over the past decade. Below is a slice of the eye-opening data found in their report:

Between 2011 and 2018, rates of cyberbullying among teens have increased markedly in nearly every nation across the globe. For instance, in the US, rates of teens reporting having been victims of cyberbullying increased from 15 percent in 2011 to 26 percent in 2018. These comparable rates for a few other nations, just to put a global face to the problem, are as follows:

Turkey: 2011, 5 percent; 2018, 20 percent

Mexico: 2011, 8 percent; 2018, 18 percent

UK: 2011, 11 percent; 2018, 18 percent

China: 2011, 11 percent; 2018, 17 percent

2. Increases in industrialization have ironic effects when it comes to mental health.

Generally, we think of technological advancement as a good thing. But I would argue from an evolutionary perspective that any and all technological advancements need to be considered with caution. 

When it comes to large-scale industrialization, people who live in relatively large, industrialized areas are more at-risk for mental health issues than are people who live in relatively small-scale social environments. And this finding seems to be true across the globe (see Srivastava, 2009). As time moves forward, technology and industrialization increase. And adverse mental health outcomes of our young people seem like a fully adverse (if unintended) consequence of this pattern.

The Latest in PTSD Treatment

Today, I’m writing from the cutting-edge of innovation and research in PTSD. PTSD science continues to advance exponentially, and exciting breakthroughs are on the horizon. What I’m presenting in this post are some of the highlights from the last two years of scientific findings. 

While these approaches can’t yet be considered the gold standard for PTSD treatment, what they represent is hope for an ever-expanding array of options that might be available for sufferers one day. 

I’ve divided the treatments into three categories: psychotropic medications, procedures, and non-pharmacological approaches.

Psychotropic Medications

MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy

May 2021 heralded promising results from the first phase 3 clinical trial testing MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of PTSD. In MDMA-assisted therapy, the medication MDMA is only administered a few times, and the talk therapy component remains an integral part of this combination treatment.

In an article published in Nature Medicine, researchers from UCSF reported on results of their trial, which sought to test the efficacy and safety of MDMA-assisted therapy for the treatment of 90 patients with severe PTSD over 15 clinical sites. The results were impressive, with patients reporting a large drop in symptoms after receiving MDMA-assisted therapy.

Of particular interest was that the study included patients with common PTSD comorbidities such as dissociation, depression, a history of alcohol and substance use disorders, and childhood trauma. In this way, the study conditions better mimicked real-world clinical scenarios and therefore gave cause to be optimistic that such a treatment may eventually provide tangible benefit to patients treated in clinical practice. 

Another plus for this research is that, for the duration of this study, the researchers reported that MDMA did not induce adverse events such as abuse potential or suicidality. Furthermore, unlike most medications for mental illnesses which are often taken daily for a substantial length of time, MDMA is only taken a few times.

A second phase 3 trial is currently underway and, if results continue to be encouraging, a drug application with the FDA is anticipated in 2022.

Repeated Ketamine Infusions

Ketamine is a non-barbiturate anesthetic and antagonist at the NMDA receptor. It is typically administered intravenously and has been used for years to provide pain relief to patients with severe burns. It was in this use that its dissociative properties became apparent. Ketamine may disrupt the process by which traumatic memories are laid down, as some studies show that those who received ketamine after a traumatic event were less likely to go on to develop PTSD. 

In a 2021 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry (in Advance), researchers from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai suggested that repeated ketamine infusions may lead to rapid symptom improvement in people with PTSD. 

Thirty study participants who received six ketamine infusions over a two-week period experienced greater drops in PTSD symptoms and comorbid depressive symptoms compared with participants who received the sedative midazolam, a psychoactive placebo control administered approximately three times a week for two weeks.

Side effects associated with the ketamine included blurred vision, dizziness, fatigue, and headache. Of more concern is that some participants did report dissociative symptoms that emerged during their ketamine infusions.

It’s important to note the limitations associated with ketamine: Benefits may last only a few weeks and there is a potential for patients getting addicted to this treatment.

Riluzole: A Glutamatergic Modulator

In a 2020 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, researchers designed a randomized controlled trial that investigated the efficacy of Riluzole augmentation for combat-related PTSD symptoms resistant to treatment with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). 

Riluzole is a neuroprotective drug that blocks glutamatergic neurotransmission in the CNS. Glutamate dysregulation has been implicated in the pathophysiology of PTSD, so medications that regulate brain glutamate concentrations may be an effective treatment strategy for PTSD. 

Over a four-year period, veterans and active duty service members with combat-related PTSD who were not responsive to SSRI or SNRI pharmacotherapy were randomized to eight-week augmentation with a starting dose of 100 mg/day of riluzole or placebo.

An analysis of PTSD symptom clusters showed significantly greater improvement on PTSD hyperarousal symptoms in the riluzole group. However, Riluzole augmentation was not superior to placebo on change in depression, anxiety, or disability severity.


Stellate Ganglion Block Treatment

In 2008, media reports started to emerge about how a stellate ganglion block (SGB), an invasive manipulation of sympathetic nerve tissue, helped PTSD sufferers. The procedure, which consisted of injecting a local anesthetic into sympathetic nerve tissue in the neck, led to immediate symptom relief in a small group of patients. 

Still, a positive outcome in a few cases is not sufficient to label something a treatment. A treatment should be more effective than a placebo, so it needs to be studied under controlled conditions. It took some time for the first controlled study of the SGB to be done, and the initial results, which were reported in 2016, were disappointing: The block was not superior to sham injection in relieving PTSD. 

In early 2020, results of the first multisite, randomized clinical trial of (SGB) outcomes on PTSD symptoms were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association – Psychiatry and revealed reasons to not give up on SGB entirely. In this trial of active-duty service members with PTSD symptoms, the authors reported that two SGB treatments two weeks apart were effective in reducing PTSD scores over a period of eight weeks.

Instead of Waiting for Motivation, Build Habits

“But I just can’t find the motivation” is probably one of the most common complaints I hear in my private clinical psychology practice. I have heard this from clients who come in with a severe depressive disorder (where amotivation is a symptom), but also from clients who are struggling with a general lack of impetus. I have worked with people who want to work harder, study more, exercise more, develop a new hobby or commit to a new business idea, but struggle with building the momentum they need. They might think about doing things, but find themselves procrastinating, or never actually commencing an activity, despite their best intentions. I have certainly been in this space as well—most of us probably have, at various points across various arenas. Motivation is not something I struggle with much anymore, and there is one simple reason for this: I don’t wait for motivation.

When I want to do something, I try and think about whether it is something that has value for me and whether it is something I have the time and resources to commit to at present, and if yes, I plan for it, and make it a habit. I treat anything I want to do much like I treat brushing my teeth. Regardless of the circumstances of life, I brush my teeth twice daily and I try and treat other activities (such as work and exercise) in a similar way. I do these things as scheduled, regularly, typically at the same time each day, and I do them regardless of whether I want to or not. Sometimes energy and inspiration are missing, and I might amend what I do (a gentle stroll vs. a bike ride, editing a blog post vs. writing a book chapter) to account for this, but I adopt the ‘bum on seat’ philosophy (i.e., just get your bum on the seat and see what happens). This philosophy carried me through a 60,000-word doctoral thesis, and it works very well for a slew of other commitments now. I often suggest that my clients try and build habits instead of waiting for motivation to strike, and those who are able to adopt this philosophy generally have much better success with forming and adhering to commitments than those who continue to wait for that elusive motivation.

Habit formation

When forming habits, I follow a range of simple rules, these include:

Decide whether you can commit to forming a new habit. It is helpful to remember the opportunity costs that everything brings. Each hour you spend working, as an example, is an hour taken away from sleep, learning, exercise, friends, and recreation. Everything we commit to has a cost and we all have finite resources. Remember that new habit formation will necessarily come at a cost, and consider whether the benefits of a new habit outweigh the costs. The world is drowning in productivity information and exhortations to do more, but the wisest thing you can do sometimes is to simply decide that you don’t really want to swim.

Keep it simple, start small, and be regular. The best new habits are those that are achievable. We are unlikely to be able to commit to a new exercise routine that takes an hour a day, but will probably find more success if we commit to walking for 15 minutes, three times a week. It may not seem like much, but it is a lot more than nothing. Habits can build over time, and you can always increase the amount of time/energy you commit to something once an initial baseline has been established. It is better to only try and form one new habit at a time, to avoid overwhelming yourself.

Chain habits. It is much easier to commit to a new habit if you link it to something you already do. I have clients who walk their dogs daily and have recently started jogging every second day with their dogs, instead of strolling. This is far easier to commit to than a whole new form of exercise, as they leave the house to walk anyway. Some other examples might include; practicing Duolingo while waiting for your coffee to brew or meditating for five minutes straight after breakfast.

Evaluate. It is OK to start a new habit/routine and realise that it is not actually serving you in the way you hoped. Set aside time to re-evaluate habits and routines regularly (monthly is a good interval) and give yourself permission to change things that are not bringing the results or satisfaction you are seeking. Over time, as we achieve greater success with forming new habits and build interest in life and a sense of self-efficacy, we are likely to notice increased motivation as a by-product of commitment to habit formation.

Why You Don’t Believe in Happiness Anymore

You start with big dreams, full of youthful enthusiasm. Over time, challenged by obstacles and hardships, your commitment to those dreams is tested. But you’re still young, so you push on and persevere. 

Then you get hit with big disappointments, letdowns in your career, love life, or friendships. You feel unsupported and alone. “Why is this happening?” you wonder, “I’m a good person. I didn’t do anything to deserve this.” 

Then you face a health crisis, lose a loved one, suffer injuries, or financial hardships. Unforeseen stressors continue to pop up and dash your plans.

You start to lose hope. 

Losing the confidence that you’ll ever be happy

When you’re struggling, it’s natural to want to give up. You may look around and feel that everyone has an easier life than you. You forget that no one is exempt from suffering, and some of the most outstanding individuals in history faced overwhelming personal hardships. 

But no matter. The longer you stay in a place of hopelessness, the harder it is to believe that you’ll ever be happy again. You may justify your unhappiness by proclaiming your powerlessness. You even start to question the concept of happiness.

“Happiness is an illusion sold by the media to make money,” you decide. “Happy relationships? Happy families? Happy friendships? Bah! That’s not real life.”

Five conditions that cause people to abandon happiness

1. Heartbreak 

Deep wounds to the soul come in many forms, but for me, the word “heartbreak” captures the catastrophic pain of unforeseen loss. No matter what form heartbreak takes when your heart is broken, gravity shifts, your body, and mind feel sluggish, color is drained from the world, and every day is a battle with yourself. 

2. Social isolation

You withdraw from the world. Stop seeing friends or family and embrace loneliness. The more you live in isolation, the more your thoughts and feelings become deluded. You distort even the simplest of interactions and grow paranoid and suspicious of others. No one is who they seem to be.

7 Ways to Experience Inner Peace

Has modern technology and your ability to access infinite amounts of information and entertainment brought less stress or more stress into your life?

Sure, we can buy everything we want online—clothes, computers, and cars—and yes, it’s convenient. But has it made our lives more peaceful?

Emotional energy

Most of us would agree that emotional energy has become a precious commodity in our lives. When we feel emotionally depleted, then anxiety and stress are the natural by-products. Left unchecked, stress can lead to feelings of being out of control.

As a result, stress can prompt us to seek temporary relief in unhealthy habits that create more stress in the long run. Turning to alcohol, comfort food, or overspending might provide temporary relief and distraction, but these things greatly complicate our lives.

Controlling your stress

Not everything that causes us stress can be eliminated—nor should it. Low-level stress stimulates the brain to boost productivity and concentration. It can also be a big motivator to make changes, solve problems, or accomplish goals.

In addition, many sources of stress are simply beyond our control. It’s become so commonplace for people to feel stressed and overloaded that we tend to forget there is an alternative way to live.

It’s time to slow down and consider ways to bring more peace to your heart and soul. Start with these seven ideas:

1. Beware of peace pickpockets.

You encounter all kinds of people and situations that try to steal your serenity. Know what they are and take measures to fend them off.

2. Take a mental health day, or morning, or moment.

Whatever time you can allow, give yourself the space to refresh your mind and spirit.

3. Rethink your “should do” and “ought to do” lists.

If the voice in your head is guilting you into doing things that don’t bring you joy, regard these as prime candidates to delete.

4. Kick the approval habit.

It’s natural to want to be liked by others—and it’s healthy to accept that it’s not going to happen all the time.

5. Be still.

If your pace is wearing you out, set aside a half-day or a full day to sit on the sofa to think, journal, read, and nap.

6. Let the music move you.

Few things are as cathartic and cleansing as your best-loved music. Use your favorite tunes to calm you down, pump you up, or stir your emotions.

7. Give yourself a quality-of-life checkup.

It’s wise to periodically assess whether you’re satisfied with the quality of your life. If you don’t feel fulfilled, ponder what changes are in order.

Inner peace is a worthwhile goal. In today’s saturated world, having an inner peace plan—and working on it every day—is a good way to ensure you attain that goal.

Pandemic Stress Supercharges Personal Growth

It’s no secret that the pandemic has battered our mental health. Fear of infection, grief for lost loved ones, social isolation, and financial insecurity have created the perfect conditions for a mental health crisis, and, worldwide, 15 to 25% of people have experienced depression, anxiety, insomnia, or even PTSD over the past year.

As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, though, researchers have discovered a psychological benefit to these months of tension: the same people who have experienced high stress are also showing signs of significant personal growth.

A new study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found that among people who reported high levels of COVID-related stress, 77% also experienced “one or more positive changes in their lives as a result of COVID-19.”

We tend to focus on the negative impacts of trauma, but suffering has the power to transform our lives for the better, too. Post-traumatic growth is the act of finding “silver linings” in a terrible experience and has been recorded in survivors of wars, natural disasters, and life-threatening illnesses.

Growth and gratitude

Participants in the study reported that they now have:

  • Higher regard for health care workers
  • Stronger awareness of the value of their own life
  • More affection for friends and family
  • Better appreciation for each day
  • Different priorities about what’s important in life
  • Greater feelings of self-reliance

Most of these changes are rooted in gratitude, and with good reason. When the people around us have lost jobs, loved ones, even their own lives, when we ourselves have suffered deep losses, it reminds us to appreciate what we have while we have it. Study after study has shown that feelings of gratitude like these are closely linked with overall well-being.

The last item on the list—greater feelings of self-reliance—might be more surprising, since so much of the pandemic, from viral transmission to lockdown measures, has been out of our hands as individuals. Still, the social isolation and uncertainty brought on by COVID have taught many of us that we are capable of fending for ourselves in times of adversity, a lesson that can bolster our confidence as we face future challenges.

Is this growth real or an illusion?

The study, though, raises a fundamental question: is this personal growth genuine, or is it all self-deception, an attempt to reassure ourselves that we’re weathering the storm of COVID better than we really are?

An assessment of their overall functioning indicated that 17% of the study’s participants were experiencing only the illusion of growth—they were telling themselves they were resilient when their mental health was actually deteriorating. For the other 60% of participants who reported growth, though, the positive changes they reported were very real, signs of healthy adaptation and adjustment.

People with healthy hearts may have better cognitive abilities

Now, a group of researchers claims to be the first to demonstrate with a large group of healthy people that individuals with healthier hearts have better cognitive performance. 

The authors, who are affiliated with the University of São Paulo in Brazil and several U.K. institutions — Queen Mary University of London, the University of Oxford, Imperial College London, and the University of Southampton — recently published their findings in the journal European Heart Journal Cardiovascular Imaging.

“Our findings are highly relevant in an ever-aging global population, with an ever-increasing burden of common chronic diseases, such as ischemic heart disease and dementia,” Dr. Zahra Raisi-Estabragh, an author of the study and British Heart Foundation Clinical Research Training Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, explained to Medical News Today

“Understanding links between these diseases enables us to optimize our assessment of older people and to potentially develop new therapies, which will target common mechanisms of aging.”

A fresh look

The researchers used data from 29,763 participants from the U.K. Biobank, a biomedical database containing in-depth genetic and health information from half a million participants. The average age of the participants was 63 years. Overall, the participants were healthier and wealthier than the national average in the U.K. 

For the study, the researchers assessed heart health by examining cardiac MRI scans of participants, while they assessed cognitive function with fluid intelligence tests. These cognitive tests measure an individual’s capacity to solve problems using logic and reasoning rather than previously learned knowledge. The researchers also tested reaction time.

The researchers found associations between better cognitive performance and measures that likely represent a healthier heart. These measures include larger ventricular cavity volumes, larger left ventricular and right ventricular stroke volumes, higher left ventricular mass, and greater aortic distensibility. 

Reduced cognitive function was associated with smaller ventricular volumes and lower left ventricular mass, together with smaller left ventricular and right ventricular stroke volumes and lower aortic compliance.

Participants with higher distensibility — less stiffness in the artery, which indicates better health — showed less rapid age-related decline in fluid intelligence.

The researchers observed associations between brain and heart health that remained significant even after adjustment for a range of cardiometabolic, lifestyle, and demographic factors.

Dr. Scott Kaiser, a geriatrician and director of geriatric cognitive health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, was not involved in the study. He told MNT that he frequently sees patients experiencing both heart disease and dementia.

“We know that there’s a close correlation between heart health and brain health. That is no surprise,” Dr. Kaiser said. “What was really cool about this study is that […] it just gave a little bit more of a robust picture. It was a large sample of biomarkers [that allowed the researchers] to really look at what was going on in terms of the heart health in a robust way, and then matched it with some pretty cool cognitive health markers. So it just kind of filled out the picture a little.”

The Importance of Mental Health Awareness Month

Did you know that Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed in the month of May since 1949? It was originally designated as such by the national advocacy organization Mental Health America. Annually during the month of May, organizations, groups, and individuals run campaigns that are designed to raise awareness and educate the public about mental health conditions.

Here’s what you should know about the importance of Mental Health Awareness Month and how you can get involved.

Why do we need Mental Health Awareness Month?

People consistently rank health as one of the most important things in life. Sadly, however, optimal mental health is often not included. Mental health is many times the proverbial “elephant in the room”—we know that it is there, but it makes us uncomfortable to address it. 

Stigma, misinformation, and disinformation all create substantial barriers in raising mental health awareness. We believe that stigma associated with mental illness is the most problematic of these. Stigma is defined as a mark of shame or discredit. In our book, Understanding Mental Illness , we discuss the stigma of mental illness and how it impacts those living with mental health conditions. Stigma is a label placed upon people to set them apart, to make them feel ashamed, disgraced, or embarrassed about who they are, often because of factors beyond their control.

What are the consequences of the stigma around mental illness?

Because of this stigma, people are more likely to discuss physical health conditions rather than mental health conditions with others. Similarly, they are also more assertive in seeking care for physical ailments than they are for mental health disorders. Surveys show that the average time between the onset of mental health symptoms and the decision to seek care for mental health conditions can be a year or more. Making a difference in the lives of people suffering from mental illness becomes quite difficult when such a delay exists between symptoms and interventions. As with physical health conditions, early diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions lead to better outcomes. 

How do we as a society move forward? 

Despite the barriers that exist, all hope is not lost. Increasingly, key stakeholders are having impactful conversations on ways to improve the mental health of Americans. Campaigns such as Mental Health Awareness month are playing a great role in important mental health issues such as awareness and access.

How (And Why) to Say No

Saying no is a skill that most of us struggle with. It is very common for many people in therapy to trace some of their anxiety, stress, and overwork to difficulties, or an utter inability to say no. People over-commit to a range of things and often feel like they have to say yes to every opportunity that might come their way. However, every new choice comes with an opportunity cost (i.e., the loss of capacity to invest in other options). As an example, when I made the decision to sit down and write this post, I gave up the opportunity to instead complete a yoga session, go for a walk, see a client, read, sleep. Every choice we make comes with a financial, time, and energetic cost and we forget this to our detriment.

People often struggle to say no because of a multitude of reasons, including socialisation (“you can’t say no to people”, “you must not be selfish”), expectations from friends and family, the fear of missing out, and structural commitments (having to keep up with diverse roles, such as work and childcare). Sometimes we need to say no to other people, but sometimes we need to be able to say no to ourselves first.

My clients often express a range of worries when they consider saying no to something. Some common worries include:

  • Not knowing when to say no or what to say no to
  • Being unsure how to politely say no
  • Being worried about how the no will be received (worrying that people will become upset or angry when they receive a no)

With the latter, I encourage people to remember that a good boundary to hold is knowing that we cannot control someone’s reaction to something – the only control we have is in carefully assessing a no, and in offering it respectfully and politely. Allowing other people to experience and process their feelings without making it your responsibility, is a key competency when thinking of saying no to something. It might be helpful to remember that most reasonable people will respond well to an occasional no, and if someone is unreasonable then it is even more reason to erect firmer boundaries and say no more often.

In general, when trying to work out when to say no, I encourage people to ask themselves a number of questions to assess opportunity costs. These questions are:

  • Do I have the time, energy, and money for this at the moment?
  • Do I want to do this?
  • Will this add value to my life?
  • Is this aligned with my values?
  • Am I saying yes, only because I am scared of saying no?

If the answer to any of these questions indicates that a no might be in order, then it is important to know how to say no. The main things to consider when saying no are the context of the relationship (how close is the relationship?), the request being made or opportunity being offered, and what we want to say no to (we might want to say no to part of the request but allow another part). 

Some people find it easier to say no to people close to them because they know what response they might receive and some people might hold the belief that being in a close relationship means being self-sacrificial and always being there to support someone else. In general, the closer the relationship, the more likely it is that we will want to be there for someone, but this does not mean that we never say no. It is probably even more essential to have good boundaries with the people closest to us, so we can maintain healthy and long-lasting relationships. Some simple, but relationship-maintaining ways of saying no are:

Thank you, but that is not for me/Thank you, but no.

Simple, easy to understand, and makes it about you, not the other person. It is also perfectly okay to say no without explaining why.

That’s a lovely offer, but I have over-committed and can’t fit that in at the moment. Can we try that next month?

A good one to use when you want to do something, but don’t have the time, energy, or money for it. 
Another way to say this might be, “I don’t mean to offend, but my bucket is full and I cannot take that on right now.” 

I don’t have the capacity to do X at the moment, but could do Y?

A good one to use when you feel like you can say yes to part of a request or can offer a compromise (“I can’t man the bake stall, but can drop off a cake.”)

Sorry, I have something else on.

It is important to use this one carefully only when it is true, not as an easy social white lie to avoid saying no.

“How Do I Start Therapy?”

Stepping into therapy can be a life-changing experience and the start of a journey that can take us through unexpected discoveries and insights. An unavoidable part of this is building a trusting relationship with a complete stranger: our therapist.

We will be revealing the deepest parts of ourselves, perhaps stories we might never have talked with anyone about before. It’s both exciting and daunting, and we want to make sure we create the best possibilities for an encouraging beginning to this journey of self-discovery. But where do we start?

Preparing for our journey

It is worth putting in a little effort to ensure we get the absolute best from our investment of emotions, time, and money. There are some very simple and practical preparations we can do to create a good foundation for our therapeutic journey.

Preparing will also build our confidence when we finally contact our chosen therapist. Plus, it will make us more comfortable engaging with therapy right from the beginning.

Which type of therapy is best for me and my issues?

Finding the right therapy for us and our issues can seem overwhelming: with so many different types of therapies available, how can we know which is the best for us?

We could say that any therapy is better than none, though to have the best chance of success it is worth considering our own requirements, rather than looking for a specific type of therapy. Here are some questions that might help:

  • Who is looking for therapy: is it us individually, or us and our partner, or us and a family member?

Some therapists specialize in working with individuals, these could be counsellors or psychotherapists. Others might have specialized in working with relationships such as couple’s counsellors or psychosexual and relationship therapists, or a family therapists.

Deciding who is seeking therapy will help us narrow down our search.

  • How do we prefer to work?

Some therapies are based on creating changes through giving homework and consciously changing thoughts and behaviors. Others are based mainly on making changes by talking, thinking, and reflecting on our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and preoccupations. If we like a bit of both, then there is that option too.

Consider this: If we dislike homework and know that we are unlikely to carry out the required tasks between sessions, it is unlikely we will gain much from this type of therapy.

On the other hand, if we prefer homework, we might get frustrated by a therapy that is focused on talking and contemplating.

If we know what works best for us, we are more likely to find success in therapy. We can talk with the therapist during our initial conversation to clarify if their method suits our preferred way of working.

  • What is the main issue we are looking for help with?

Being able to name the issues we bring to therapy can make us feel a little more confident when we first contact a therapist and during our first session. Something as simple as asking ourselves why we feel in need of therapy can clarify if for example we feel overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, or scared.

These are not the only reasons to seek therapy and remember: no issue is too small or too big for therapy. Knowing a little about what we are seeking help with, will make our first conversation with a therapist easier.

Finding a therapist

It is always best to seek a therapist who is qualified, and who is accredited or licensed, and registered with one of many associations especially established for therapists.

We can try searching for ‘therapists associations’ online, which should give us a couple of choices close to where we live. If we are looking for a relationship or family therapist, we can add that description to our search, so we get results for the appropriate associations.

What It Really Means to Take Care of Yourself

Real self-care probably isn’t what you think it is. It isn’t all about escaping and relaxing. Although it pays off for your well-being in the long run, in the present, self-care can be a hard thing to do.

Taking care of yourself might look like making a plan to pay off your debt, sticking to a hard morning routine, or cooking healthy meals. It’s facing your problems and unresolved issues head-on, instead of avoiding them and then trying to distract or soothe yourself later.

Self-care means doing what makes you anxious now, like setting boundaries with tough people, saying no when you don’t want to do something, getting through a tough workout, or telling someone something they don’t want to hear. Taking care of yourself means compassionately accepting yourself for who you are instead of burning yourself out trying to be everything to everyone all the time. It’s living your life in a way that doesn’t leave you needing to check out or take a break just so you can have a bath, read a book, or sip tea.

Currently, consumer-based self-care is a very popular topic; however, a world we need to escape from in the name of self-care is a world that needs a perspective change. Self-care isn’t something we should be doing just because we’re so burnt out that we need time away from our internal and external pressures. 

Real self-care isn’t massages and green juices; it’s choosing to create a life that you don’t feel the need to regularly check out of.  

Self-care means doing things you initially don’t want to do and making the choice to do what’s uncomfortable. It means accepting your personal failures and disappointing relationships, then deciding to re-strategize them. It’s not about giving in to your immediate urges when that means giving up on a long-term goal. It’s about forgiving, letting go, and accepting what you can’t change. It’s about being willing to let people down and even saying goodbye to some of them. Self-care can sometimes be about putting your life aside to care for someone in need, and other times about putting yourself first above those who drain you. Ultimately, it’s about living a life you choose, not one that you sleepwalk through.

Self-care is allowing yourself to be normal and average, instead of always pushing yourself to be perfect or exceptional. It means letting your house stay messy when you’re tired of cleaning up or deciding you don’t need the perfect body after all. It’s knowing yourself and understanding how you operate, so you can decide what changes are the right ones to make in your life. 

If you constantly feel like you need a break, it may be because you’re disconnected from living a life that includes you in it. Real self-care isn’t so much about treating yourself as it is about taking actions for your personal growth and development, aiming to choose what’s better for your wellness in the long run.

Self-care is not about believing that being super busy is a badge of honor and making yourself so exhausted that you self-sabotage in ways that aren’t actually good for you. It’s about taking time to take care of yourself because you truly know that you aren’t broken and don’t need fixing. Once you start doing the real self-care, you start realizing that loving yourself and compassionately being there for you might just solve many of your problems.

When you take care of yourself, you become the author, not the victim, of your life. You create a life you truly enjoy, instead of one you might need recovery, or even therapy, from. It’s not creating a life that looks good on paper, but one that fits well with who you are. It’s letting go of some of your goals so that you can truly live a more balanced life. It’s choosing to no longer make decisions based on what will ease your anxiety, but instead based on what will be good for you tomorrow or the next day. It’s not looking to others to meet your needs; it’s meeting your own needs. 

Self-care is living a life that’s meaningful and being true to yourself. It’s knowing that massages and green juices are great ways to enjoy life, not escape from it. 

19 Ways to Show You Care About Your Friends

Friends deserve a special place in our lives. In the U.S., for example, they are important because they embody American values of equality, choice, self-expression, individualism, freedom, fluidity, and flexibility. They are important because our families have never been smaller than they are now, because fewer people are marrying, and those who do marry are getting to it later in life than they once did. And rates of remarriage are dropping. With fewer brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and all the other relatives who used to gather around during holidays and other days, Americans increasingly look to the people they choose to have in their lives, rather than the people assigned to them through family ties.

But we don’t typically accord our friends the special treatment they deserve. Instead, it is our attitudes toward marital relationships that are reverent and celebratory – matrimaniacal, even. No proposal, no wedding, is ever deemed too much. Married people routinely have their spouses invited to social events. They expect the other people in their lives to ask about their spouse. They get celebrated again if they stay married for a special number of years.

A spouse is considered an important person, an important relationship, in just about every imaginable way. I have no problem with the valuing of a spouse. I just don’t think that spousal relationships should be valued exclusively, as if no other relationship could ever be as significant. One of the ironies of the over-the-top hype that spousal relationships attract is that those relationships are not always all that enduring. For many people, including many married people, some special friendships may have lasted far longer than any of their marriages ever will.

How can we value our friends and everyone else’s, today and every other day?

Honoring Your Own Friends

  1. Be there to help when things go wrong.
  2. Be there to celebrate when things go right. 
  3. Be there just to be there. Keep in touch. Do fun things together. Don’t ever say you are too busy. If you don’t have the time, make it. After all, research shows that we are more likely to feel happy when we are with our friends than when we are with anyone else, including our romantic partners or spouse, or children.
  4. Remember their birthdays. Make a big deal out of the milestones and big accomplishments in their lives, and I’m not just talking about weddings or babies. There are graduations, houses, new jobs, big moves, and all sorts of things that matter to them.
  5. Mark their importance in your life in a big way. Celebrate holidays with them. Or go beyond that. Create a special event, maybe even akin to a wedding, to celebrate the friends in your life. For How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I interviewed several people, including a lifelong single woman and a lifelong single man, who did something like that.
  6. Plan travel and vacations with friends.
  7. If things are headed south, or if your friend seems to need special help or attention for any reason, consider counseling. You’d probably do that if it were your marriage that was in trouble.
  8. If you are coupled, spend some time alone with your friends. And when your friends invite you to something, don’t just assume that your partner is invited, too.
  9. If your friends are single, don’t just ask them about their romantic prospects. They have lives full of interests, passions, plans, goals, accomplishments, work experiences, people they care about – including friends, and tastes and preferences in sports, music, books, movies, food, the arts, travel destinations, and just about anything else you can think of. Ask about those things.
  10. If your friends are married with children, don’t just ask them about their spouse or their children.

How to Find Emotional Balance During These Holidays

The December holidays (Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa) provide a capstone for the year. Most years are a mixed bag of experience—some combination of bright and dark—steeped in varying shades of joy and sorrow, of connection and loss, of the beautiful and the brutal. Obviously, 2020 is not most years. 

The stress and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic have taken a devastating toll on people’s mental, emotional, and spiritual, as well as physical well-being. According to a national poll by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), more than one-third of Americans (36%) reported that coronavirus is having a serious impact on their mental health and over half (59%) reported serious impacts on their day-to-day lives. Most adults were concerned about the negative impacts of Covid-19 on their finances (57%) and almost half were worried about running out of food, medicine, and/or supplies.[1]

These results were released in March, nine excruciating months ago and early in the evolution of the pandemic. Since then, most individuals and families the stress, anxiety, financial hardships, and overall emotional dysregulation have only worsened.

During the pandemic, the number of adults exhibiting symptoms of depression has tripled [2] and alcohol and other drug use, as well as overdose rates have increased measurably. In a study published in JAMA Psychiatry this month, researchers monitoring an emergency medical systems database in 47 states found that medics were responding to more than double the number of overdose-related cardiac arrests in May, at the height of the pandemic lockdowns, than they had in 2018 and 2019.[3]

The adverse effects are also weighing heavily on children, as manifest in this year’s requests to Santa Claus based on a review of letters addressed to the North Pole collected through the USPS’s Operation Santa program. While kids across the US are still asking for toys and video games, in a year steeped in illness and uncertainty, some only want Santa to bring a cure for Covid-19. Others are asking for masks, and others write about the difficulties of going to school online or how their parents can’t afford to buy presents this year because they lost their jobs.[4]

Emotional balance occurs when we can: 

  1. Be consciously aware of and observe our feelings as they emerge
  2. Allow ourselves to present with our emotions (whether they are pleasurable, painful, or neutral) without needing to suppress them or become suffocated by them
  3. Learn to accept the full multi-colored palette of our feelings without judging them—or ourselves for having them, whatever form they may take

The wish, as well as the impulse to avoid emotional pain is natural—who wants to be in pain?! There is a tendency to think (however unconsciously) that if we can just avoid experiencing the discomfort/pain, it won’t affect us. Unfortunately, attempts to keep painful emotions at a distance always fail, even though they may seem to work temporarily. All forms of experiential avoidance ultimately boomerang on us by extending those painful emotions and amplifying the suffering connected to them. 

Alcohol and other drugs are one such well-worn avoidance strategy. Using substances and other addictive behaviors to feel “good” or “better” is a shortcut that inevitably leads to a dead end. Avoidance doesn’t work because pain is an inevitable part of life. It is an essential aspect of being human. It is in how we choose to respond to what we experience that determines whether we get stuck in trying to outrun, numb, or fight against it, or respond skillfully to it with presence and acceptance, which allows it to run its course and in time dissipate. 

It is important to clarify that acceptance does not equal approval. We can learn to accept and co-exist with uncomfortable, distressing, painful emotions, even when we don’t like them, and even when we dislike them intensely.

When we are under their influence, intense emotions can feel like they will last forever. However, whether they are painful or pleasurable, feelings are always temporary. They come and go like guests who come to visit: some are welcome and we’re happy to see them; others, not so much. Some leave sooner than we’d like and others significantly overstay—but eventually they all leave.

The time from Thanksgiving through the New Year typically revolves around themes of gratitude, abundance, and celebration. Yet, 2020 has left so many of us feeling diminished and exhausted. This year, more than perhaps ever, major holidays, especially those that emphasize family and social connection, can precipitate profound experiences of loss related to significant others who have passed or other serious life changes that leave us grieving what is no longer available to us, such as relationships, jobs/careers, homes, and health/physical functioning. 

Gratitude doesn’t erase or even necessarily diminish grief and vice versa. These two powerful emotional states can exist side by side, even if in any particular moment, one is much more prominent than the other. In Island, Aldous Huxley wrote about “the excruciating presence of an absence.” Empty spaces seem to spit into the face of gratitude. It’s okay to not feel grateful. 

It’s important to know that the holidays don’t have to feel like a celebration. You can give yourself permission to simply be where you are emotionally. Practicing self-compassion, kindness, and forgiveness by staying in conscious contact with the limitations of your time, energy, and finances, and carving our time for self-care is even more essential during this time of grieving and increased stress. 

You can find a balance that meets your needs between participating in holiday-focused efforts/events and self-care that includes such basics as reasonably healthy eating (in terms of what and how much you eat), physical movement/exercise—as little as 10 minutes of exercise a day can help improve your mood and reduce feelings of anxiety,[5] and getting decent sleep.

When we can develop the capacity to keep our minds and hearts open to our experience—the brutal, as well as the beautiful—our emotional life becomes more balanced and peaceful. The waves of feelings toss us about less as they lessen (even ever-so-slightly) in size and intensity and are less likely to swamp us. Learning to recognize, be present, and make peace with the parts of our experience that we may struggle with, makes it possible to be more okay with and accepting of whatever arises. 

8 Science-Based Ways to Beat Negativity

Because negativity makes us feel bad, it tends to be bad for our well-being (take this well-being quiz to see how you’re doing).

If you find that you struggle with negativity, you’re not alone. In fact, humans actually have a negativity bias. A negativity bias just means that we notice and feel negative things more intensely than positive things—and negative things have a bigger impact on our mental health. So that means we could experience a bunch of positive things but the one negative thing could ruin our entire day. If our thoughts are plagued by negativity, this can be especially true for us.

How do we stop feeling so negative?

Firstly, go easy on yourself. Remember, we are all negative sometimes and that’s okay. Remember to have self-compassion as you’re are working to shift your negative thoughts. But it’s also helpful to know that our brains like to do things the way they have always done them. If we’ve been negative for a long time, regulating our emotions and shifting to more positive thoughts may be a little harder and take a little longer. Just keep at the strategies below to see improvement over time.

1. Make positive concepts more accessible in your brain

Our brains prefer to just go to whatever is familiar—it’s easier, quicker, and requires less energy. So undoing negativity involves making positive concepts more familiar and accessible in the brain. One way to do this is to just have a “positive word of the day”. Or, memorize a series of positive words each morning and ask yourself to recall them each night. 

Although the research hasn’t shown that there are positive regions of the brain, per se, strengthening the connections between positive concepts and strengthening your ability to generate positive thoughts, words, and emotions can likely make it easier to do this again in the future.

Researchers have measured the emotional content of thousands of words to find the positive and negative ones. If you want to use the most positive of these words to reduce negativity, check out my positive word flashcard book. 

2. Deconstruct your negativity

When we feel negative, it can be easy to see the external causes of our negative emotions but not the internal causes. The truth is our thoughts have just as much (or maybe more) to do with our negativity than the situations we’re in. We really do create our own reality.

To deconstruct how your thoughts lead to your negativity, engage in self-reflection by asking yourself if you do any of the things below:

  1. Do you often expect that everything will turn out horrible?
  2. Do you only see the bad without seeing the good?
  3. Do you ignore or devalue the positive things?

If you do any of these things, you can shift your thoughts in ways that decrease negativity and increase positivity. Use these questions when you’re feeling negative to shift your thinking away from the negative and onto the positive:

  1. How could this situation turn out better than expected?
  2. What are the positive parts of this situation?
  3. Why are the positive things in this situation really important or valuable?

Forcing your mind in a new direction can help shift your emotions too.

3. Check your attribution style

Do you feel like nothing you do matters and the world is responsible for all your woes? Of course, this may be true sometimes, but this “external attribution” means we have given up control of our lives and this can end up making us feel worse. To shift this thinking, try to think of the things you dohave control over. We all have control over some aspects of our lives.

Or, do you feel like you are to blame for all of your woes? This “internal attribution” style where we blame ourselves for the bad things can hurt our self-esteem and mental health. To shift this thinking, recognize that not everything is in your control. We all have done bad things, but we can move past them when we see that we did the best we could given the situations we were in.

Want Your New Year’s Resolutions to Stick?

A few years ago, researchers from UCLA and UPenn’s Wharton School published a paper (Dai, Milkman, & Riis, 2014) that explored why something they call the “fresh start effect” motivates people to make aspirational behavior changes via New Year’s resolutions.

The gist of their “fresh start effect” theory is that temporal landmarks like New Year’s Day, birthdays, back-to-school season—which serve as delineating signposts for the passage of time on a calendar—seem to facilitate “new mental accounting periods each year, which relegate past imperfections to a previous period, induce people to take a big-picture view of their lives, and thus motivate aspirational behaviors.”

Despite the centuries-old tradition of making New Year’s resolutions in the month of December, surprisingly few modern-day, large-scale studies have investigated this “temporal landmark” goal-setting phenomenon until recently.

This week, researchers from Stockholm University and Linköping University in Sweden published a study they describe as “probably the largest and most comprehensive study on New Year’s resolutions conducted thus far.” These findings (Oscarsson, Carlbring, Andersson, & Rozental, 2020) were published on December 9 in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE.

This year-long study involved over a thousand people (N = 1066) who said they’d made New Year’s resolutions and were recruited via multiple channels in the last week of December 2016. Participants agreed to follow-up interviews once a month from New Year’s Eve through December 2017.

In addition to investigating if online support could increase people’s odds of sticking with their New Year’s resolutions over the course of 12 months, the researchers examined how “approach” vs. “avoidance” goal-setting affected the likelihood of long-term success.

What’s the difference between “approach goals” and “avoidance goals”? An approach-oriented goal focuses on actively doing something (e.g., “I will start going for daily walks”), whereas avoidance-oriented goals center around not doing something (e.g., “I will stop sitting too much.”) In general, avoidance goals are about stopping, quitting, and forbidding behaviors. On the flip side, approach goals are about seeking a fresh start, new beginnings, and proactively getting out of a rut.

New Year’s Resolutions: Approach-Oriented Goals vs. Avoidance-Oriented Goals

As this “Keeping Resolutions” graph by corresponding author Per Carlbring of Stockholm University illustrates, study participants who made approach-oriented New Year’s resolutions had a higher success rate (59%) than those who made avoidance-oriented resolutions (47%).

This research suggests that flipping the script from an avoidance-oriented resolution that uses language such as “I will stop _______” to an approach-oriented script that states “I will start _______,” may increase one’s odds of sticking to a New Year’s resolution.

“In many cases, rephrasing your resolution could definitely work. For example, if your goal is to stop eating sweets in order to lose weight, you will most likely be more successful if you say ‘I will eat fruit several times a day’ instead,” Carlbring said in a news release. “You then replace sweets with something healthier, which probably means you will lose weight and also keep your resolution. You cannot erase a behavior, but you can replace it with something else.”

To the researchers’ surprise, providing study participants with extensive online support in the form of “emails with information and exercises regarding motivation, thought patterns, and negative spirals in relation to New Year’s resolutions” didn’t significantly boost someone’s odds of success.

After randomly dividing study participants into three groups that received no support, some support, or extended support, a one-year follow-up showed that providing people with “some support” seemed to be a sweet spot.

“Participants receiving some support reported greater success than those receiving extended support, and those receiving no support,” the authors explain. “This suggests that information, instructions, and exercises regarding effective goal setting, administered via the Internet, could affect the likelihood of success—another question to study further.”

“[We] found that the support given to the participants did not make much of a difference when it came down to how well participants kept their resolutions throughout the year. What surprised us were the results on how to phrase your resolution,” Carlbring concluded.

Are you making any New Year’s resolutions for 2021? If so, try to think of ways to frame your personal goals and resolutions for the upcoming year using approach-oriented language.

6 Ways to Stay Safe as Lockdown Eases

Risk is inevitable in everything that we do. It is an inherent part of our lives, intertwined with every decision we make and action we take. Ordinary acts such as walking across the road or driving a vehicle involve risk. Yet, our usual safeguards make adverse consequences rare that we seldom think about the risks involved in everyday activities. We have become accustomed to managing everyday risk, often instinctively.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are having to contend with everyday risks we cannot easily evaluate. A previously straightforward decision of whether to leave the house or use public transport is now fraught with unknown peril. More than ever before, we are having to calculate simple everyday decisions to try and determine what is safe and what should be avoided. The threat of the virus looms over every choice we make.

Studies on the psychology of risk have shown that we intuitively respond with higher levels of anxiety in the face of unknown risks than familiar risks. This heighted anxiety is likely explained by the fact that we have an innate need to live in a predictable, orderly world that is in our control. Not adequately understanding a new risk – such as COVID-19 – makes it difficult for us to take precautionary measures to reduce risk thereby resulting in a perceived lack of control over our lives.  

There is a lot about COVID-19 that we still don’t understand. Researchers continue to seek answers to questions such as: ‘Is a person immune after being infected?’ ‘Do facemasks prevent the spread of infection?’ ‘Why do some young and healthy people die from COVID-19 while the majority have only mild symptoms or none at all?’

In the face of all this uncertainty, we are having to weigh some risks on our own. When countries had strict stay-at-home rules in place, daily decisions about the risk of contracting the virus were simple. Now, as governments relax restrictions and countries reopen parts of their economies, decisions are more complex. The government may allow schools to reopen but should we allow our children to go? Is it safe to get a haircut or go to the gym?

There is always going to be some risk of contracting the virus as we go about our day-to-day lives. Personal protective measures including social distancing, avoiding touching our faces, and hand hygiene can reduce the risk of contracting the virus but don’t eliminate risk completely.

Here are a few important points to consider when managing risk outside the home.

1. Self-assessment: Start by conducting a self-assessment to determine if you are at higher risk for severe COVID-19. Based on currently available information and clinical expertise, older adults and people of any age who have pre-existing medical conditions are at higher risk. Other risk factors associated with COVID-19 death may include being male, uncontrolled diabetes, severe asthma, and being of Asian and Black ethic origin.

2. Risk level: Consider the level of risk associated with different activities – some activities are riskier than others. For example, gatherings of large groups of people in an indoor environment is considered high risk whereas exercising outdoors alone is relatively low risk. Key risk factors that make some activities more dangerous than others include distance to other people, type of activity, indoor/outdoor environment, and time spent in close proximity to others.

How Does Racism Affect Health?

Race is at the forefront of our national consciousness this week as many mourn the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, and protests and riots have erupted across the country.

While violence against racial minorities is a serious problem, the evidence shows that systemic racism in American society has broader effects as well.

When the mind senses a potentially harmful situation, it prepares the body by increasing heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. This response helped earlier humans outrun or fight predators and enemies. Today’s stressful situations, such as a challenging interaction at work or a misbehaving child, can result in the same physical reactions even though we are less likely to experience physical danger. The problem is, when this stress response is repeated frequently over time, evidence shows it can contribute to health problems, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, heart disease, skin rashes and gastrointestinal problems—just to name a few.

Now a growing body of evidence demonstrates that racial discrimination can trigger this stress response. Racial minorities may experience more health problems as a result. One review of 121 studies published in 2013 found that youth between the ages of 12 and 18 who reported experiencing discrimination were significantly more likely to experience mental health problems such as depression and anxiety compared to those who did not. Another review of 66 studies found that Black adults who perceived they were subjected to racism were more likely to experience mental health problems and more likely to report a lower quality of life. A third review breaks down types of racism in our society and explains the health implications of each.

A lead researcher in the field is Anthony Ong, a professor of human development in Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology. Ong explains that experiencing discrimination or mistreatment regularly can affect health through eroding a person’s self-worth and by foreclosing opportunities for purposeful living.

“Although increasing evidence suggests that chronic exposure to unfair treatment or day-to-day discrimination increases the risk for poor health, the overall dearth of data on biological mechanisms indicates it’s important to continue studying this topic,” Ong said.

He published a study in 2016 of more than 200 Black adults followed over the period of a decade. Participants completed surveys about everyday mistreatment such as being called names, insulted, threatened, or harassed. They also answered questions about acute occurrences of unfair treatment, such as being discouraged from continuing their education, not receiving a loan, or being hassled by the police.

Participants also underwent blood tests to identify 22 biomarkers of diseases including heart disease, diabetes, nerve problems and inflammation.

Ultimately, participants who reported experiencing more discrimination were in poorer health. Ong argues that’s because experiencing discrimination on a regular basis, even small instances of daily mistreatment, can lead to “wear-and-tear” on the body over time.

“Our findings suggest that coping with chronic experiences of day-to-day mistreatment and discrimination can elicit a cascade of responses that over time ‘weather’ or damage the physiological systems that regulate the body’s stress response,” he said.

How to use mindfulness to stand in solidarity with the Black Community

As many of us continue to wake up to the horror of racism, we can draw upon our meditation practice to help fight for a kinder and more just world.

Here are eleven ways that your meditation practice can help you combat racism. We hope it inspires you to see that you already have a lot of amazing tools to support you on this journey. 

1 | Sit with discomfort

Waking up to injustice can be uncomfortable, especially when we realize that some of our words, actions, and beliefs may actually be part of the problem. In the same way that we choose not to squirm during our meditation practice, how might we take a moment to notice our reaction when someone points out our privilege or lets us know that what we said was racist? Do we become defensive, shutdown, or dismissive? Those are a few examples of how we twist and turn our way out of the discomfort of feeling shame. 

Our fear of being racist prevents us from bravely exploring our own racism so that we can start the work of undoing it. If this concept feels hard to swallow, we recommend reading Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to be an Antiracist. He says to let go of ‘racist’ being a bad word and instead see it as a helpful way to identify a thought or behavior that needs to be unpacked. 

As we engage with this uncomfortable introspection, it’s important to foster self-compassion. Gently create space to meet whatever feelings are coming up, including heartache, anger, grief, shame, and confusion. It is only from this grounded place within that we can be truly open to the perspective of another. This is where learning and unlearning begins.     

2 | Meet your mistakes with equanimity

Making mistakes is human. It’s impossible not to make mistakes and the painful reality is that when we try really hard to be perfect and in control, we tend to make more mistakes. Making mistakes is an integral part of learning.

The next time you say or do something that causes harm, take a minute to remember you’re human and offer yourself compassion. Then, take action. Apologize, and if needed, learn more about why your language or behavior was hurtful (google it, there are so many great articles and resources out there). Commit to doing better now that you know better.  

3 | Honor similarity and difference

It’s not uncommon to feel a deep sense of connection with all beings during meditation. People often describe this as a feeling of oneness. While there is no denying our interconnectedness, it is important to remember that while at some level we may indeed all be one, our lived experiences are very different, informed and influenced by intersecting privileges and oppressions. To truly see another we must recognize both how we are similar and how we are different. 

The denial of difference is the crux of the issues when people say all lives matter in response to black lives matter. Rachel Cargle explains that “stating ‘black lives matter’ doesn’t insinuate that other lives don’t.” Of course, all lives matter and it’s also important to recognize that black lives face discrimination and dehumanization at disproportionate levels. 

4 | Expand your awareness 

Depression and anxiety spiked among black Americans after George Floyd’s death

Americans were already struggling with historic levels of mental health problems amid the coronavirus pandemic. Then came the video of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police.

Within a week, anxiety and depression among African Americans shot to higher rates than experienced by any other racial or ethnic group, with 41 percent screening positive for at least one of those symptoms, data from the Census Bureau shows.Video of George Floyd’s killing began to spread on the last day of week 4.

The findings — from a survey launched by the federal government originally intended to study the effects of the novel coronavirus — indicate that the recent unrest, demonstrations and debate have exacted a disproportionate emotional and mental toll on black and Asian Americans, even as rates of anxiety and depression remain relatively flat among white Americans and decreased among Latin Americans.

The rate of black Americans showing clinically significant signs of anxiety or depressive disorders jumped from 36 percent to 41 percent in the week after the video of Floyd’s death became public. That represents roughly 1.4 million more people.

Among Asian Americans, those symptoms increased from 28 percent to 34 percent, a change that represents an increase of about 800,000 people.

The new data comes from an emergency weekly survey of U.S. households launched by the Census Bureau at the end of April to measure the pandemic’s effects on finances, housing, education and health. In the most recent data release, more than 1 million households were contacted through email and text, and more than 100,000 responded, creating a robust sample size for the findings. Analysis of the data was conducted by multiple federal agencies including the Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Depression, anxiety spur pandemic alcohol consumption

Numerous studies have found that alcohol consumption has increased during the pandemic, and dramatically so for people with depression.

A new study takes a fresh look at drinking during the pandemic and finds, for the first time, that age affects the likelihood of a person consuming more alcohol as a response to the pandemic.

Lead author Ariadna Capasso, of NYU School of Global Public Health in New York City, says:

“This increase in drinking, particularly among people with anxiety and depression, is consistent with concerns that the pandemic may be triggering an epidemic of problematic alcohol use.”

The study features in the journal Preventive Medicine.

The study’s general findings

The researchers surveyed 5,850 adults from all 50 states through Facebook and its associated platforms during the months of March and April 2020. They asked the participants to describe themselves demographically and report how their alcohol use had changed since the start of the pandemic. 

The survey also included questions that allowed the researchers to identify and measure the participants’ symptoms of depression and anxiety. Each person also reported the degree to which they felt at risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Of all the participants identifying themselves as drinkers, 29% reported that their alcohol consumption had increased during the pandemic.

Of the drinkers, 51.2% said that the pandemic had not affected the amount of alcohol that they consumed, while another 19.8% reported drinking less.

Of all the people surveyed, 47% and 30% reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, respectively.

Individuals reporting symptoms of depression were 64% more likely to be consuming greater amounts of alcohol, while anxiety was associated with a 41% higher likelihood of increased drinking.

The study also found that demographic factors affected alcohol consumption during the pandemic:

  • Women were more likely (33% as opposed to 24%) to have increased their drinking than men.
  • Highly educated people were more likely to have started drinking more (32%) than those without a bachelor’s degree (25%).
  • Fewer retirees (20%) reported drinking more than employed and currently unemployed participants, 31% of whom were consuming more alcohol.
  • People living in rural areas were less likely to have upped their alcohol intake (25%) compared with those living in suburban and urban areas (31%).

Worry Is A Waste: Take Control In 5 Minutes or Less

When we fail to cope properly, naturally, we worry. Why do we worry so much? Well for starters, it gives us a false sense of something called control. You know, that highly addictive substance we all love to consume? Worry allows us to “brace” ourselves.

Just as we would physically brace upon impact, we do the same psychologically. We believe that if we worry, we’ll somehow be better “prepared” to handle the situation. In reality, nothing could be more fruitless or further from the truth. As J.K. Rowling once said, “Worrying means you suffer twice.” Ask yourself this simple question, what has worrying done for me lately? When has worry every benefitted me? More importantly, when has it ever changed the outcome that I’m fearing would/could happen? I’m willing to bet, it hasn’t…ever. And it never will. Once you’re ready to accept that inalienable truth, get out a pen and paper. Together we’ll complete Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) thought record to gain back control and emotional freedom.

1. Identify the trigger or situation

What’s the thought that caused the emotional and physical reaction? Here’s a hint. One of the most common culprits of worry thought are the notorious “What ifs?” What if school doesn’t start in September? What If I get sick? What if someone in my family gets sick? What if I lose my job? What if I have a panic attack? What if I fail?

2. Rate the intensity of your worry 

Now that you’ve successfully identified the thought that sent your central nervous system into a frenzy, rate the intensity of the emotion from 1-100. For example, “Anxiety, 85/100.”

3. Write down unhelpful thoughts and images associated with the worry 

Often times, I find those of us who struggle with anxiety and worry have exceptionally active imaginations. We immediately see in our mind’s eye the worst-case scenario playing out right before our eyes and our fight-or-flight system is instantly activated. Take a minute to write down what you imagine will happen. This could include your reaction, other people’s reactions, what they’ll say, what you’ll do, etc. 

4. Examine the evidence that supports the worry thought 

Yes, you read that correctly. I want you to find factual support that validates the worry thought. Bear with me, I know that seems counter-productive, but this will give you the opportunity to step back and take inventory of just how true and realistic this worry is.

5. Examine the evidence against the worry thought

Here’s where we start acting like detectives. Get out your mental magnifying glass and start inspecting. Just as a detective would look for facts and not opinions, we need to do the same. What facts show you that this worry thought is not true? Ask yourself, has this fear ever actualized before? How many times? You may just discover that it’s only happened once in the entirety of your life or not at all. It’s often helpful to provide yourself with examples of when you’ve been successful in accomplishing the thing you’re worried about in the past. It’s also beneficial to rate the likelihood of this happening from 0-100 to help dispute the negative automatic worry thought.

6. Insert more realistic, balanced thinking 

Instead of entertaining the worst-case scenario that’s taking place in your mind, let’s think about what we would tell a loved one or friend who is worrying about the same thing. This is where we use compassion to combat the catastrophe. How likely is it that something positive will occur instead? Have I had positive experiences with this situation, person, or event in the past? One question I personally love is, “In the spectrum of my life, how important is this situation?” Is the amount of energy I’m putting into worrying about this situation proportionate to the importance?” No? Then recalibrate accordingly.  

7. Re-rate intensity of anxiety and worry 

By this point, most will experience a significant reduction in anxiety and the evidence of that will be quantified. This alone can give us incentive to start challenging the negative automatic thoughts instead of mindlessly believing them. Remember if this exercise didn’t work for you, don’t judge yourself, it will only intensify the anxiety. Sometimes we’re so entrenched in worry, it’s hard to think of an alternative possibility. Grab a loved one or friend and go through the thought record together. It may help to get another’s perspective, especially if you respect their opinion.

22 brain exercises to improve memory, cognition, and creativity

Although the brain gets plenty of exercise every day, certain activities may help boost brain function and connectivity. This in turn may help protect the brain from age-related degeneration.

The brain is always active, even during sleep. However, certain activities can engage the brain in new ways, potentially leading to improvements in memory, cognitive function, or creativity.

This article outlines 22 brain exercises that may help boost memory, cognition, and creativity.

1. Meditation

Meditation generally involves focusing attention in a calm, controlled way. Meditating may have multiple benefits for both the brain and the body.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, research suggests that meditation may benefit the brain by slowing brain aging and increasing the brain’s ability to process information.

2. Visualizing more

Visualization involves forming a mental image to represent information. The mental image may be in the form of pictures or animated scenes.

A 2018 review notes that visualization helps people organize information and make appropriate decisions.

People can practice visualization in their day-to-day lives. For example, before going shopping, people can visualize how they will get to and from the grocery store, and imagine what they will buy when they get there. The key is to imagine the scenes vividly and in as much detail as possible.

3. Playing games

Playing card games or board games can be a fun way to socialize or pass the time. These activities may also be beneficial for the brain. A 2017 study found a link between playing games and a decreased risk of cognitive impairment in older adults.

4. Playing memory card games

Memory card games test a person’s short-term memory and ability to remember patterns. They are a simple and fun way to engage the brain and activate areas related to pattern recognition and recall.

5. Practicing crossword puzzles

Crossword puzzles are a popular activity that may stimulate the brain. An older study from 2011 notes that crossword puzzles may delay the onset of memory decline in people with preclinical dementia.

6. Completing jigsaw puzzles

Completing a jigsaw puzzle can be a good way to pass the time and may also benefit the brain. A 2018 study found that puzzles activate many cognitive functions, including:

  • perception
  • mental rotation
  • working memory
  • reasoning

The study concluded that doing jigsaw puzzles regularly and throughout life may protect against the effects of brain aging.

7. Playing sudoku

Number puzzles, such as sudoku, can be a fun way to challenge the brain. They may also improve cognitive function in some people.

A 2019 study of adults aged between 50 and 93 years found that those who practiced number puzzles more frequently tended to have better cognitive function.

8. Playing chess

A 2016 meta-analysis notes that chess and other cognitive leisure activities may lead to improvements in:

  • memory
  • executive functioning, which is the ability to monitor and adapt behavior in order to meet set goals
  • information processing speed

9. Playing checkers

A 2015 study found that there is a connection between regular participation in checkers or other cognitively stimulating games and larger brain volume and improved markers of cognitive health in people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

10. Playing video games

A 2015 review notes that some types of video games — such as action, puzzle, and strategy games — may lead to improvements in the following:

  • attention
  • problem solving
  • cognitive flexibility

11. Socializing

Enjoying company of friends may be a mentally engaging leisure activity and may help preserve cognitive function. A 2019 study found that people with more frequent social contact were less likely to experience cognitive decline and dementia.

Some social activities that may help stimulate the brain include:

  • having discussions
  • playing games
  • participating in social sports

12. Learning new skills

Learning new skills engages the brain in different ways and may help improve brain function.

A 2014 study of older adults found that learning a new and cognitively demanding skill, such as quilting or photography, enhanced memory function.

The Hedonic Treadmill: A Look at Our Relationship With ‘Happiness’ and ‘Stuff’

When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 2005, I was driving an early 90’s model Chevy Lumina. It had a single spinner on the rear passenger wheel, because I was ballin’. I had purchased this car for $900 from a college friend. It was an old car, but it ran perfectly and never failed to get me to and from work and school (which honestly was about all I needed it to do).

Once I graduated and got my first big kid job, what did I do with my awesome Chevy Lumina? Traded it in for a bigger better truck of course! Let me explain.

Upon graduation I was quickly promoted to management by the casual dining restaurant chain I served tables for through school. When I saw that job offer, my jaw dropped… $40k, 2 weeks paid vacation, and benefits. This was it, I was big time now, a 22-year-old hotshot ready to take on the world. And what does every 22-year entry level manager need? You guessed it, a $35,000 truck. I rushed to the nearest Nissan dealership, traded in my paid off Lumina for a brand-new Nissan Frontier (or as I affectionally now call it, a boat load of vehicle debt summing up to half of my monthly income).

The buying didn’t stop there. Within 4 months of graduating, I also traded in my $400 per month rental room from my sister for a $1400 per month interest only mortgage on a new condo, another must have for the penniless new professional. If you have a brand-new condo, you have to fill it with stuff, so next I hit the Lay-Z-Boy store and Best Buy like they were going out of style.

Do you see the trend I’m describing? If not, here it is… the acquisition of ‘stuff’ ruled my initial post-collegiate years. Within one year of graduating college, I had somehow accrued nearly $250,000 in debt for stuff (including my truck, condo, and a variety of other stuff I bought that I had lived without for years before). This continued for me for a couple more years. Then one day, I decided to sell every last thing I owned and move to Europe (Azores, Portugal to be specific). Interestingly, I lived in the Azores for one year devoid of ‘stuff’ and have some of the best memories of my life. But within a few years of returning home, I once again have acquired an unruly amount of stuff.


Why on Earth would one be so driven by the acquisition of more stuff? Does it make life better or result in an increase in net happiness?

The answer lies in the hedonic treadmill (otherwise known as hedonic adaptation). Simply explained, this expression describes the natural tendency of a human being to return to a baseline level of happiness after a very positive (or negative) change. For instance, I would go buy a new gadget and it gave an initial rush of happiness, but after a period of time, that rush wore off leaving me with little net change in my overall happiness. Seeking further temporary boosts in happiness, I would go buy something else and so the hedonic treadmill perpetuated.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to live a comfortable life, and to do so there are basic human needs that must be met. But I would argue that many of our relationships with acquiring stuff have far superseded the basic needs for survival and therefore do not result in a net gain in happiness. If you have unlimited resources and buying power, then perhaps this is no problem for you. But I don’t fall into that category of buying power and therefore feel compelled to dive deeper into my own hedonic tendencies and how to transition them into more sustainable mechanisms to increase my net happiness over time. Let’s dive into a few of my learned lessons on hedonic adaptation.

Money doesn’t buy happiness, but not stressing about how to pay the mortgage helps

I’ve seen both sides of the economic spectrum. I’ve been a struggling entry level manager trying to feed a family of 3 on peanuts and I’ve been a successful entrepreneur with no concern about paying my bills. And presently, I sit somewhere in the middle. Both ends of the economic spectrum come with tradeoffs. However, one thing I’ve learned to be true is that there is a baseline standard of living needed in order to maintain an equilibrium in net happiness. It’s pretty hard to be happy when you don’t know for sure if you’re going to pay the mortgage next month. These self-help gurus that spew catch phrases like ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’ clearly have never gotten to Friday night and not had $20 to buy a pizza for their wife and kid. While I can admit that the 5-star dinner really is just for show and doesn’t contribute to a net gain in happiness, being able to afford to treat my family once in a while and know the bills will still be paid is a must for me to maintain a baseline.

The latest and greatest gadget is a waste of money

Part of the hedonic treadmill is the rhetoric that we need the newest, latest and greatest stuff. For instance, I used to be that guy who bought the new iPhone every single year. Truth be told, this did not contribute to a net gain in overall happiness. Rather the new tech, gadget, or thing quickly just became a normalized part of my life. The way that new phones or gadgets are marketed makes it sound like your life will improve 10-fold by sheer virtue of owning them. But the reality is at the end of the day you’re still holding a newer version of a device that connects you to your loved ones and the rest of the world. The micro-second of speed or few extra pixels in the camera really don’t contribute to net happiness in the long run.

10 Odd and Fun Activities That Keep Your Brain Healthy

In my previous blog, I summarized the extensive research behind 12 lifestyle choices that can protect your brain.  In brief, these “Terrific Twelve” are: 1. Reduce alcohol consumption. 2. Avoid head injury. 3. Breathe clean air; stay in on polluted-air days. 4. Provide access to early-childhood education. 5. Correct mid-life hearing loss. 6. Monitor and reduce high blood pressure. 7. Maintain a healthy weight.  8. Quit smoking; avoid inhaling second-hand smoke. 9. Find help for depression and anxiety. 10. Prevent social isolation by connecting with others. 11. Exercise and stay active. 12. Manage and/or reverse diabetes. These twelve lifestyle factors account for a whopping 40% of dementias.

This blog will focus on an additional 10 surprising and pleasurable actions anyone can take to reduce the risk of dementia. But first—a few definitions and an overview.

“Dementia” is a collection of signs and symptoms that includes memory loss; difficulty reasoning, solving problems, and learning new things; inappropriate behavior; and difficulty performing many activities of daily living. It is not a disease itself but is caused by an underlying disease such as Alzheimer’s. (Other major causes of dementia include vascular problems, neurodegenerative disorders, and Lewy body dementia.) “Mild cognitive impairment” (MCI) is a condition involving less severe problems with thinking and remembering. Good news: MCI does not necessarily progress to dementia.

While age is a major risk factor for dementia, dementia is not a normal part of aging, according to the Mayo Clinic. That’s why it is so helpful to realize that we can all make good lifestyle choices right now that can help our mental functioning as we age.

10 More Odd and Pleasurable Activities That Your Brain Will Love

In addition to the 12 key prevention measures above, researchers have documented various unusual and fun activities that can keep our brains healthy.  Here are 10 activities that seem to help, according to recent studies. (Note of caution: Most of the studies cited below show a correlation between the activity and cognitive health but do not prove causality.)

1. Sing out. Past research has shown that playing a musical instrument has positive effects on cognitive functioning, especially cognitive flexibility, the ability to switch the mind’s focus from one thought process to another. Now, new research from the University of Helsinki reveals a chorus of benefits from singing. According to the researchers, elderly singers have better cognitive flexibility than non-singers and also experience a mood lift from singing together. In addition, participants in choral groups develop a strong feeling of togetherness as they sing, which can protect them from the mind-sapping effects of loneliness that many people experience as they age.

2. Try sauna bathing. Strangely enough, recent research indicates a strong relationship between Finnish sauna bathing and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. (PT blogger Arash Emamzadeh describes the research in his blog.) Why might sauna bathing lower dementia risk? The mechanisms could include the activation of protective proteins by the heat, better cardiovascular functioning, reduced inflammation, better sleep, reduced stress, and increased relaxation. (Warning: The extreme heat would not be healthy for every person. Consult with your doctor.)  

3. Practice tai chi. Tai chi is a Chinese slow-motion exercise for self-defense and meditation. Is tai chi more beneficial than other forms of exercise when it comes to preserving mental function? According to the Harvard Health Letter, it is: “In a meta-analysis of 20 studies on tai chi and cognition, tai chi appears to improve executive function—the ability to multitask, manage time, and make decisions—in people without any cognitive decline. In those with mild cognitive impairment, tai chi slowed the progression to dementia more than other types of exercise and improved their cognitive function in a comparable fashion to other types of exercise or cognitive training.”

I recently took an introductory tai chi class via Zoom. I discovered that while tai chi is gentle physical exercise, it does give your brain a tough workout.  

4.  Cultivate a positive attitude toward aging.  Negative attitudes about aging have a striking effect on memory and on health in general. In studies by Yale researcher Becca Levy, “older people exposed to … positive messages about aging showed better recall and more confidence in their abilities than those exposed to negative ones.” Other research showed that those with positive views of aging had better balance, did better on memory tests, walked faster, recovered from disabilities more quickly, and lived, on average, seven and a half years longer. Fighting one’s own internalized ageism is a constant battle but one well worth the effort. And why not savor all the good things about aging?

5. Get a flu and/or pneumonia vaccination.  Research in 2020 indicates that getting a flu or pneumonia vaccination, in addition to the obvious benefits, may provide protection against Alzheimer’s disease. Too good to be true? Apparently not.

After investigating a large data set of 9,066 individuals, researchers found that those who received flu vaccinations had a decreased risk of cognitive decline.  To summarize: “…people that consistently got their annual flu shot had a lower risk of Alzheimer’s. This translated to an almost 6% reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease for patients between the ages of 75-84 for 16 years.”

In another study of 5146 people aged 65 and above who had been vaccinated against pneumonia, “The researchers found that pneumococcal vaccination between ages 65-75 reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 25-30% after adjusting for sex, race, birth cohort, education, smoking, and number of G alleles.” (“G alleles” are known risk genes for Alzheimer’s.)

Key Insights From 2021’s World Happiness Report

Here are three of the more compelling takeaways from this year’s report.

Takeaway #1: Finland retains its spot as the world’s happiest country

Finland is the happiest country in the world for the fourth year in a row, tallying a 7.889 on the “average life evaluations” measure, shown here:

“Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”

Other top performers were Iceland (7.575), Denmark (7.515), Switzerland (7.508), the Netherlands (7.504), Sweden (7.314), Germany (7.312), Norway (7.290), New Zealand (7.257), and Austria (7.213).

And, of the 95 countries surveyed in 2020, the top 10 unhappiest countries were Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Jordan, India, Cambodia, Benin, Myanmar, Namibia, Egypt, Kenya, and Ethiopia.

Takeaway #2: Croatia makes gains, the United Kingdom dips

Zambia, Croatia, Nigeria, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan were the countries that showed the most improvement when comparing 2020 happiness ratings to earlier years. Impressively, Croatia jumped from 61st to 23rd position. This may have something to do with policies that kept Croatian citizens working during the pandemic while citizens of other countries were forced into employment hiatuses. The researchers also point out that the pandemic’s effect on employment disparities between high-skilled and low-skilled workers in Croatia wasn’t nearly as pronounced as in other countries such as Ireland and Portugal.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Philippines, El Salvador, Benin, Malta, and Ecuador showed the steepest declines in happiness in 2020. Other notable dips were found in the United Kingdom (13th to 18th position), Canada (10th to 15th position), and the UAE (19th to 27th position).

The United States improved its standing slightly, to 14th place (previously 16th). And, despite its troubles with COVID-19, Italy improved from 28th to 25th place.

Takeaway #3: The world shows resilience in the face of COVID-19

In comparing average overall life evaluations in 2020 to 2017-2019, the researchers found evidence of a (statistically non-significant) uptick. Gains were most apparent in East Asia and South Asia while Latin America and the Caribbean showed the steepest regional declines.

The Power of Gratitude

My email interview on this topic with Parveen Panwar went live on Authority Magazine. Here are some excerpts from that interview.

How do you define the concept of Gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?

Gratitude means giving thanks for what you have and what you are given. It means seeing your blessings and knowing how big they are. Gratitude helps us turn away from resentment and feeling like a victim. It is about acknowledging all those who are dealing with bigger problems with fewer resources instead of focusing on people who seem to have more or sail through life without problems. Gratitude is about recognizing that everyone has problems, instead of comparing the outside of someone else’s life to how yours feels inside.

Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?

I believe gratitude is a completely learnable skill. But, most of us aren’t taught to be grateful. Our whole society tends to be about getting more — more money, more love, more recognition. We are addicted to “more”. We think happiness depends on getting and keeping more. We are poisoned by comparisons. And, we learn about blame, shame, and not being enough far more than we know about appreciation, being in the moment, being content. We often think happiness is loud and glittery instead of quiet, self-contained, peaceful. I know that I am far more grateful than I used to be, and that is because I have worked long and hard and consciously on making that shift.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?

Increased gratitude helps us better love ourselves and the wonderful imperfect people in our lives. Gratitude leads to more cheerfulness, which makes others want to be around us at home and at work. It frees up more mental and emotional resources to solve problems, take action, be creative. I think gratitude can also help us be more willing to listen, because we’re less likely to rehearse grievances, and gratitude can help us communicate calmly in conflicts because we have more trust that we can work it out.

What are Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude?

  1. Set an intention — Be willing and persistent. I began by recognizing the healing power of gratitude and being willing and determined to retune my thinking in that direction.
  2. Make a gratitude list and say it out loud — start looking for things to be grateful for, thank people. I learned a long time ago that what we focus on gets bigger. The more I and my clients look for the good, the bigger it grows.
  3. Be like Pollyanna. Focusing on the positive, on our blessings, the disasters we’ve avoided, points us in the right direction.
  4. When you think of difficulties in the past, be grateful for resolution.
  5. Act as If — One final effective way to start leveraging gratitude is to act as if you’re grateful, even if that’s not how you’re really feeling.

Why Practicing Self-Love Isn’t Optional But Necessary

I had the honor of interviewing the band On the Outside. They are inspirationally challenging youth and others to cultivate body positivity and self-love with their #HowBeautifulChallenge. Their song “How Beautiful” advocates for self-love. This is an incredible message for youth by their peers, especially given all the external influences such as social media that significantly impact self-perception.

In my practice, I often find myself feeling wishful that others could see the beauty that I see in them. I recognize there are factors that inhibit our ability to truly see our wholeness and that we are enough just as we are.  

Factors That Inhibit From Internalizing Self-Love

We tend to be judgmental, unkind, and our own harshest critic. To protect us from failure, discomfort, or anything it perceives as threatening, our mind resorts to strategies that could sometimes thwart us. It can become overprotective, hypervigilant, and avoidant, which can keep us remote from acting on behalf of our values, being our best selves, and fully accepting all that we are.  

We never quite learn how to cultivate self-love because we are socialized to tamp down thoughts, feelings, and actions in which we appear “full of ourselves,” “self-absorbed,” “cocky,” or “arrogant.” We get confused about how to be appropriately confident, proud, and grateful for who we are.

We may get fearful if we’re self-accepting and practice self-love that we’ll let ourselves off the hook and settle for mediocrity. Quite the opposite, we acquire self-belief, and move toward striving, being more productive, and live life more meaningfully.   

We naturally seek external validation because we are taught to. Developmentally our brain is hardwired to seek the love, assurance, and acceptance from our parents and caretakers. Some are fortunate to receive that unconditionally, while others are not. A child often interprets, “If my own parents, who are supposed to love me and treat me better than anyone else in the world, can’t love me, I must not be loveable, and others may not love me either.” It is also challenging to practice self-love if it is a rarity, and something we haven’t routinely seen, felt, or experienced.  

In our childhood, we also hear about how others perceive us and are proud of us but are rarely directed toward assessing how we feel about ourselves and what it means to us. We hear “the coach and team are proud of you,” rather than “how did you feel about that hit and what you accomplished?”

Our mind also leads us in that direction as it uses comparisons to others as a way of holding us accountable and living up to a certain standard. Unfortunately, it most often selects unrealistic and lofty comparisons. In an attempt to motivate us to live up to these standards, it tends to discourage and deplete us.

We are not taught to hear, accept, and internalize complimentary sentiments directed at us. Think about how it feels when someone approaches us with a warm or kind sentiment. It can often feel awkward and uncomfortable. We may question if it is factually true, whether they are sincere, and struggle with how to respond that does not appear or sound “narcissistic.”  

Our mind makes it its mission to defend against anyone seeing our flaws and imperfections or judging us based on them, despite it being part of our humanness. We also can’t forget about our past experiences and possible mistakes. When we have these to contend with, which we all invariably do, our mind incessantly reminds us of them to avoid being in the position of repeating them. These factors all naturally impact our ability to accept and appreciate all of us.

Benefits of Cultivating Self-Love

When discussing self-love, the objective is not to maintain feeling enduring positivity toward the self. That is not realistic or sustainable. It is understandable and expected that our thoughts and feelings ebb and flow and depending on our circumstances and how we’re behaving, we can expect an array of comfortable and uncomfortable feelings to surface.

What is more attainable is to carry simultaneously the more uncomfortable thoughts and feelings while non-judgmentally and unconditionally holding onto self-compassion and self-love. This will afford us with considering and being open and accepting of our thoughts and feelings, personal insight and perspective to consider our needs, and making mindful and intentional decisions that will move us in the direction of our values and being our best self.

Inhabiting self-love, we are more likely to be less self-critical and more compassionate toward ourselves and expect to be treated thoughtfully and respectfully in our relationships with others. Our worthiness and value will increase exponentially. It becomes the foundation by which we assert our needs, set boundaries, and lead our life in the direction that we are personally proud of.

Methods to Practice Self-Love

1. Acknowledge and celebrate when you lean into your values, goals, and accomplishments. Do this no matter how insignificant your mind may tell you that it is and take note of the process and steps along the way.

2. Fully take in when someone is complimentary. Besides expressing appreciation, share what it means to you that they shared that sentiment.

3. Act with mindfulness and intentionality. The more you behave on behalf of who you truly want to be, the easier it is to be accepting of self-compassion and self-love.

4. Be aware of comparing yourself to others. You can only enhance when you are being a better version of yourself, rather than focusing on being better than others or an unrealistic ideal.

5. Practice being mindful and being in the present moment. It helps to give you space between the thinking, feeling, and doing. It allows you to be more focused, intentional, and mindful in your actions.

6. Remember that your thoughts and feelings do not define who you fundamentally are. You cannot control your thoughts and feelings, only the actions you take on behalf of them. You can have “mean” or “unkind” thoughts and feelings and that does not equate to you being a mean or unkind person. You can still elect to practice being thoughtful and kind in your actions. You are not your thoughts and feelings.

7. Accept your imperfections as part of your humanness and allow yourself to make mistakes. Your imperfections may be underdeveloped parts of yourself that you can still grow. Evaluating, studying, being curious, and open to them can facilitate life lessons and immense personal growth and enhancement.  

8. Internalize that you have many parts to you that make up who you are and how you function. Your value and worth do not lie central to one part of you. Sometimes we define ourselves solely by how we appear, how intelligent we are, etc.

The ADHD Owner’s Manual for Grown-ups

This does not mean that they are more normal (whatever that is) or better than we are; however, it does mean that their ways of thinking are not only accepted, but expected, and endorsed.

From the outside looking in, neurotypicals just seem to inherently know how to be grown-ups. They can make it to appointments, balance checkbooks, pay bills on time, remember to get the car inspected each year, etc. They can even sit at a desk all day without completely losing their minds. And, they make it all look so easy.

This is largely because for neurotypicals, being interested in a task, finding this new and exciting, or even challenging might be helpful, but it is not essential. It is a bonus and not a prerequisite. In fact, they have a three-step check list for their action plan which involves the concepts of importance, secondary importance, and rewards. First, the neurotypical grown-up will evaluate whether or not they should get said task done. Next, they are motivated by authority pressure, meaning that someone they respect (spouse, professor, or boss) deems the task important and would like it completed.  Lastly, they are moved to the completion of said task by rewards such as a grade, promotion, approval, or punitive consequences for not completing said task (Dodson, 2020).

For adult ADHDers, we get what’s important, too, and we like rewards and understand punishment. It’s just that we don’t find dangling these in front of us all that motivating. What motivates the rest of the world we find annoying, or at best, insignificant.

We are motivated from the inside-out because we are driven by our very curious, interest-based nervous systems. ADHDers chase shiny objects because they are new and exciting. Then, once they cease to be shiny, we cease to be interested and move on. This seeming inability to use the concepts of importance and rewards to motivate us has had a huge impact on us trying to navigate and adult in a neurotypical world (Dodson, 2020).

Because of this we are often perceived (and labeled) as immature, irresponsible, and reckless. Neurotypicals wonder if we will ever grow up. Hopefully not, but thank you for asking.

Neurotypicals can find this frustrating, because they are trying to motivate us according to their rules, the Neurotypical Owner’s Manual. They keep trying and it keeps not working. This is because when we were born, we were given the neurotypical owner’s manual also, only this didn’t make any sense to us so we threw it out. Hence, the disconnect.

We ADHDers, or better yet, members of The Fast Mind Club, need to write our own rules. We need to create an owner’s manual which is better suited to our wiring, one which is clear and paves the way to success.

Here it is:

1.       The Fast-Mind disclaimer. The ADHDer’s Owner’s Manual is for those with unwavering curiosity and a natural ability for creativity, problem-solving, and innovation. It is your birthright to embrace this.

2.       Positive self-talk. You are fun and spontaneous, not immature and irresponsible.

3.       Embrace your child-like spirit. Being playful is ok and healthy, even as a grown-up. Set a good example for neurotypicals. They’ll live longer.

4.       Don’t focus on where you fall short; focus on where you shine. Evaluate what excites you versus what drains you. The Strengthscope assessment can help with this. Then, move towards jobs and tasks that you naturally find interesting and exciting. This cannot be forced as we don’t operate that way. We’re about passion.

5.       Feel the charge. Once you get in the ADHD zone, stay there, and feel the charge of operating at this remarkable level. Feel the electricity, theflow. This will make it more familiar and easier to enter into the zone next time.

6.       If you need a competitive environment, find one.

7.       Most importantly, surround yourself with really good people. We are not talking about mere tolerance, or even acceptance. We need people to value and embrace our wild and wonderful minds. Think of this as making the cut for a sports team. The judgers can have a seat on the bench. We’ll let them know when they get a chance to play.

8.       We don’t want to be neurotypicals. No offense. We just like ourselves exactly the way we are so stop trying to make us be like you. Thank you.

Most of all, the world at large needs to realize that ADHD is not disorder, but rather a difference in cognition. Once we become aware of which triggers we need to pull to align our unique, interest-based nervous systems with what excites us, we are off and running. This is when we write that novel, movie script, start a business, invent something amazing, and find the solutions to problems everyone else missed.

10 Positive Outcomes of the Pandemic

As I type from my kitchen island on a Thursday in the middle of the day (working from home, pandemic-style) I am producing what will be my 400th Psychology Today post. A lot has happened in my life and in the world since I started blogging here in 2013. Without question, the COVID pandemic stands as perhaps the most conspicuous and (for many of us) unexpected event that we have collectively encountered during this time.

The adverse consequences associated with the pandemic are obvious. Millions of people from all around the world have tragically died as a result of COVID. Entire industries have been decimated. Education around the world has been dramatically affected. Millions have lost their jobs and homes. And the whole thing has, tragically, become highly politicized, exacerbating already dramatic political fissures. And more.

People who know me well know that I generally try to keep things positive. With this in mind, here are ten outcomes of the pandemic that actually are having positive outcomes and that will, hopefully, continue to have positive outcomes into our shared future.  

1. Staying connected across miles.

Humans did not evolve to be separated from kin and other loved ones by thousands of miles (see Evolutionary Psychology 101 for a discussion of this). My family, for instance, is dispersed across New York, New Jersey, Florida, and California. For members of a species that evolved to be close to kin, this is rough. 

During the pandemic, people have been more encouraged than ever to reach out to family. People are having regular ZOOM meetings with family. People are texting family members regularly. People are checking on one another with seemingly increased care and compassion. And this is a good thing. 

2. Harnessing technology for good.

While I have written extensively about the dark side of technology, the pandemic has shown us many bright facets that modern technology holds. It has become easier than ever to communicate with others. In many cases, technology has improved at lightning speed to make virtual meetings productive, efficient, and legitimate. And these improvements in such technologies will surely allow us, moving forward, to have more options for getting people together for all kinds of purposes. 

3. Seeing life in a bigger frame.

The pandemic has definitely given all of us pause. I still get the chills when I go into a business and see all the tables and chairs pushed to the side or see all of my students socially distanced in a giant lecture hall and wearing masks. The immediate changes in our daily lives have been so deeply dramatic. And this fact has the capacity to have us see life in a bigger frame as we move toward the other side of the pandemic. 

4. Learning new skills.

Many people chose to take up new skills and hobbies during the pandemic. People are learning how to paint with watercolors, write poetry, speak other languages, and more. And these skills and interests will certainly transcend the pandemic. 

5. Appreciating nature.

As someone who has always been an avid hiker, the abrupt change in the appreciation of nature that so many people have experienced has been obvious. Trailheads near me that usually have one or two parked cars will, these days, often be overflowing. The trails are filled with people who are tired of being cooped up and who are ready to adventure into the mountains. Humans are naturally biophilic, having a natural inclination toward the natural world (see Wilson, 1984). For so many of us, the pandemic has unleashed this beautiful facet of the human experience. 

6. Appreciating science.

The vaccines were developed to completion within about a year. Think about that. For this kind of highly technical work, one year truly is record-speed. During the pandemic, scientists across the world have raced to enhance our understanding of all facets of the virus and the nature of its spread. If ever there were a time to pause and appreciate science, that time is now. 

Six Ways We Can Work on Our Mental Well-Being

We are now a year into social distancing, mask-wearing, staying home, and holding all of our meetings via Zoom. Despite our best efforts and best intentions, most of us are struggling with pandemic fatigue. We’re bored and have come to find ourselves doing the same things over and over without much joy. This wears on our sense of happiness and well-being. It may be time to step back and reassess how we spend our days.

Let’s start with examining the usual sources of well-being in our lives. Happiness and well-being tend to be connected to our natural human needs in several areas of our lives:

  • Activities that provide some challenge or learning
  • Physical activities and exercise
  • Social support and relationships
  • Activities that are fun and pleasurable
  • Activities that provide personal expression and creativity
  • Activities that give our lives meaning or purpose

If one or two of these things drop out, we can get by, but if many of these are reduced or eliminated, we become bored, despondent, and even depressed. Take a little time to evaluate your week and identify which areas are satisfied and which areas are missing.

Challenging or learning activities:

There are many possible activities that fall into this category. Have you read something challenging? Tried a new and complex recipe? Learned to play an instrument? Built something? Tried a new hobby? 

What have you done in the past week that challenged you or led you to learn something new? The more the activity really absorbed your mind, the more helpful it is likely to be. What can you do next week to meet the need for mental challenge and learning?

Physical activities and exercise: 

Stay-at-home recommendations and social distancing can make this more challenging, but it is still essential. If you live somewhere with more temperate weather, get outside, go for walks, jog, or ride a bike. Finding something to get you moving will help with your mental well-being. There are still activities you can do if your weather is cold, rainy, or snowy. You can join an online exercise class, go sledding, build a snowman, or even invest in a used treadmill or exercise bike.

Analyze what you’ve done in the past week to meet your need for physical activity. What can you do this coming week?

We also can’t forget about our basic self-care. Has your diet been healthy? Are you getting regular sleep? If not, take the time to reevaluate how you can better incorporate self-care and physical activity into your weekly routine.

Social support and relationships:

Social interaction is extremely influential to our mental health. Since the pandemic took away our holiday traditions, parties, and even coffee breaks at work, finding ways to maintain social support and relationships should be prioritized. Who have you talked with or spent time with in the past week? Has “Zoom fatigue” led you to spend less time engaging with others? Who have you talked with on the phone or had good text conversations with?

Think about how this need was met in the past week and what more you could do next week. Who could you call? Who could you invite on an outdoor walk with masks?

Find time for fun:

With many of us still working from home, it can be difficult to shut off when the day is done. However, boundaries are important, and making time for the activities that we find enjoyable will help our overall mental well-being.

What did you do this past week that was fun and enjoyable? Did you play any games? Watch a funny movie? What made you laugh? What could you do next week to meet this need? 

Activities that provide personal expression and creativity:

This can encompass a wide array of activities, such as art, music, writing, woodworking, tying flies, needlework, sewing, baking, or even rearranging furniture. Find things to do that will exercise the creative side of your brain. What have you done in the past week that involved creativity? What can you do next week that involves creative expression?

Finding Meaning in Loss, Grief, and Saying Goodbye

They are particularly open to learning from this perspective, aware more than they ever imagined of the fragility of human life as they are surrounded by the harsh reality of death in the global pandemic. As their teacher, I want to bring in elders who can share their wisdom of how to live in the face of death.

Isabel Stenzel Byrnes is a young elder who was supposed to die many times because she has cystic fibrosis, a fatal lung disease. But she hasn’t died and has survived to the age of 49 with the help of a double lung transplant. She was left behind by her twin sister Ana who also survived cystic fibrosis and two double lung transplants before succumbing to colon cancer in September 2013. A few months earlier Ana and Isa had given a Tedx talk together, and after Ana’s passing, Isa gave another talk, this time alone. Those of us who knew the twins as “the power of two,” marveled at her ability to share her story, but she explained:

“I have the strength to stand before you and talk about loss because I spent my entire life practicing the art of saying goodbye.”

Isa is a master of loss. She has lost countless friends to cystic fibrosis and credits them with teaching her to be the best person she could be through loving and being loved. But Isa also reminded us that losing someone we love is the hardest experience any of us will have to go through, because it goes against our basic instinct; we are wired for attachment in a world where everyone is temporary.

Isa offered the lessons she has learned through her own struggles, kidding those who might be in denial, “if you are not planning on losing any loved ones, these lessons don’t apply to you.”

Her first lesson is that we are more than our emotions and are capable of being mindful of our feelings, observing them likes the ocean’s waves and not being paralyzed or overwhelmed by them; to go with the flow. “Trust that we can be stronger than our sorrows.”

The second lesson is that we can find purpose in all of this losing. Fully experiencing her own pain enables her to be more compassionate of others’ pain. Isa personally finds purpose by working as a hospice social worker where wisdom she has gained from her life experiences provides peace of mind to those in terminal stages of dying. She also leads therapeutic writing groups for those grieving a loss.

Isa warns us that although we may wish it was clear and orderly, there is no right or wrong way to say goodbye, because dying is chaotic and illogic. She says that grief is an art, not a science and we make sense of what happened and find purpose in our own individual ways. She notes that her own Japanese and German cultures influence her to be stoic, reflective, and persevering, putting one foot in front of the other.

How the immune system watches over the brain

Generations of students have learned that the central nervous system has “immune privilege.” This means that — to an extent — the immune system tolerates the presence of foreign proteins, or antigens, and tissue in the brain and spinal cord.

The immune system cannot respond in the usual way to infections, injuries, or tumors in the brain and spinal cord, because the blood-brain barrier prevents immune cells from entering or leaving.

Despite this, scientists know that inflammation plays a pivotal role in many neurological and psychiatric conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, MS, autism, and schizophrenia.

So the question remains, if there is no exchange of information, how does the immune system respond to and influence the brain in such a broad range of conditions?

A team of scientists led by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO, have discovered that immune cells are stationed in the dura mater, which is the tough outer membrane of the brain.

From this vantage point, they monitor the cerebrospinal fluid draining from the brain. If they detect the molecular calling cards of infection, cancer, or injury, they can mount an immune response.

The research appears in the journal Cell.

Immunity and the brain

“Every organ in the body is being surveilled by the immune system,” says senior author Dr. Jonathan Kipnis, Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Immunology.

He explains:

“If there is a tumor, an injury, an infection anywhere in the body, the immune system has to know about it. But people say the exception is the brain; if you have a problem in the brain, the immune system just lets it happen. That never made sense to me. What we have found is that there is indeed immune surveillance of the brain — it is just happening outside the brain.”

In 2015, a study in mice revealed a network of vessels in the dura mater that drains cerebrospinal fluid from the brain into lymph nodes in the neck. Also in 2015, a study led by Dr. Kipnis recorded similar findings in both mice and humans.

Lymph nodes are part of an extensive network of fluid-filled vessels known as the lymphatic system. An accumulation of pathogens in lymph nodes can lead to the initiation of an immune response.

This suggested a more intimate connection between the brain and immune system than previously suspected. However, it remained unclear exactly where and how immune cells surveil the contents of the cerebrospinal fluid as it drains from the brain.

Dr. Kipnis and his colleagues knew that the lymph vessels that carry fluid from the brain run alongside blood-filled cavities, or sinuses, in the dura mater.

Crucially, the walls of these sinuses are more permeable than the blood vessels of the blood-brain barrier.

Following up this clue, the scientists showed in their experiments that small molecules from the brain and immune cells accumulate in the sinuses.

Some of the cells, known as antigen presenting cells, which include dendritic cells, pick up suspicious molecules and present them to other immune cells, called T cells, which patrol the body in the bloodstream.

When they bind to these suspect molecules, the T cells can initiate an immune response.

14 Natural Ways to Improve Your Memory

Genetics plays a role in memory loss, especially in serious neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. However, research has shown that diet and lifestyle have a major impact on memory too.

Here are 14 evidence-based ways to improve your memory naturally.

1. Eat Less Added Sugar

Eating too much added sugar has been linked to many health issues and chronic diseases, including cognitive decline.

Research has shown that a sugar-laden diet can lead to poor memory and reduced brain volume, particularly in the area of the brain that stores short-term memory.

For example, one study of more than 4,000 people found that those with a higher intake of sugary beverages like soda had lower total brain volumes and poorer memories on average compared to people who consumed less sugar.

Cutting back on sugar not only helps your memory but also improves your overall health.

2. Try a Fish Oil Supplement

Fish oil is rich in the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

These fats are important for overall health and have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, reduce inflammation, relieve stress and anxiety, and slow mental decline.

Many studies have shown that consuming fish and fish oil supplements may improve memory, especially in older people. 

One study of 36 older adults with mild cognitive impairment found that short-term and working memory scores improved significantly after they took concentrated fish oil supplements for 12 months.

Another recent review of 28 studies showed that when adults with mild symptoms of memory loss took supplements rich in DHA and EPA, like fish oil, they experienced improved episodic memory.

Both DHA and EPA are vital to the health and functioning of the brain and also help reduce inflammation in the body, which has been linked to cognitive decline.

3. Make Time for Meditation

The practice of meditation may positively affect your health in many ways. 

It is relaxing and soothing, and has been found to reduce stress and pain, lower blood pressure and even improve memory.

In fact, meditation has been shown to increase gray matter in the brain. Gray matter contains neuron cell bodies. 

As you age, gray matter declines, which negatively impacts memory and cognition.

Meditation and relaxation techniques have been shown to improve short-term memory in people of all ages, from people in their 20s to the elderly.

For example, one study demonstrated that Taiwanese college students who engaged in meditation practices like mindfulness had significantly better spatial working memory than students who did not practice meditation.

Spatial working memory is the ability to hold and process information in your mind about the positions of objects in space.

4. Maintain a Healthy Weight 

Maintaining a healthy body weight is essential for well-being and is one of the best ways to keep your body and mind in top condition.

Several studies have established obesity as a risk factor for cognitive decline.

Interestingly, being obese can actually cause changes to memory-associated genes in the brain, negatively affecting memory.

Obesity can also lead to insulin resistance and inflammation, both of which can negatively impact the brain.

A study of 50 people between the ages of 18 and 35 found that a higher body mass index was associated with significantly worse performance on memory tests .

Obesity is also associated with a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive disease that destroys memory and cognitive function .

5. Get Enough Sleep

Lack of proper sleep has been associated with poor memory for quite some time.

Sleep plays an important role in memory consolidation, a process in which short-term memories are strengthened and transformed into long-lasting memories.

Research shows that if you are sleep deprived, you could be negatively impacting your memory.

For example, one study looked at the effects of sleep in 40 children between the ages of 10 and 14.

One group of children was trained for memory tests in the evening, then tested the following morning after a night’s sleep. The other group was trained and tested on the same day, with no sleep between training and testing.

The group that slept between training and testing performed 20% better on the memory tests .

Another study found that nurses working the night shift made more mathematical errors and that 68% of them scored lower on memory tests compared to nurses working the day shift.

Health experts recommend adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night for optimal health.

Walk Off Your Anxiety

I woke up feeling stressed today. I hadn’t gotten enough sleep, so that was probably the main cause, but I’ve also been unusually busy with work. As I got up and started to move around, I could feel the telltale flutter of anxiety in my chest. It wasn’t tied to anything specific that’s going on, it was just there.

Unless I did something about it, it was going to bother me all day. I had enough to do already. I didn’t need or want that yucky anxious feeling following me around.

As I’ve written about before, low blood sugar can cause anxiety symptoms. I’d already had some food with a good dose of protein and fat, so that wasn’t the cause today. I’d also done my morning mindfulness practice, but still felt off. What else could I do, to change how I was feeling? I decided to go for a power walk.

There hasn’t been a lot of rigorous, well-designed research about the impact of walking on clinical anxiety. However, a 2018 review article that looked at 15 randomized controlled trials found that aerobic exercise was indeed effective, especially if done at a higher intensity level.

I often share the story of a trauma expert whose lecture I attended at a conference. She told the whole audience that she suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and that her mandatory morning exercise routine was the one thing that kept her anxiety at bay. If she exercised first thing, it was as if her anxiety wasn’t even a thing.

I recommend exercise to all my mental health patients, and instruct them to pay attention to how they feel after. Over and over, I hear what a powerful impact it has on their moods and their ability to cope with stress.

I made sure that today’s walk was truly a “power” walk. When I’m stressed, upset, angry or anxious, a good brisk stompy walk (easily done with big boots on a snowy path, as I did today) is enormously helpful. I also chose a route with uphill climbs, and walked as quickly as I could.

Though I walked for about forty minutes, it took a while for the stress and anxiety to dissipate. On the return leg of the walk, I could feel it starting to lift.

It wasn’t until I was back home, though, and chatting with my husband about some (mildly stressful) home repair issues, that I was realized that I was suddenly in a great mood. Whereas the home repair topic might have normally made me feel a little stressed or burdened, I felt positively sunny about it all. It was really striking.

It’s now a couple of hours later, and the anxious tension in my chest has been solidly replaced by that sunny optimism. It’s hard to imagine that I ever felt anxious, I feel so different now. I also feel much more awake, and no longer feel that uncomfortable tension that comes from a lack of sleep.

If you’re an anxious type, I really recommend that you make exercise a part of your daily life. The brisker, the better. Pay attention to how good it makes you feel, and you’ll become an exercise enthusiast for life.

9 Ways to Cultivate Emotional Wellness

Feeling bad in the context of stress is normal. So cultivating emotional wellness is not about getting rid of negative emotions. It’s more about working with our emotions so that we use the negative ones and capitalize on the positive ones. Here are some strategies to help you cultivate more emotional wellness.

1. Explore your current level of emotional wellness

To first get a better idea of your current level of emotional wellness, take this well-being quiz. You can discover the aspects of your wellbeing that you might benefit from working on.

2. Get to know yourself better

Engaging in self-reflection is a fantastic way to cultivate emotional wellness. Think about what areas of your life could use some attention. Try to notice the things that bother you most or seem to cause you the most trouble. By becoming aware of yourself, you can more easily make the changes that can help increase your emotional wellness.

3. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness involves awareness of ourselves, others, and our emotions. It also involves acceptance (or non-judgment) of these things. When we accept our emotions, we can prevent ourselves from feeling embarrassed or guilty about having these emotions. So that cuts off a whole layer of negative emotions. Instead, we just let our emotions be as they are. We only focus on changing the things that we actually can change.

4. Strengthen the positive connections in your brain

Any time we activate particular regions of our brains they get stronger. In fact, research shows that training that teaches people to focus on neutral content instead of threatening content can reduce anxiety. So activating the connections in the brain for positive information can potentially make these regions stronger. This may be a good tool for emotional wellness, to decrease the brain’s reliance on negativity and focus more on positivity. One way to do this may be to memorize positive words. Here’s a positive word workbook to help with this practice. 

5. Develop a self-care routine

Developing a self-care routine that includes science-based relaxation techniques can be beneficial for emotional wellness. By helping the body better manage stress and decrease HPA-axis activation, we can feel better, calmer, and more “well”.

​6. Start a gratitude practice

Gratitude is a fantastic tool for cultivating emotional wellness. Gratitude can improve our social relationships and make us feel happier. Some ways to increase gratitude include making a gratitude list, writing a gratitude letter to someone, or starting a gratitude journal. All of these techniques can help us cultivate our gratitude and emotional wellness. 

You Can Actually Build Brain Resilience: Strategies

In the face of adversity and hardship, most cope as best they can. What if you could change the structure and function of your brain to become even more stress-resilient?

Resilience has been defined as the ability to deal with adversity, be it small daily stressors or unexpected traumatic events. More specifically, resilience is seen as having the capacity to return to successful adaptation and functioning even after a period of disorganization and disruption.

Most often, resilience has been considered a function of our ability to call upon enduring personal attributes as physical strength, intelligence, interpersonal strengths, independence, sense of humor, creativity and spirituality.

While these are no doubt valuable assets for coping and stress reduction, recent research offers good news–You can expand on these. You can actually build resilience.

Building Brain Resilience–Findings

According to scientists, Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney, resilience is actually tied to brain function and we have the power to change the structure and function of our brains to become more stress-resilient.

When we face traumatic events we go into fight/flight responses because our brain activates the neural pathways of fear. Daily worry and stress do a similar thing. Ruminating about negative events, faulting yourself for mistakes, believing you cannot risk change, can activate the same neural pathways of fear that a pandemic or imminent hurricane invites. Essentially the more we activate the stress response and the neural fear pathways, the more this becomes our default setting.

One of the things these scientists report is that new techniques like functional magnetic resonance imagining reveal that resilient brains shut off the stress response and return to baseline quickly. 

For example, scientist Martin Paulus found that imagining of the brains of Navy Seals shows that they don’t get glued to the traumatic or emotional experience. They “ let go” and move on to the next mission. Essentially they focus less on the negatives and respond with alternative neural pathways.

Can We Do That?

What these scientists are proposing is that we can train our brains to build and strengthen different connections that don’t keep activating the fear circuit. We can train ourselves to “ Let Go” of the negative and the frightening, so that we can move forward despite adversity.

Neurologically “ Let Go”

This is not the first time any of us have heard the suggestion to “ Let Go.” We have heard and often been inspired by it for decades:

You can only lose what you cling to. (Buddha)

There’s an important difference between giving up and letting go. (Jessica Hatchigan)

“Letting Go” of The Negative is Difficult

Our focus on negative experiences persists because such experiences actually involve more brain activity than positive ones. This is called the Negative Bias.  

Another reason that letting go of the negative is difficult is that many of us have the mistaken belief that if we continue think about the disaster or the possibility of losing our job, we will be able to prevent it from happening again or be prepared for it. 

The reality is that it doesn’t prepare us–it frightens us. Ruminating about the mistake, the failed mission or what should have happened keeps us in a dysregulated state.

New Perspective

It is worth considering that letting go of the frightening is not just “letting go” – It is making possible the activation of alternative neural paths and that equates to having a place to go other than fear in the rough times. It equates to resilience.

Strategies to Build Resilience

Drawing upon Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney’s book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, here are three strategies that stimulate brain change and resiliency building.

Use Realistic Optimism

Optimism is considered to be a fuel that ignites resilience and empowers other resilience factors. That said, there is a very big difference between blind optimism and realistic optimism. 

Blind or unrealistic optimism underestimates risk, overestimates ability and results in inadequate preparation. For example:

 A group of young adults believe that if they only go out to the bars with each other, they won’t contract Covid-19.

Realistic optimism, as opposed to blind optimism, is active not passive. The person using realistic optimism does not miss the negatives but disengages from problems that appear unsolvable and attends to problems they can solve. For example:

4 Soft and Soothing Breathing Techniques

In fact, Yoga—together with other ancient disciplines—has always seen the breath as a source of mystical connection between physicality and spirit, and the most tangible representation of the vital energy—pranaPrana, known as Chi in Taoist tradition, is believed to be the life force that animates the entire universe.

The Benefits of Conscious Breathing

When you are under stress, you often hold your breath or breathe very fast. When you are relaxed, your exhalations are usually longer, deeper, and bring a sense of relief. However, you rarely notice the nuances of your breathing; in reality, there are only two ways of breathing: conscious and unconscious. Human breathing is controlled by your autonomous nervous system, which means that most of the time you breathe unconsciously, and do not regulate the quality or speed of your breaths. 

In the past few decades, western scientists have been exploring how the nervous system can be affected with controlled, conscious breathing. For example, by regulating the quality of breaths—length, rhythm, intensity—you can switch from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system, and vice versa.

You do not even have to believe in Chi or Prana to feel the benefits of conscious breathing. While it usually takes some time to see the progress when healing the body with medical herbs or meditation, conscious breathing can give you immediate results that can be easily measured by heart rate, blood pressure, etc.

Numerous scientists, including Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD, coauthor of The Healing Power of the Breath, and Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), have been exploring the impact of conscious breathing on the nervous system, hormones, homeostasis, resilience, and mental health. If, in the past, breathwork was mostly connected to the obscure mystical practices of the East, today it is a regular therapeutic tool used in positive psychotherapy, positive psychology, stress management, MBSR, dance/movement therapy, and many other fields.

Breathe Softly

But is it enough just to breathe consciously? What is the key to real healing breathing? The answer is simple: it is its softness. To breathe softly means to breathe consciously but with an intensity that is just right for you. Softness is guided by intuition, and intuition knows better. 

Today, many people talk about the importance of breathing deep, but in most cases, it is its lightness, sweetness, and stillness that makes breathing feel so good. In a world full of stress and anxiety, you may tend to breathe aggressively—too fast or too much. So, switching to softness and sweetness can help you relax and heal.

Breathe Less

On my pilgrimage in the Himalayas, my Yoga and Buddhist teachers always encouraged me to breathe less. Most of them were mountain people who actually breathe quite differently than people who live in lower altitudes. For the mountain people, breathing less happens quite naturally due to the different oxygen density and even some oxygen deprivation, which actually can be stimulating in small doses. Soft and soothing breathwork usually involves practices that switch the body into the parasympathetic mode, activate restorative processes, and promote deep relaxation.

Breathe less, think less, talk less, worry less—that is what I learned in the Himalayas. It seems that happiness of those mountain people is rooted in softness, calmness, and the ability to relax, even when things go wrong. Let the softness of your breath be your first step toward happiness.

The following are examples of soft and soothing breathwork that you can try at home.

1. Anapanasati (Basics)

It is believed that the Anapanasati technique was created by the Buddha himself. The initial practice is simple, and its purpose is for you to feel the sensations caused by the movements of your breath in your body.

Try it: 

  • Sit or lie down in stillness with your eyes closed. Observe the natural flow of your breath.
  • To keep your mind focused, count your inhales and exhales from one to ten. Make sure that your breathing is neutral, soft, and sweet.
  • Practice as long as it is pleasant.

2. Equal Breathing

The main principle of this exercise is to create an equal pattern of inhaling, suspending, exhaling, and suspending. For example, you can try a count of 2-2-2-2 or 3-3-3-3. Note: Do not hold your breath for longer than five-six counts.

Try it:

  • Get comfortable, close your eyes, and find your natural breath.
  • Allow your body to relax and feel safe.
  • When you are ready, inhale through the nose to a count of two, then suspend your breath on two, exhale on two, and then suspend your breath again on the same count before your next inhale.
  • Repeat for 8-10 rounds.

3. Dirgha Pranayama

This breathing exercise involves slowly filling your lungs as much as possible. In fact, dirgha means “long” in Sanskrit, and is often referred to as “the complete breath”, “the yogic breath”, or “the three-part breath.”

Try it:

  • Lie down on your back, get comfortable, and put one hand on your belly and the other on your upper chest.
  • Close your eyes and start observing your breathing. Make your breathing even and smooth.
  • Now, inhale slowly into the lower abdomen and pelvic area, and feel your hand rise.
  • Then, continue inhaling into the mid-section of the torso, expanding the diaphragm and the ribs.
  • Finally, bring your breath into the upper chest and shoulders. Feel how your second hand rises up.
  • Start exhaling slowly in the reverse order, releasing the upper chest first, then the diaphragm and ribs, and finally the lower abdomen.
  • Expelling all the air, allow yourself to feel relief.
  • Pause if you need to and then repeat a few more cycles at a slow pace.

4. Parasympathetic Breathing and the Vagus Nerve

One of the most fundamentally important elements in the restorative parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve. This nerve works as a connector between many vital organs, linking the brain to the tongue, vocal cords, heart, lungs, digestive tract, and various hormone glands. It influences the internal processes of the body (e.g., inflammation, blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, and absorption of nutrients) and supports homeostasis and immunity. Working on the softness of the breath, especially with parasympathetic breathing exercises, helps to tone the vagus nerve and activate self-healing powers of the body.

Try It:

  • Get in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and start observing your breathing.
  • When you are ready, inhale for a count of two, hold your breath in for a count of two, and then exhale gently, counting out to four.
  • After you exhale fully, hold the breath again from two to four counts.
  • Keep your breathing round and smooth. The main principle of parasympathetic breathing is elongating exhalations that become at least twice as long as your inhalations. You can experiment by creating different patterns, for example, try a “2-2-4-2, 4-2-8-2” or any other pattern that works for you.
  • Repeat 8 to 10 times. Never exaggerate or push too hard. Remember, it is all about doing less, but feeling more.

Breathwork can be a powerful therapeutic practice. Try these four breathing techniques and let the softness of your breath be your first step toward healing and relaxation.

Addiction: 5 Early Warning Signs

The earlier the diagnosis, the better the prognosis. This medical principle applies to addiction, and the importance of recognizing early warning signs cannot be overstated. Addiction is a progressive disorder that, if left to run its course, gets worse, not better. When someone has lost their personality along with family, friends, and a job, they have lost many of life’s most important incentives for getting better.

The best-known symptoms of addiction are late-stage physical symptoms—the red face of an alcoholic, the emaciation of someone who is addicted to crack, the facial sores of meth users. The earliest warning signs, however, are changes in behavior that family members, friends, and colleagues can identify.

Rationalization and Projection

“I always had a convincing reason to drink,” remembers a 45-year-old patient in long-term recovery from an uncontrollable craving for alcohol. “First I drank to be social, then to relax after work. Next I drank to sleep, and then to forget. None of these explanations seemed like rationalizations. I had real needs and believed only alcohol could meet them.”

As craving deepens, addicted individuals begin organizing their lives, often in rigid ways, around the need for uninterrupted access to alcohol and other drugs. They may become increasingly irritated by schedule changes and blame their odd behavior on parents, partners, their children, or an unfair employer. Family members are especially vulnerable targets and will often change their own behavior to placate addicted loved ones.

Mood Swings and Personality Changes

While addicted individuals can be highly critical of other people, their own behavior may be unpredictable and can quickly change from jubilant euphoria to angry suspicion. When an addicted individual is “on the wagon” or trying to cut back, mood swings become more pronounced.

At the extreme end is the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome. For reasons not yet known, some people experience a personality change when they are drinking or using other drugs. At its worst, this transformation resembles the presence of two different personalities in one body. A loved one disappears, and an out-of-control stranger takes her place.

One of my patients was a highly moral person who, when drinking, watched pornographic movies in front of his children. Another was a kind father and husband until he drank heavily. He spent one European vacation roaming the streets in his underwear, knocking on doors and challenging people to fight. His children and wife barricaded themselves behind a door, terrified that he would make good on his promise to kill them.

When they returned home, his wife asked me to help with an intervention. It was successful in part because her husband was shocked to hear about his behavior, of which he had no memory. He willingly went to a treatment program, but it took many years before he was able to restore a relationship of trust with his family members.

Deteriorating Relationships

When I could control my drinking, I could still charm a crowd and make new friends. But when I partied, I often became a raging lunatic. One night, I taunted some fraternity guys who were in mourning for a frat brother killed in a car wreck. They jumped me in an alley, breaking my nose and leaving me with a deep gash above my eye. Except for a stranger’s intervention, they might have stomped me to death.

—James B., co-author with Dr. Spickard of The Craving Brain

Many people, like my co-author James B., begin their journey into addiction as the life of the party. As their craving deepens and their behavior deteriorates, their social circle narrows to other users or addicted individuals, feeding the delusion that heavy drinking and drug use is normal behavior. In the end, even these friends may disappear, leaving them isolated and alone.

“As an addicted person, I was a consumer of relationships and people,” says James. “When I wasn’t drinking, I was lots of fun and could easily land a good job, win people over, and make new friends. Then I would get loaded, and all my anger came pouring out. People walked away from me, or I from them.”

“For years, I went from one circle to the next, not connecting my broken relationships to my behavior and drug use. It was always everyone else’s fault—their loss, not mine.”

The family life of addicted individuals is often marred by sudden or unexplained changes, including separation and divorce. Children may run away, go to live with relatives, or otherwise prematurely separate themselves from home.

Poor Work Performance

Most addicted individuals take great pains to keep their jobs, in part to pay for their drugs. Sooner or later, however, their work performance deteriorates. They find it harder to concentrate and make simple mistakes. They may become moody or aggressive toward fellow workers and show up late for work, or not at all—especially on Mondays or after holidays.

For most addicted individuals, job-related problems are the beginning of the end. They experience a snowballing decline in physical, emotional, and intellectual function that plunges them into ever deepening levels of chaos. For many, the endgame will be a long period of suffering and disability, and a premature, addiction-related death.

Crisis of the Spirit

The dramatic alterations in brain function caused by uncontrollable craving create profound changes in the psychological and spiritual lives of addicted persons. Many find themselves living in the deep shadows of life, strangers not just to their families, friends, and colleagues but to themselves.

“By my mid-twenties I was totally living in the dark side of my personality,” says James. “A part of me still wanted to quit using, but it no longer seemed like the real me. When an inner voice told me to get my life back on track, I wondered, Who is this stranger talking?

The emergence of a shadow self can begin even before heavy users cross the line into addiction. Mood-altering drugs alter the frontal lobe of the brain, affecting judgment, impulse control, and inhibition. The breakdown of this ‘behavior safety system’ leaves heavy drinkers and users more vulnerable to the weaknesses that plague us all—anger, self-pity, greed, hatred, violence, inertia, and sexual betrayals, to name only a few.

When heavy users cross the line into craving, they may abandon their spiritual life, giving up practices like prayer and meditation and severing their connection with a faith community. James, by nature, was an unusually conscientious and spiritually reflective young man. At the precocious age of 11, without influence from his parents, he went searching for a church to attend. He even became an acolyte.

By his early twenties, James’s moral life was in a steep decline. He habitually told lies, verbally abused friends and strangers, and borrowed money that he knew he couldn’t pay back. The disinhibiting qualities of alcohol made it easier for him to use cocaine, which he had vowed never to do. Before long, he was gambling heavily and selling drugs.

Many addicted individuals—to their own shame and horror—find themselves in a similar downward spiral. They start hiding bottles or drugs, and lie or steal to keep their drug pipeline open. They show up for work under the influence, even when they hold the health and safety of other people in their hands. Some emotionally or physically abuse their spouses and children.

Despite appearing calm or confident, addicted individuals who violate their personal values almost always experience a deep sense of failure and humiliation. “It’s impossible to describe the emotional pain experienced by an addict,” my friend and colleague, Dr. Jordan, told me. “No matter how arrogant or self-confident he may seem, his primary emotions are shame and self-hatred.”

These feelings trap an addicted individual in a self-perpetuating cycle of drug use and self-loathing. Some, like my colleagues Andrew and Sara, take their own lives. In one study, two-thirds of all suicides by people under the age of 30 were connected to substance abuse or addiction. Others, like James, experience a living death, falling into ever deeper levels of despair.

Minding your memory

Everyone experiences the occasional “senior moment” as they age. You may misplace everyday items, fail to recall the name of someone you just met, or forget to do something. While these memory slips can be embarrassing and stressful, they usually don’t mean that you are on a path to dementia.

“Some degree of memory lapses is a normal part of aging,” says Lydia Cho, a neuropsychologist with Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. “You can’t expect to hold on to all information you’ve gathered throughout your life, whether it was long ago or recent. It’s not realistic or adaptive.”

Factors at play

There are times when frequent forgetfulness should be checked out by your doctor, as it could be a symptom of an underlying treatable health problem. For example, insomnia, anxiety, and depression can affect brain functions, including memory.

If your lapses become more frequent or severe, or if they affect your daily life (like forgetting to pay bills or take medicine), your doctor may recommend a neuropsychological evaluation. In that exam, a specialist assesses your memory and other cognitive skills, such as attention, executive function, language, and visuospatial abilities.

Brain assistance

Even though most memory lapses are not cause for concern, you can take measures to manage and improve your existing brain skills. Adopting various lifestyle behaviors is one way (see “Manage your memory with DANCERS”). For specific types of everyday memory issues, adopting certain strategies can help you retain and recall information or navigate memory hiccups when they arise.

Manage your memory with DANCERS. There are steps you can take to enhance your memory and help to delay or even prevent dementia. Lydia Cho, a neuropsychologist with Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital, suggests focusing on DANCERS, a set of lifestyle criteria created by Dr. James Ellison, former director of the geriatric psychiatry program at McLean.
D: Disease management. Maintain a healthy weight, don’t smoke, and keep blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels in line to help preserve cognitive function.
A: Activity. Any cardio exercise, like walking, swimming, and playing sports, is good for brain health. “Cardio can increase energy in the brain by improving oxygen and blood flow,” says Cho.
N: Nutrition. Poor nutrition leads to poor brain health. The DASH, MIND, and Mediterranean diets emphasize whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fatty fish, and healthy fats.
C: Cognitive stimulation. “Challenge your brain regularly,” says Cho. “The more you engage your brain, the more likely you can retain memory.”
E: Engagement. Research continues to show a reliable link between isolation and lower cognitive function. Any kind of social engagement is helpful.
R: Relaxation. Your brain needs adequate downtime. Do activities that you find relaxing, whether it’s exercise, yoga, meditation, reading, or bathing.
S: Sleep. Sleep is when your brain cleans out toxins. To get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night, practice good sleep hygiene. Examples: Set a sleep schedule and stick to it. Avoid any electronic devices for at least an hour before bedtime. Don’t eat after dinner time.

The following is a look at the memory obstacles you are most likely to encounter and ways to deal with them.

Absent-mindedness. This happens when you multitask and don’t concentrate on less critical tasks. (Think of the stereotypical absent-minded professor who can recall complex formulas but keeps misplacing his glasses.) Sometimes, the seemingly small details can have significant consequences, like forgetting to take medicine or leaving the house without your phone.

What you can do: When faced with multiple tasks, put them in order of importance and then focus on only one task at a time before moving on to the next. Setting up routines and reminders also can help prevent absent-mindedness.

For example, create a memory table by your front door or in the bedroom where you place all your vital objects, like your phone, medicines, and glasses. To make sure you take your medicines on schedule, use a pillbox labelled with dates and times, or set alarms on your smart phone to remind you.

Blocking. This is referred to as the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, when you can’t recall a name or specific detail. “You know the information, but you can’t immediately place a label on it,” says Cho. “This happens to everyone at times, no matter a person’s age, and isn’t cause for concern unless it becomes a more frequent occurrence.”

What you can do: Recalling names of people is the most common type of blocking. Cho suggests trying to associate a person with something that may help trigger name recall, like his or her hobby, work, background, or spouse. “Many times you know more detail about a person beyond his or her name,” she says. Another option is to associate the person with someone who has the same name or a similar one, like a relative, celebrity, or movie character. “You can also connect the name with a rhyming word or song,” says Cho. For large functions where you know the attendees, like family gatherings or meetings, rehearse people’s names beforehand.

Transience. Transience is the loss of certain memories — typically facts or events — over time. “The brain decides what information becomes less crucial or integral,” says Cho. For instance, you can memorize a phone number to use immediately, but then you don’t retain it because it’s no longer needed.

What you can do: If you want to retain certain memories, try to keep that information emotionally charged. “If you believe it’s important, your brain will likely hang on to it longer,” she says. You can do this by revisiting the memory through sharing it in conversation, recording it for future reference, and reviewing photographs.

Misattribution. Here, you recall accurate information from an event but can’t attribute it to the correct source, or you recognize a familiar face but place the person wrongly. Another type of is misattribution is false recognition, which scammers often exploit. “People try to convince you that you owe money, and you don’t trust your memory and second-guess yourself,” says Cho.

What you can do: If you have trouble connecting information with a source, write down the details of an event when they occur. You can also record the information (most smartphones have voice memo capabilities), or take pictures or videos. “But keep in mind that many times what you know is more important than where it came from, so focus on that,” says Cho.

To protect yourself from scams, never share financial information like account or credit card numbers on the phone or over the Internet. If you have doubts about an inquiry, and don’t trust your memory, run it by a friend or family member to ensure its legitimacy.

Self-Care and Gratitude: How They Go Hand in Hand

For many, the glass seems half empty.  With loved ones tragically passing or loneliness seeping into our daily moods or responsibilities of kids overtaking many parents’ schedules, there is reason to consider gratitude in our daily regimen of self-care.

Turning to gratitude can, in part, help us see the glass as half full. 

Here are three ways gratitude promotes self-care:

1. Gratitude promotes self-care via healthier living.

A brief yet regular gratitude practice promises more benefits than may be expected.  For example, college students who write about what they’re grateful for weekly for 10 weeks also exercise more than those who engage in other types of writing.  A gratitude practice promotes exercise, better nutrition, better sleep, and not smoking, among other things.

2. Gratitude promotes self-care via selflessness and humility.

Self-care via gratitude holds benefits for social well-being as well.  Among three hundred college students, those picked to write gratitude letters showed greater stimulation in the reward region of their brains when observing money given to charity.  A regular gratitude practice, in turn, motivates us to seek kindness and generosity to reward our minds as well as to improve circumstances for others; the latter, improving the lives of others, makes us more selfless and humbler. 

3. Gratitude promotes self-care via meaningful connection to others.

Another benefit for social well-being was seen among adults and college students in the U.S. and Korea asked to perform two gratitude activities: remembering a grateful experience or writing a gratitude letter.  Other participants engaged in activities such as hiking or shopping.  In contrast to the two groups, participants exercising gratitude felt more connected to others.  (Loneliness, which is rampant due to COVID lockdowns, for example, might be tackled via gratitude practices.)  Feeling socially connected in the time of COVID could go a long way to promoting self-care as well as societal care. 

Countries are each addressing COVID health consequences, but what about the self-care and societal care that’s needed as well?  Using a gratitude practice can address the needs of members feeling unfairly affected by the pandemic.  Not only does gratitude help at this critical time, but gratitude is also useful to individuals and societies outside of times of public health crisis.  Hopefully, we apply such a practice daily or weekly to reap its countless benefits. 

What are some ways you can practice gratitude?

  • Use your social media platforms, or alternatively a journal, to list what you are grateful for weekly.  Try to keep this up for over six weeks.
  • Say thank you in-person to someone you care about.
  • Say thank you to yourself before you go to bed, recounting three things you appreciate about yourself.
  • If possible, appreciate the love shown to you by others by showing it back in ways shown in 1 and 2 above.

How to De-escalate Conflict

And while conflict isn’t bad per se–talking through the issues that will inevitably arise is probably a good idea–there are ways we can do it better, so each of us isn’t left sulking in the corner until we find a vaccine. 

When things get tense, here are five ways to deescalate conflict and salvage your relationships: 

Accept Influence: Couple’s therapist John Gottman’s conducted groundbreaking studies that predict which couples will get divorced. His findings? Couples were more likely to stay together when, during times of conflict, husbands accepted their wife’s influence. Accepting influence looks like the opposite of defensiveness; when the other person has a complaint, instead of telling them why they’re wrong, tell them why they’re right. Share “you have a good point” and look for things to agree with them about. When you accept influence, you’re not out to win the conflict. You’re out to find a solution that works for both of you. 

Take a Break: To understand why taking a break helps, let’s visit psychiatry professor Dan Siegel’s concept of the window of tolerance. According to Siegel, we all have a “zone of optimal arousal” at which we are functioning at our best; we’re able to think rationally and consider others’ perspectives. However, when we’re stressed–like when our toddler upchucks on our new shirt, or when our dog starts humping our leg during our zoom work meeting–we exceed this optimal zone. We may be hyper-aroused (feeling on edge; ready to fight or run) or hypo-aroused (shut down; feeling numb). Siegel argues that when we’re outside our zone of optimal arousal, our goal is not to keep arguing, because that will be futile or even damaging. It is to calm ourselves down. One great way to do this is to take a break. Returning to the conflict when we feel calm will lead us to blame one another less and listen to one another more.

Affirm One Another: Another gem from the couple’s researcher John Gottman is the concept of “the magic ratio.” Gottman found that couples that last have a 5;1 ratio of positive to negative comments. More generally, Gottman’s couples therapy technique addresses not only working through negative experiences between couples but also building up positive ones. When we find ways to affirm others around us, we’ll be better prepared when disagreements inevitably arise. We start preparing to have healthy conflict before the disagreement happens by weaving a safety net of love and respect for one another. Expressing fondness and appreciation, sharing compliments, and showing admiration are all ways to do this. 

Name the Underlying Emotions: Research finds that the simple act of naming emotions deactivates our amygdala, the part of the brain activated when we’re angry or stressed. We can use this to our advantage in conflict by trying to name the emotion the other person might be feeling during the conflict. Instead of responding to the content of their message, we can state the feelings behind it. So for example, if your roommate says “I can’t think because you’re so loud during your zoom meetings,” instead of defending yourself, you might reflect, “So you’re saying you’re feeling stressed out and unable to focus?” 

Embrace Happiness

Positive emotions – such as feelings of gratitude, love, and confidence – strengthen the immune system, protect the heart against loss and trauma, build relationships, increase resilience, and promote success. Based on studies that have already been done, if a drug company could patent a happiness pill, we would be seeing ads for it every night on TV.  

Technically, emotions can be organized along two dimensions: intensity (how strong they are) and hedonic valence (how good they feel). Tranquility, for example, has low intensity but can feel really really good, a profound inner peace.

Low intensity positive emotions are great. They are the bread and butter of everyday well-being. This said, high intensity positive emotions have special benefits. They actually help lengthen the lifespan. They steady the mind and improve concentration by engaging steady and high levels of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, that stabilize the contents of working memory and block out distractions – perhaps a reason why “bliss” is recommended in Buddhist meditation training as a factor of non-ordinary states of consciousness and awakening altogether. And they can pull us out of the numbing, blahs, and meh-ness of ordinary routines, stresses, disappointments, and frustrations – sort of like that transition in the Wizard of Oz movie from black and white to color.

Intense positive emotions include delight, passion, rapture, thrill, triumph, head over heels in love, exuberance, elation, and rejoicing. In a word, joy.

Finding and protecting joy is worth doing at any time. And it’s especially important when you’re facing challenges at any scale, from worries about your child to alarm about your world.

Joy is a reminder that you are not defeated in the sanctuary of your own mind. Sometimes joy comes with other feelings that actually add to it rather than diminishing it, such as a fierce joy, an exhausted joy, a grim joy, or a rebellious joy. Consider the joy in these lines from Dylan Thomas: “Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

No matter what is happening in the world around us, no matter what situation we’re stuck in, no matter how anguished we are for others, no matter how hopeless it seems and helpless we feel – we can always turn to joy, claim it, and welcome it. A kind of triumph, a lighting of at least a single candle no matter the gathering darkness.


Of course, positive emotions are not about suppressing or covering over pain, anxiety, or outrage on behalf of others. Positive feelings can be present in the mind alongside negative ones. In fact, they help us cope with the hard things and hard feelings of life, and fuel us to keep on going for the sake of others. The worse a person’s life is, the more important it is to find and feel authentically positive emotions – including joy.

Sometimes joy is a sustained experience. Perhaps your child is born and you hold her and your day is filled with a stunned and solemn joy. But I’ve found that intense joy usually comes in brief pulses. You inhale and smile and there is joy for a few seconds, often for no reason at all. Recognizing and valuing these little moments of delight expands the possibilities for having them. Adding even just a few “beads” of joy changes the whole necklace of seconds that make up your day.

One way to evoke joy is to value opportunities to feel it that naturally appear in daily life. Intense gratitude for hot water, amazement at the sun, the extreme pleasure of sneezing, blown away that your partner still loves you, so so so happy to come home after a long day of work . . . all of these are chances for joy.

You can also deliberately call it to mind, perhaps remembering a beautiful mountain meadow at sunset and then the world changing overnight to white silence as you crawl out of your tent at dawn to a foot of new snow. Perhaps thinking about someone you love, or a major challenge you have put to rest behind you.

And you can just flick a kind of switch in your mind and turn directly toward joy. Really. The more experiences of joy that you’ve had and taken into yourself, the easier this gets. Additionally, try things like saying to yourself, “May there be joy,” and open and receive it. Look for and call forth quick pulses and rushes and flashes of joy. If it’s real for you, joy may have a spiritual aspect to it, perhaps a joyful sense of something divine.

Research exposes the many biases Black people face in American society

Instead, they charged one of the officers with three counts of “wanton endangerment” for firing shots that flew into and adjacent apartment when Taylor’s neighbors were there.

This outcome has at once sparked anger and heartbreak. Taylor was simply watching a movie with her boyfriend at home. The sheer ordinariness of how she was spending her evening underscores why many Black Americans feel that their lives are seen as comparatively less valuable in American society.

 The #BlackLivesMatter movement has been criticized, maintaining that as a society we should remain focused on “all lives.” But Taylor’s horrific death, one of far too many, once again demonstrates the very real dangers that Black people face that others in American life do not.

Psychology, in a sense, can be an ally to BLM in providing empirical support. Here are just five psychology studies that demonstrate systematic bias against Black people in America.

Black people are superhuman. Take a study in which researchers investigated whether White people see Black people as superhuman, that is, possessing supernatural, extrasensory, and magical mental and physical qualities. Popular culture is just one sphere in our society, the authors maintain, in which Black people are portrayed as superhuman, as evidenced by characters in The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance. In a series of five experiments, the team administered tests of implicit and explicit bias, to see whether White people superhumanize Black people relative to White people. For instance, in one task, participants categorized pictures of Black and White, male and female faces, and superhuman and human words on a computer screen, with investigators measuring the strength of associations between two concepts (Black Americans and White Americans) and two attributes (superhuman and human). Analyses revealed that Whites implicitly and explicitly superhumanize Blacks versus Whites. The authors interpret the results as supporting the idea that Black people are dehumanized not through “animalization or mechanization,” but by depicting them as superhuman.

Black people feel less physical pain that Whites.  Analyzing National Football League injury reports data, investigators found that by comparison to injured White players, injured Black players are assessed as more likely to play in a subsequent game. In a series of four experiments, researchers found that White and Black participants – which included registered nurses and nursing students – assume that Black people feel less pain than do White people. The investigators also found that this bias is based in perceptions of status, and not race per se, such that Black people and others who are seen as “low-status” in our society are characterized as comparatively “tougher.” The authors contend that their work helps us to better understand not only race-related biases and healthcare disparities, but also police brutality. The researchers aver that while although some Whites (and non-Whites) condone police brutality against Black men simply because they are Black, it might also be that police brutality against Black men is tolerated because it is presumed that Black men feel less physical pain.

Black people are associated with danger.  Studies show that Black men and boys are viewed in the light of violence and criminality, and that this association generalizes to Black women and Black girls. In a series of experiments, non-Black participants completed tasks in which they saw faces varying in race, age, and gender before categorizing danger-related objects or words. Non-Black and Black participants performances on this task were also compared. The results were striking. Black children and adults, male and female, were more closely associated with danger by comparison to their White counterparts, revealing racial bias.

Physicians talk to Black patients differently. Does racial bias permeate the doctor’s office? Unfortunately, research suggests that it does. Take a study that investigated how non-Black physicians communicated with Black patients. Investigators transcribed and analyzed 117 video-recorded “racially discordant medical interactions” from a larger study, using Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software to analyze their word use. What did they find? Physicians with higher levels of implicit and explicit racial bias used anxiety-related words and language reflective of social dominance with greater frequency when meeting with Black patients. Those who are high on social dominance favor group-based domination and inequality; this preference has been linked to language usage, with ample research finding that higher status speakers tend to use more first- person plural pronouns (e.g., we, us, our) and less first-person singular pronouns (e.g., I, me, my).

Black children are seen as more angry than White children. Are people racially biased when judging the emotions of others? Take a study that investigated “racialized emotion recognition accuracy” and anger bias toward children. The investigators had 178 prospective teachers (70% White, 9% Hispanic, 8% Asian, 6% Black, 5% Biracial, 1% Native American, and 1% Middle Eastern) complete an emotion recognition task made up of 72 children’s facial expressions, portraying six emotions, and divided equally by race (Black, White) and gender (female, male). Participants were also given questionnaires of implicit and explicit racial bias. What did the researchers find? Both Black boys and Black girls were erroneously seen as angry with greater frequency than White boys and White girls.

These are just five studies in a sea of research demonstrating the range of pernicious biases that Black people confront in their everyday lives. If you want to share additional studies, please do so in the comments section.

Financial hardship is a top risk factor for suicide attempts

A study that appears online in the American Journal of Epidemiology indicates that financial strain is a significant risk factor for suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.

The researchers also warn that, due to the current pandemic’s impact on economies, suicide attempts may become an even greater worry in the near future.

“Our research shows that financial stressors play a major role in suicides, and this needs to be recognized and appreciated in light of the unprecedented financial instability triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says lead author Prof. Eric Elbogen, from the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, NC.

“We could well be seeing a dramatic increase in suicide rates moving forward,” he further speculates.

Worrying predictions

Prof. Elbogen and his colleagues conducted their research before the start of the pandemic, on a representative cohort of adults in the United States.

They analyzed data from 34,653 adults interviewed first in 2001–2002 and then in 2004–2005 as part of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions.

The researchers found that being in debt or facing a financial crisis, unemployment, past homelessness, and having lower income were each associated with suicide attempts.

The researchers predict that people who have experienced all of these financial stressors could face a 20-fold higher risk of attempting suicide than individuals who have experienced no financial strain.

The team predicts a similar trend for suicidal ideation in relation to economic stressors.

“Our study, while assessing this connection using pre-COVID data, shows a direct risk that should raise alarm as millions of people experience economic hardship resulting from the pandemic,” notes Prof. Elbogen.

“Although the ultimate health impact of COVID-19 is still unknown, it is all but certain that the longer infections spread, there will likely be more people who will experience significant financial strain resulting from work stoppages and disruption.”

– Prof. Eric Elbogen

In the study paper, the authors also write that: “In the context of suicide prevention, considering income, employment or both are necessary but not sufficient. Policymakers and clinicians should address how people manage their income.”

They also explain that their study may have some limitations, in particular, due to the fact that suicidal ideation and suicide attempts were self-reported by the participants.

Since society often attaches stigma to mental health issues and suicide attempts, some interviewees may have chosen not to disclose the full extent of their conditions, the investigators note.

Finally, they caution that the study did not measure all dimensions of financial strain, such as a person’s current risk of homelessness or the nature of their job loss, whether permanent or temporary.

There is a “need for further research examining relationships between financial strain, mental health, and empowerment,” they write, explaining that a person’s lack of opportunities for financial mobility may also play an important role.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can call 800-799-4889.

The Power of Journaling

The six months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic have been harrowing ones, to say the least. Against the backdrop of the disease and the economic impact it has brought, the world has witnessed ongoing racial injustice, natural disasters, and widespread wildfires, among other painful events.

For many people, it has been hard to stay emotionally afloat. Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published guidelines regarding how to cope, with suggestions running the gamut from engaging in leisure activities and taking media breaks to getting sufficient sleep and eating right. This article adds one additional idea to that list: journaling.

There’s a one-in-two chance you’ve kept a journal. Perhaps you needed an outlet for your thoughts, or maybe you were recording your experiences to revisit later in life. According to surveys, about half of us have written in a journal at some point in our lives, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 in 6 people are active journalers right now. The number may be even higher for kids, with a 2014 survey showing that 21% of children and young people write in a diary at least once a month.

But considering the current need for additional coping practices, maybe more of us should.

Over the past couple of decades, dozens of studies have shown that certain journaling practices can positively impact a variety of outcomes, including happiness, goal attainment, and even some aspects of physical health. This research is often challenging to locate, given that the word “journaling” is not often used by investigators. Instead, they may label their interventions with names like “setting implementation intentions” or “engaging in expressive writing.”

Some of the effects of journaling are well-known. Most of us know, for instance, that keeping a gratitude journal can improve mood, an idea that first gained traction in a seminal paper published in 2003 by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Although versions of this practice differ slightly, the basic idea is to write down a few good things that occur every day for anywhere from 2 to 10 weeks. They can be big things like “I just got a new job” or small things we might normally overlook, like “The flowers in the back yard were blooming today.” Given the turmoil in our world, it’s easy to overlook the little things that fill us with gratitude, instead focusing exclusively on the many negatives around us. Journaling may be a way of “hacking into” the brain, helping us be more mindful of the positive. 

But the effects of journaling can also be more dramatic. In a 2013 study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers found that a certain kind of journaling—sometimes known as expressive writing—may help in healing physical wounds, at least small ones. Investigators asked healthy adults ages 64 to 97 to journal for 20 minutes a day, three days in a row. But not everybody used the same journaling practice: Half were encouraged to write about things that upset them, honestly discussing their thoughts and feelings about those events. The other half wrote about a much dryer topic: how they manage time during the day.

6 Steps to Calming Anger

Your anger is important.

This fiery emotion is an appropriate reaction to injustice, betrayal, loss, hurt, trauma, or violation. It’s essential to acknowledge and honor this fierce feeling so that we can attend to the harm that has been caused. When we deny or suppress our anger we often cause ourselves further suffering. And, when we don’t slow down to find the ground and get clear when our anger is ablaze, we end up hurting others.

So the next time anger arises, here are six steps to meet the moment with curiosity and inspire a constructive response.

1 | Notice where there’s tension in your body.

Anger shows up physically in the body. Notice if you’re clenching your fists, tightening your jaw, heating up, or feeling sensations in the belly. You may also notice an impulse to run, fight, or withdraw.

Take some space to be with whatever is coming up for you. While it may be uncomfortable, remember that no feeling is permanent. Observe how the physical manifestations of anger naturally shift and change with time.

Note: Our thoughts often fuel anger, so it can be helpful to notice when you’re caught up in a fury of thoughts and invite your attention back to the body.

2 | Slow down and tend to the wisdom of your body.

Anger often comes with a sense of urgency. You may be thinking, “We must figure this out now!” or “ We must get justice now!” While it’s important to address what’s happened, our words and actions usually don’t yield the outcome we’d like when we’re still in the intensity of the emotion. So, it’s crucial first to slow down and take care of yourself.

If you’re noticing physical tension, then invite relaxation into that body part. If you’re heating up, place an ice pack on your neck. If you’re feeling the impulse to run, give yourself permission to walk away for a bit and collect your thoughts (you can always say something like, “I need some time to digest what just happened, I’d like to come back to this tomorrow”). If you’re withdrawing, you might not feel safe, give yourself permission to leave and do something that helps you feel safe and connected (maybe reach out to a friend, meditate or go spend some time in nature). If you feel the desire to fight, find a way to move that energy (maybe go for a run, cook dinner, or do some jumping jacks).

3 | Take long soothing breaths.

The experience of anger is stressful and takes a lot out of us. Breathing deeply and slowly can help reset the nervous system. Take at least five deep breaths as a way to settle the mind and body.

4 | Meet yourself with compassion.

Anger is destabilizing, uncomfortable, and painful. Be kind to yourself. Place your hands over your heart and offer yourself soothing affirmations like, “You don’t deserve to be treated like this.” or “That wasn’t fair.” Or, try saying to yourself, “Wow! This is a lot to process and manage. I’m sorry things feel so hard right now.”

5 | Notice if there are any feelings underneath the anger.

Take as much time as you need in steps one through four. Once you’re feeling calmer, investigate what else might be going on for you. Sometimes anger can serve as protection for other feelings that may be even more challenging to feel. For example, many of us weren’t taught how to deal with feeling disappointed, so anger sometimes arises to shield us from a deeper sadness. Diving beneath the surface of a big emotion and exploring the complexity of our experience can help inform our next steps.

6 | Give yourself time to respond rather than react to the situation.

Mindfulness: A Time Tested Tool To Improve Your State Of Mind

Before the COVID-19 turned our world of its axis, many people regularly felt stressed and overstretched. Now, in the midst of a crisis that has led many organizations to restructure and reduce headcount, 82% of workers reported being asked to do even more with even less according to a recent study by VitalSmarts. This has resulted in a spike to stress lesses and an increasing toll on mental health and state of mind.

Clearly there is no magic bullet for combatting the pressures of work overload or the challenges of operating across virtual teams. However, if you’ve been feeling overwhelmed, stressed out or more anxious than usual, practicing mindfulness can make all the difference to your state of mind.  

Over the last decade, mindfulness has become a new buzzword. Yet the practice of mindfulness dates back thousands of years. Biblical scriptures encouraged us to “be still” and become present to God. Perhaps one of the most profound mindfulness practices of all. 

Of course unlike our ancestors who sat around a fire each night gazing into a flame while sharpening implements, most people today spend their lives staring at a screen, racing to keep up. As a client recently shared with me, “Each day feels like I’m drinking from a fire hose trying to keep up.”  It explains why a recent study found that 96% of respondents made about 15 mindless decisions each day.

While busy people often feel it’s indulgent to press pause on their busy productive ‘doing’ and connect to who they are ‘being, research proves otherwise. That is, practicing mindfulness doesn’t take time out of your day—it expands your ability to effectively utilize your time so you can fit more of what truly matters into your day. More time on Pareto’s ‘vital few’ and less on the ‘trivial many.’ 

There are as many ways to practice mindfulness as there are mindfulness experts (of which, I am not.) Yet as a student of mindfulness I’ve found that the most effective are usually the least complicated.  All of them flow from “paying attention to what we are paying attention to” – becoming a more attuned observer of our own inner world. Here are a few of the simplest yet most powerful ways for helping you to do just that.

1. Mindful breathing

If you get nothing else from reading this article, I encourage you to pause right now, and follow your breath in and out three times, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Allow your breath to settle into its own rhythm. Then as you simply follow it in and out, observe the rise and fall of your chest and belly as you breathe. Pretty simple, huh? Once you’re done, notice the subtle way it shifts how you’re feeling.

While mindful breathing is clearly not anything new, we can easily forget to take full breaths when we are flying from one thing to the next, powered along by a false sense of urgency that stimulates our fight-or-flight responses, shallows our breathing, and leaves us operating in a perpetual state of emergency.

A few long, calm, deep breaths can disrupt your default stress response and enable you to see your situation more objectively and respond more rationally. In doing so it also spares you the negative fall out that often occurs when you are operating mindlessly – firing off a heated email, snapping at someone or just doing something you’d never do if you were truly grounded. 

2. Practice your inner observer

You don’t see the world as it is, but as you are. Through your own lens that has been shaped by your past experiences, social conditioning, cultural norms, personality and a myriad of other factors. 

So a key aspect of building mindfulness is “looking at how you’re looking at life: This is about practicing being an inner observer of how you are perceiving, processing and interpreting the world around you; becoming more in tune to your own cognitive, emotional and behavioral responses. Broken-down into parts, it is about 

a) Noticing what you are observing

b) Noticing what you are thinking about what you are observing

c) Noticing how what you are thinking about what you are observing is making you feel

For example, what are you telling yourself about the person who just sent the email about sales numbers that has triggered you? How is that interpretation showing up in your body—in your physical sensations, in your posture, your breathing and facial muscles? How else could you view what’s going on? What might be going on for them? What could be a more constructive way of responding?  

These sorts of questions lay at the heart of developing the soft skills that are so paramount to success in every domain of life.

3. Cultivate compassion

Cultivating compassion calls on us to look both inward and outward. 

Inwardly, to reflect on where we can be more self-compassionate – embracing our own humanity, forgiving our fallibility and being gentler with ourselves in our fallen moments. 

Outwardly, to consider what is going on for others— their anxieties, insecurities, fears, hurts, hopes and aspirations. 

8 Ways Managers Can Support Employees’ Mental Health

And that’s taking a toll on our mental health, including at work.

We saw an impact early in the pandemic. At the end of March and in early April, our nonprofit organization, Mind Share Partners, conducted a study of global employees in partnership with Qualtrics and SAP. We found that the mental health of almost 42% of respondents had declined since the outbreak began. Given all that’s happened between then and now, we can only imagine that the figure has increased. Much has been said about this short-term mental health impact, and the long-term effects are likely to be even more far-reaching.

Prior to the pandemic, many companies had increased their focus on workplace mental health (often in response to pressure from employees). Those efforts are even more imperative today.

As we navigate various transitions over the coming months and years, leaders are likely to see employees struggle with anxiety, depression, burnout, trauma, and PTSD. Those mental health experiences will differ according to race, economic opportunity, citizenship status, job type, parenting and caregiving responsibilities, and many other variables. So, what can managers and leaders do to support people as they face new stressors, safety concerns, and economic upheaval? Here’s our advice.

What Can Managers Do?

Even in the most uncertain of times, the role of a manager remains the same: to support your team members. That includes supporting their mental health. The good news is that many of the tools you need to do so are the same ones that make you an effective manager.

Be vulnerable. One silver lining of the pandemic is that it is normalizing mental health challenges. Almost everyone has experienced some level of discomfort. But the universality of the experience will translate into a decrease in stigma only if people, especially people in power, share their experiences. Being honest about your mental health struggles as a leader opens the door for employees to feel comfortable talking with you about mental health challenges of their own.

Prior to the pandemic, the biotech firm Roche Genentech produced videos in which senior leaders talked about their mental health. They were shared on the company intranet as part of a campaign called #Let’sTalk. The company then empowered “mental health champions” — a network of employees trained to help build awareness for mental health — to make videos about their experiences, which were used as part of the company’s various mental health awareness campaigns. (See the editor’s note below regarding our relationships with this company and others mentioned in this article.)

Those of us working from home have had no choice but to be transparent about our lives, whether our kids have crashed our video meetings or our coworkers have gotten glimpses of our homes. When managers describe their challenges, whether mental-health-related or not, it makes them appear human, relatable, and brave. Research has shown that authentic leadership can cultivate trust and improve employee engagement and performance.

Model healthy behaviors. Don’t just say you support mental health. Model it so that your team members feel they can prioritize self-care and set boundaries. More often than not, managers are so focused on their team’s well-being and on getting the work done that they forget to take care of themselves. Share that you’re taking a walk in the middle of the day, having a therapy appointment, or prioritizing a staycation (and actually turning off email) so that you don’t burn out.

Build a culture of connection through check-ins. Intentionally checking in with each of your direct reports on a regular basis is more critical than ever. That was important but often underutilized in pre-pandemic days. Now, with so many people working from home, it can be even harder to notice the signs that someone is struggling. In our study with Qualtrics and SAP, nearly 40% of global employees said that no one at their company had asked them if they were doing OK — and those respondents were 38% more likely than others to say that their mental health had declined since the outbreak.

Go beyond a simple “How are you?” and ask specific questions about what supports would be helpful. Wait for the full answer. Really listen, and encourage questions and concerns. Of course, be careful not to be overbearing; that could signal a lack of trust or a desire to micromanage.

When someone shares that they’re struggling, you won’t always know what to say or do. What’s most important is to make space to hear how your team members are truly doing and to be compassionate. They may not want to share much detail, which is completely fine. Knowing that they can is what matters.

When Your Mind’s Full of Dad Stuff, You Need Mindfulness

I most recently had the chance to do a course called ‘Search Inside Yourself ‘. It’s a system developed by Google that helps you build the emotional intelligence skills needed for sustained peak performance at home and at work.

There are a number of really interesting parts to this course: Listening, empathy, self-awareness and SBNRR (A technique for not freaking the hell out).

Why is something like this relevant to dads? Because being better at these things can help us become better dads, better people and better at work. When you work better, you work smarter and faster and you can spend more time with your kids.


We began with some basic meditation and breathing exercises. I won’t go into the details of this, the internet is full of great meditations and there are some good apps including Headspace, Buddhify and Calm. I personally have some guided meditations on my phone created by Kamal Sarma who runs a company called Rezilium. His book Mental Resilience came with a CD of meditations that I’ve used a lot over the years. With meditation I find the simpler the better, if it’s simple you’ll do it more often and get more out of it.

One thing I will say about meditation is that when you’re starting out and trying to focus you’ll notice that your mind will wander. I used to struggle to get refocused, the same thoughts would keep coming back. I eventually realised that if I actually acknowledged them by thinking, “Yes I hear what you’re saying but it’s not a good time. Come back later.” the thought would stop interrupting my meditation (more often than not it never comes back at all). Basically by acknowledging the thought for what it was, a valid concern not an interruption, it seemed to give it the attention it needed to let me get on with it. This leads nicely into the next bit of ‘See Inside Yourself’, listening.


On the day we did a couple of listening exercises.

In the first exercise we broke up into groups of two and your partner spoke for about 3 minutes while the other person had to listen and then repeat back what their partner had said. Not word for word, just the general story. The interesting thing that you notice in this exercise is that listening, really listening, is really hard. We’re taught to be active in conversations, to contribute to the discussion, but this means that when we should be listening we’re actually thinking about what we’re going to say next. We’re not actually listening at all. We’re just pretending.

By practising really listening and focusing on what is actually being said we can become better dads. By giving our kids our full attention, by putting things down and deleting distractions, they’ll be more likely to continue talking to us. This goes for the workplace too, better listening means better communication which means better results.

…being better at these things can help us become better dads, better people and better at work.


In a slightly different version of this exercise one partner spoke for 3 minutes and the other person had to listen and then relate back the emotions they could hear their partner expressing. “I could hear that you were angry, sad, etc.” This is designed to get you thinking about empathy.

Again, another important part of being a dad and partner is empathising with your family. I tried this with my daughter the other night. She’d had a bad dream and rather than just tell her that there was nothing to be scared off I began by saying that I could hear she was scared and upset. It seemed to help validate her feelings and stopped me looking like I was just dismissing her concerns or basically not listening.


Although the guys at SIY refer to it as the Siberian North Rail Road, SBNRR actually stands for Stop, Breathe, Notice, Reflect and Respond. They regard it as a great way to deal with negative emotions, emotional triggers and other emotional hot spots.

From my point of view I’m not sure it’s ‘great’, it’s good but it takes a long time to do the steps and in the heat of the moment I reckon if can you remember the first two (STOP / BREATHE) before you respond you’ve done well. So my version would be SBR or Stupid Bastard Response because it’ll come in handy the next time some stupid bastard at work winds you up.

SBNRR’s five steps:

1) Stop. This is the most important step. Instead of becoming wrapped up in the emotion or making an impulse decision, just stop and take a moment.

2) Breathe. Take a deep breath. This helps clear your mind, as well as helps physiologically calm down your brain.

3) Notice. Notice what you’re experiencing on a moment to moment basis. What are you feeling in your body? What emotions are you experiencing? Is it static or is it changing? Does the emotion seem out of proportion compared to the trigger?

4) Reflect. What’s causing the emotion? Is it the right response? Is a part of you feeling attacked, belittled or threatened?

5) Respond. Think of all the different courses of actions you can take. Consider the kindest, most compassionate way to respond to the situation (even if you don’t take that path.) Finally, make a conscious decision on how to respond.

As I said, much like a trip on the Siberian North Rail Road, it’s a bit long for me. You can’t really keep leaving the room every time one of your triggers gets pulled so you might want to try abbreviating it first. If nothing else you’ll become more aware of the way you react to things, or more likely ‘over-react’, and start being calmer and more considered with your responses.

For black men, higher education and incomes don’t lower risks of depression

But for high-achieving black men, more success actually increases the likelihood they will experience symptoms of depression and anxiety.

That’s the conclusion of Shervin Assari and T.J. Curry, researchers who have spent decades studying depression in, and discrimination against, black men in the United States.

In an article in The Conversation, they discuss the results of six studies that show an inverse effect between black men’s achievement and adverse mental health outcomes.

One long-term study followed 681 black youths over 18 years. For black male participants, an increase in perceived racial discrimination between ages 20 and 23 was correlated with increased anxiety and depression symptoms as they grew older.

Another, which compared black men with black women, white men and white women over the course of 25 years, found that men with higher educational credentials also experienced more depressive symptoms.

“According to our studies, regardless of their economic success and personal ambitions, black males are still perceived as more threatening and dangerous than their female counterparts,” Assari and Curry write. “Race alone may not be the issue here. Instead, it is an issue of race and gender, that may stem from hopelessness, inequality and blocked opportunities.”

Successful black men are not the only ones at risk, they said. But they challenge views that mere attainment can improve mental health outcomes for black men, whose success is attained in a world rife with personal and systemic biases and discrimination.

Visual Strategies for Reducing Stress

Pictures of Peace

Research has shown that looking at pictures of greenery makes people feel calmer. Find a picture of a scene in nature that makes you feel calm, and bring it up on your computer screen or phone. Set your timer, and spend one minute looking at it. Good sources for these kinds of pictures are National Geographic and the Sierra Club. You might even want to buy a calendar that has natural scenes and look at it for one minute whenever you need to manage your stress levels.

Pictures of Love

Another way to use a picture of peace is to fill your workspace or living space with pictures that remind you of the love in your life. Maybe it’s your child’s art, or perhaps it’s a picture of your family, your pet, or you and your partner on a special day. It may be a picture of the view from a scenic hike you took with your children or a picture of that time you caught a big fish with your dad. Put these pictures in frames on your desk at work or throughout your home. When feeling stressed, set your timer and spend one minute looking at them and picturing yourself surrounded by love.


When you don’t have access to pictures that bring you joy and peace, visualization is a good backup plan. Visualizing is a great strategy that can be used for improving performance in many situations. For example, athletes often visualize themselves winning as a way of increasing their confidence. Visualizing calm can help you relax by using your imagination to slow down your body. The first step in this process is to think about a place that puts you at ease. If it’s the beach or the woods, be specific about which beach or which woods so that you have a real place to go in your mind. You can choose a vacation place, your childhood home, or your favorite spa. Wherever it is, think about that place.

Unwanted thoughts are easier to control when rested

It’s not uncommon for unwelcome thoughts to cross a person’s mind now and again. 

According to psychologist Marcus Harrington of the Department of Psychology at the University of York in the United Kingdom, “For most people, thought intrusions pass quickly, but for those [who are experiencing] psychiatric conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they can be repetitive, uncontrollable, and distressing.”

Harrington is the lead author of a new study investigating the effect of sleep deprivation on unwanted thoughts.

The study finds that sleep deprivation increases the frequency of unwanted thoughts and lessens an individual’s ability to control them.

Funded by the Medical Research Council, the research appears in Clinical Psychological Science.

Unwanted thoughts

“In everyday life,” says Harrington, “mundane encounters can remind us of unpleasant experiences. For example, a car driving too fast on the motorway might cause us to retrieve unwanted memories from a car accident many years ago.”

However, for people with some psychiatric disorders, unwelcome thoughts can be a frequent, persistent, and often emotionally destructive intrusion.

“It is clear,” says Harrington, “that the ability to suppress unwanted thoughts varies dramatically between individuals, but, until now, the factors that drive this variability have been mysterious. Our study suggests sleep loss has a considerable impact on our ability to keep unwanted thoughts out of our minds.”

A lack of sleep and the resulting inability to manage unwelcome thoughts may also be self-perpetuating.

“The study also suggests that the onset of intrusive thoughts and emotional disturbances following bouts of poor sleep could create a vicious cycle, whereby upsetting intrusions and emotional distress exacerbate sleep problems, inhibiting the sleep needed to support recovery.”

– Senior author Dr. Scott Cairney

We Are Not Lonely During Social Distancing After All

A new study published in American Psychologist has found that social distancing has not led to more loneliness.

Social distancing has not made us lonely.Source: Everton Vila/Unsplash

For the nationwide study by Florida State University College of Medicine, researchers surveyed more than 2,000 people before and during stay-at-home orders. This was part of a larger study on how we are reacting psychologically to the Covid-19. But because feeling lonely in particular is a known health risk, leading to higher rates of disease or death, the researchers felt it deserved attention.

“There has been a lot of worry that loneliness would increase dramatically because of the social distancing guidelines and restrictions,” said lead author Martina Luchetti, an assistant professor at the College of Medicine in a press release. “Contrary to this fear, we found that overall loneliness did not increase. Instead, people felt more supported by others than before the pandemic.”

That’s surprising at first, but it aligns with some other recent research on how people can meet their social needs even without other people. And virtual eye contact can also give people a genuine sense of connection. But Luchetti felt it may have something to do with a sense of community. “Even while physically isolated, the feeling of increased social support and of being in this together may help limit increases in loneliness,” she said.

Participants reported how lonely they felt.

Study participants were recruited from all over America and were adults between the ages of 18 and 98. The first survey was done in early February before the U.S. was widely considering the coronavirus to be a threat. But once the pandemic arrived, the researchers ran a survey in mid-March during the period of 15-days of social distancing announced by the White House. Then, they ran a second survey in late April, after people had been home for a while and as guidelines were set to expire.

Remarkably, older adults reported less loneliness than younger ones, although they did feel lonely temporarily at the start of stay-at-home. This held true for individuals who lived alone or had a chronic health condition. Perhaps that’s because they already felt lonelier than most people do. But it’s still good news that social distancing did not make it worse.

Prior to the pandemic surveys, studies had found that 35 percent of adults 45 and older reported feeling lonely, and 43 percent of those over age 60 reported feeling lonely. Other research has shown that younger adults are actually lonelier than the older age group.

Nonetheless, people did well when facing social distancing during stay-at-home orders. “Despite a small increase among some individuals, we found overall remarkable resilience in response to COVID-19,” said Angelina Sutin, associate professor of Behavioral Sciences and Social Medicine and senior author in the press release.

When Your “Person” Has Depression

It’s no secret that when depression visits, it’s devastating for the person experiencing it, as well as those who love and rely on them. “When it comes,” writes Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon, “it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection…[It] destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself.”

If your person is experiencing depression, you may feel stuck on what to do. You desperately want to help, but your person doesn’t seem to want you around. You may want to “fix” the problem, but when you try it only makes things worse for both of you. And “fixing” is neither in your power nor your role.

So what is your role? What can you do? “Love, though it is no prophylactic against depression, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself,” says Solomon. You can’t “fix” someone’s depression, but you also needn’t underestimate your potential positive impact through providing soft love and sturdy support on their journey. 

If you’re reading this, I’m guessing it’s not the first resource you’ve come upon. I’m guessing you’ve Googled madly, and scoured some of the great guidance out there like these resources.

Between reading an initial “guide” and perhaps getting support from a specialist yourself, there’s often a desire to consume multiple resources with slightly different perspectives, as you seek the wisdom that “clicks.” I want to commend you for your desire to show up for your “person.” This is not an exhaustive list, but rather a compliment to all the great material out there – because, for a topic so vast, you deserve multiple perspectives. 

I hope in some small way this helps both you and your loved one. The tunnel feels long, but I promise, there’s a light at the end.

Here are 11 ways you can help a loved one who is suffering from depression. This list is ordered with the acronym “HOW TO HELP ME” because it’s informed by things past clients with depression have told me they wish their significant other knew (in addition to broader research).

1. Hold the hope. One symptom of depression is “hopelessness.” Not only do you feel awful, you feel like this is how it will always be. But hope is vital to recovery. If your partner is feeling hopeless, you can still choose hope. You might even say something like, “I know it feels like it will always be this way. And I’ve seen you get through hard things before. I have so much hope you will get through this challenge. We will do it together.”

2. Offer compassion. Compassion = Empathy + Action. Empathy doesn’t mean feeling sorry for someone. It means “being with,” and actively viewing the situation through your loved one’s perspective. This video narrated by Brene Brown gives one of the best overviews of empathy that I’ve seen. Empathy becomes compassion when we also have a willingness to act on behalf of the person we love.

3. Watch out for signs of suicidality. Reducing stigma includes normalizing mental illness, but not neutralizing it. Mental health conditions need to be taken seriously, like any other condition. The vast majority of individuals with depression will not die by suicide, but because mental illness, especially mood disorders elevate the risk, it’s a good practice for loved ones (and everyone, really), to be aware of the signs, and get some basic training and support for how to help. Potential resources include reaching out to suicide prevention lifeline, or taking a training such as  Question, Persuade, Refer(1hour, online option), safeTALK (4 hours), or ASIST (2-Days, digital option available).

4. Talk about treatment options. Depression is a treatable illness. Talk about recognized treatment options such as medication, talk therapy, or group therapy, as well as lifestyle supports such as exercise and healthy sleep. As a partner, your job isn’t to make a diagnosis or treatment plan, but you can share that help is out there. Often the best, most simple place to start is a phone or in-person appointment with a primary care doctor.

5. Offer concrete support. In a depressive episode, even the most capable person can struggle with what could otherwise seem a simple task (like calling a doctor, booking an appointment, and getting to that appointment on time). Someone struggling with depression may not know to answer a broad question like, “How can I help?” Instead, offer specific concrete support such as: Can I just sit here with you quietly? Can I drive you to your doctor’s appointment and wait outside? Would you like to go for a walk?

6. Honor small wins. Someone might be a marathon runner, but in the throes of depression, just getting out the door to work is a worthy achievement. For someone without depression, it can be hard to remember that these mundane, simple tasks may feel like a herculean effort. But small wins add up to big change. Saying something like, “I’m proud of you, I know that took strength” can go a long way.

7. Express care AND concern. People with depression feel pretty badly about themselves. It is helpful to remind them that you love and respect them. Also, it’s ok to share your concerns. Often, what encourages people to therapy for the first time isn’t their own intrinsic desire, but the concern of loved ones. It’s okay to say something like, “I love you, and understand that you can’t get out of bed. I am also concerned that if you don’t get help now, you will lose your job, which is going to make things much worse. Our family needs you. We want you to get help.”

Lockdown Lessons: What Have We Learned about Ourselves?

As the pandemic crept into the nation and then began burning through communities, all of us were being exposed to parts of ourselves that might have surprised us. While we all deal with some level of anxiety or concern during our days, those things may vary widely depending on individual identities. Some of us worry about having enough money to make it to payday. Others worry about being late for the party. Some worry about someone getting the last roll of our “favorite” toilet paper and others worry about running water and enough food to eat. Anxiety is part of the human condition. Most of us know the circumstances that tend to cause us worry. Some of us even go into “panic mode” when a minor hiccough happens on our way to fulfilment.

The pandemic and national lockdown, though, brought a huge number of us to a place we’d never before tread . . . face-to-face with fear of what we couldn’t see, couldn’t predict, and couldn’t control. The uncertainty factor of a virus probably took more than a few of us over the edge into a crisis mode that we might never have experienced before. Faced with an unknowable threat to our lives, our family’s lives, and our economic wellbeing, to boot, we likely were beaten down emotionally by the circumstances without knowing “why” we were feeling so exhausted, or confused, or hypervigilant. After several weeks, the total scope and scale of the pandemic’s power to change our lives in virtually every aspect imaginable began to hit us.

When we face a threat, many of us do so with courage and bravery – we work hard to throw ourselves into the fight. Some of us turn to humor and work hard to make sure we’re keeping our spirits up along with the spirits of those around us. Others retreat and look for safety and security and creature comforts – like comfort foods, trashy television shows, and sweats and pajamas worn 24/7. Others keep going as they have before, not even letting their thoughts turn to the potential risks they may face.

But after several weeks, most of us began to roll into a new phase of response – fatigue and exhaustion. Whatever “crisis response strategy” we tend to utilize, the persistent threat outside our doors – in the form of other people who we may even know and love, soiled doorknobs, tainted delivery bags, etc. – kept us actively engaged with the fight to protect ourselves. So now, as we begin to see the world try to get back to some new way of spinning, we may feel frightened to return to our normal routines. We may feel empty, irritable, tired, and emotionally exhausted. These are all normal responses, and it may take some conscious self-care and talking through these feelings to help us find a sense of wholeness, restoration, and readiness to go back to the lives we used to live.

For our essential workers who never had the luxury of escaping from their posts and curling up under a blanket to escape the outside threat, their “hazard pay” might not mitigate the emotional cost that their hazard duty required. They met others’ basic material needs, but their own psychological needs may need more than a “next day delivery” could provide. They met our medical needs and risked their own health in order to help us maintain our own. We owe them more than what they were compensated for the risks they all took for others. We need to remember this when we’re feeling impatient with others who are doing the best they can and who were there for us when we perhaps were not there for anyone else, at all.

What are some of the lessons that we may have taken from the past few months – during a time when our lives were put on hold and we were put on lockdown to confront, as a united front, a threat that we had never before experienced in this way? Here’s a summary of what people have shared with me:

  1. We are all connected. Social connections are essential to our physical and emotional well-being. Whether we rely on phone calls, video calls, texts, or visiting with masks and 6 feet apart, our lives have value because of the value we have in the lives of others.
  2. This worked as a “wake-up call” to the dependence all of us have on our “essential workers.” Our lives hum because of the labor of healthcare workers, warehouse workers, grocery store employees, truckers, delivery drivers. For those who are “essential” employees, one individual shared that being deemed “essential” means that “I have to be courageous, but it also validates that what I do truly matters.”
  3. Our kids are going to be okay, worrying excessively about them isn’t going to do them any good. There are benefits to having more time to connect with your kids, to talk to them about “real” things, big issues in a way they can understand, and just finding out who they are on their way to growing up.
  4. The government has a great deal of power to shape our daily lives – more than any of us may have ever realized before.
  5. The basics are absolutely enough. The “extras” are sweet, but the basics provide the foundation for everything. We should focus on making memories, not money, for the people we love.
  6. Skin hunger is real – missing the handshakes, the warm hugs, and the pat on the back is hard.
  7. The urgency we feel in daily life really isn’t necessary and it robs us of the peace that we should be finding in each day. We can’t realize the beauty of the natural world when we’re always rushing to move through it, not move within it. We need to slow down and be in the moment – not rushing to get to the next thing.
  8. We can’t “cure” the pandemic or “pick” the lockdown, so just be focused on the present and what you can do, personally and professionally. Turn off the news, stop giving in to “clickbait,” and attend to the things that bring you joy and a feeling of peace – don’t look for reasons to get riled up about things you cannot control.
  9. We can control our controllables. As one person shared, “I am in solo isolation, but I have found that I can be alone, but that doesn’t mean I have to be lonely.” Control those things you can, find solutions for the struggles when you can, and accept when you’ve done all that you can and let yourself off the hook for doing more than is truly possible.

Do You Feel Helplessly Addicted to Your Phone?

We tend to check our phones every 5 minutes. My friend joked the other day that he feels more naked without his phone than without his clothes! Distraction and entertainment through our phones can be one of the most convenient things of our lives, but also can be a silent form of tyranny in itself. How often do you find yourself checking our device compulsively, automatically? Have you ever heard of NOMO (no-mobile-phobia)? It refers to how uncomfortable it feels to be without our phones. It was coined in 2010 by a study in the United Kingdom. Let’s check in:

How do you feel without your phone on you? What about when you can’t find your phone?  Or when someone else is holding it? 

This problem isn’t only you. How do you feel when you get “phubbed“? This is when someone starting messaging or scrolling on their phone when you’re talking to them. Do you normally phub others? How does it change the quality of interaction with them? Is it fueled by FOMO (fear of missing out)? Often it is, but it’s also often automaticity and mindlessness. Have you seen families together where everyone is silently on their phones? How do you feel when you see this?  

If you were addicted to your phone, how exactly would you know? The “digital police” won’t flag you when you’ve met your tech threshold, and there are no age restrictions (only “helicopter parents” for child or teen users). Constant use has become normalized, especially in these times. Of course this is what big tech companies like Apple and Google want, to keep us hooked. No wonder they continue to post increasingly soaring profits.

The increase in popularity & integration of tech in daily life prompts us to ponder their addiction potential. This post begs the question, where is the line from general use to problematic use? Did you know screen, phone, and internet use can trigger the same neurochemical that underlies Cocaine addiction, dopamine (the pleasure chemical)? Self-proclaimed phone-addicts (this is not yet recognized officially as an addiction in the DSM-V) report feeling a pleasurable mood burst or “rush” from simply checking their phone and favorite apps. These feelings of euphoria, even before the actual acting out of the addiction occurs, are linked to brain chemical changes that control our behavior ranging from a seductive psychological pull to full-blown addiction. 

Phone-addicts (perhaps most of us in the industrialized world) become conditioned to compulsively seek, crave, and recreate the sense of elation while off-line or “off-drug.” Whether it’s a few whiskeys, a string of likes an comments on your post, or betting on horse races, dopamine transmits messages to brain’s pleasure centers causing addicts to want to repeat those actions–over and over, even if the “addict” is no longer experiencing the original pleasure and is aware of negative consequences.

So, how can mindfulness help curb our ubiquitous use? 

The answer will look different for all of us. For you, what are your goals? How has it been a problem for you? Hard to sleep? Strain on your eyes? Your child is frustrated with your constant use? You just got a ticket for using your phone while driving? You’re noticing your posture is slumping like a hunchback? You find yourself too distracted by your phone and can’t focus on work? Your partner(s) are angry with you, feeling like they are in constant competition with your phone for your attention? 

Once we have a goal, then we can prioritize tracking and curbing our use using the iPhone screen-time part of the settings app. Then, every time we have an urge to use our phones beyond our desired use, we can plan small meditations, 10 seconds to 3 minutes instead. Yes, they can be short!They don’t have to be sitting. You can do walking or standing meditation too. Before you check your phone, gently ask yourself:

1) How’s my posture and body? I can’t believe how often I find myself slouching on my phone despite my attempts to have a healthy posture. Check in especially with your neck and shoulders. Make sure your whole body is comfortable, especially when you spend a long time on your phone. Hunching can worsen your emotional state too, which can lead to more unnecessary phone use, creating a harmful cycle. Having an erect, upright posture may be the best option. Also check in with your fingers, wrist, and arms. Sometimes if you tune in, you may notice them in more pain. I notice my wrist aches a little and my the skin on my fingers feels raw and irritated after too long on my phone. 

2) Why am I doing it? Before monitoring this, I found myself checking my phone numerous times without actually needing to. I still do from time to time. If it’s not because you need to send an important message, check directions, or another intentional behavior, is it from frustration? Fatigue? overwhelm? discomfort? Listlessness? boredom? Mindfulness can help us become aware of these automatic mini-compulsions and take more effective or wise action. If it is one of the latter, perhaps phone checking isn’t the best option to get your needs met. 

3) How do you feel after having been on your phone for while? Especially after mindlessly scrolling or to kill boredom? It’s vital to notice without beating yourself up. Big tech companies like Apple have created intensely addictive products. The iPhone is the most profitable product of all time. Try to see it as mere data or fodder for later, to help you get to know yourself. Perhaps texting friends is calming, but scrolling Instagram isn’t  

Worried About Alcohol Use During the Pandemic?

Quarantinis. Jokes about happy hour, any hour. Social media is being flooded with memes about increased alcohol use during the pandemic.

The data bear out this trend: alcohol sales are soaring, with a 55 percent increase in a single week as shelter in place orders were issued across the nation.

What’s behind this increase? Why are so many people drinking more during the COVID-19 pandemic? More importantly, should we be worried?

I am a researcher who studies risk for alcohol use problems. I’ve written hundreds of papers on why some people develop problems and others don’t, analyzing data from thousands of research participants.

Here’s what we know: changes in the environment change the likelihood that people will develop problems. Environments that are more permissive or accepting of alcohol use increase the likelihood that people will use.

There’s no question that our environments have changed dramatically as a result of the pandemic. Many of those changes are conducive to higher alcohol use: reduced stigma surrounding drinking at all hours, decreased accountability by co-workers and friends as individuals are isolated in their homes. Alcohol also has anxiety-reducing effects, and let’s be honest, a lot of people are feeling a lot of anxiety right now.

But here’s the part most people don’t realize: the people who are most at risk are the ones who are genetically predisposed to develop problems.

The chance that we will develop any given health problem—including substance use and mental health challenges—is related to the genetic codes we are born with. Some people are more at risk for cardiovascular disease, some people for cancer, and some people for alcohol use disorders. 

Just because you are born with a genetic predisposition doesn’t mean you are destined to develop problems—it just means you have an increased risk. But here’s the kicker: environments that are risk-enhancing—say, for example, a global pandemic—can drastically increase the likelihood that people who are genetically at risk will develop problems.

How do you know if you are at increased risk? 

There’s no genetic test you can take (despite what some websites tell you). Researchers like myself are working hard to find the genetic variations that make people more at risk, but there are likely tens of thousands of them, and so we’re still a far way off from being able to give people accurate genetic risk scores. 

But there are other indicators that can tell you whether you are at an increased risk of developing problems. There are a few different pathways by which our genes can alter our risk for substance use problems. Some genes increase our tendency toward depression or anxiety. People who carry these genetic variants are more likely to use alcohol to cope, which increases their risk of developing alcohol use disorders.

Genes also influence the way our brains are wired to process risk and reward. Some of us are more prone to impulsivity. We’re drawn to immediate rewards—to chasing the fun. We are less likely to pause and think about the long term consequences. “Should I do a Zoom party with friends tonight and drink a pitcher of margaritas? Why not?!”, our impulsive brains tell us… without weighing that 8 am Zoom call with the boss, or thinking ahead to the kiddos that will be waking us at 6 am needing to be entertained all day.

31 Benefits of Gratitude

Here is an excerpt from Happier Human to help you get started today.

Gratitude is simply taking time to think about all the positive things in your life. Rather than ruminating on the negatives. It does not necessarily necessitate actually telling anyone else you are thankful for the things they have done. (although, that helps)

Gratitude may be one of the most overlooked tools for increasing happiness. Research shows it is the single most powerful method of increasing happiness.

Having an attitude of gratitude doesn’t cost any money. It doesn’t take much time. But the benefits of gratitude are enormous. Research reveals gratitude can have these seven benefits:

Positive psychology research has shown that gratitude touches on many aspects of our lives. Our emotions. Personality. Social dynamics. Career success and health. All of these can contribute to increasing our basic happiness.

1. Gratitude makes us happier.

A five-minute daily gratitude journal can increase your long-term well-being by more than 10 percent.a1,a2,a3 That’s the same impact as doubling your income!a4

How can a free five-minute activity compare? Gratitude improves our health, relationships, emotions, personality, and career.

Sure, having more money can be pretty awesome, but because of hedonic adaptation we quickly get used to it and stop having as much fun and happiness as we did at first.

2. Gratitude makes people like us.

Gratitude generates social capital – in two studies with 243 total participants, those who were 10% more grateful than average had 17.5% more social capital.b1

Gratitude makes us nicer, more trusting, more social, and more appreciative. As a result, it helps us make more friends, deepen our existing relationships, and improve our marriage.b2

3. Gratitude makes us healthier.

In case you can’t read the physical benefits opf gratitude image above. the studies show gratitude can decrease pain, reduce bad health symptoms, increase time spent exercising. Increase sleep time. Increase sleep quality. Lower blood pressure. Increase energy and more. There is even reason to believe gratitude can extend your lifespan by a few months or even years.f2,f3,f4

4. Gratitude boosts our career.

Gratitude makes you a more effective manager,c1,c2 helps you network, increases your decision-making capabilities, increases your productivity, and helps you find mentors and proteges.b1 As a result, gratitude helps you achieve your career goals, as well as making your workplace a more friendly and enjoyable place to be.a2, b2

I’m not suggesting that criticism and self-focus don’t have a place in the workplace, but I think we’re overdoing it.

According to one study, 65% of Americans didn’t receive recognition in the workplace last year.c3 A bit more gratitude at work might be nice for us all.

5. Gratitude strengthens our positive emotions.

Gratitude reduces feelings of envy, makes our memories happier, lets us experience good feelings, and helps us bounce back from stress.b2,d1,d2,d3

6. Gratitude develops our personality.

It really does, and in potentially life-changing ways.

Click here to Read More

Don’t forget to check out our 30 Days of Purpose and Productivity throughout April and our “Using Social Distancing to Grow” Bingo Card to track your progress.

How Are Mindfulness, Stress and Your Well-Being Connected?

Recently I came across two new, unrelated studies that together provide new evidence about the impact of mindfulness practice.  One looked at the potential impact of being “in the moment” when you’re facing stressful problems or challenges that often arise in daily life—perhaps even more so, now, during the pandemic.  Does it really help? Or can it hinder figuring out what you need to do to diminish your stress? The other study also looked at mindfulness, but with a broader focus: how it may affect or impede well-being over time as you deal with change over the years.

Interest in practicing mindfulness has become pretty mainstream in recent years as a way to help you stay focused and centered in the face of distracting emotions and thoughts. Many practice it in their daily lives, and it’s being applied to the workplace and leadership development, as well.

One new study from researchers at North Carolina State University looked specifically at how staying centered and living in the moment helped with daily stress, compared with coping strategies and trying to plan ahead to ward off future sources of stress. Is it more helpful to stay in the moment or better to engage in “proactive coping”?

The researchers found that it’s not either-or. The study consisted of 223 people—half young adults through their late 30s, half between 60 and 90, and they reported their level of mindfulness over time. It found evidence that proactive efforts to reduce the stressful situation were helpful in specific situations—but only when combined with mindfulness. On those days when the participant reported low mindfulness, the proactive strategy lost its apparent usefulness for minimizing the impact of daily stress.

Described in this report, these findings have significance for building resilience and adaptation in the face of disturbing events and emotions. According to one of the researchers, Shevaun Neupert, “Our results show that a combination of proactive coping and high mindfulness results in study participants of all ages being more resilient against daily stressors.” 

Those who are more prone to look down the road at future situations and how to minimize their potential stress that may arise “may be more inclined to think ahead to the future at the expense of remaining in the present.” Of course, a downside there is that looking too much down the road can take your attention away from dealing with stress in the immediate situation. Neupert points out that a greater focus on practicing mindfulness practice may be helpful to people with those tendencies. The study was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

These findings complement, in a way, another recent study that examined several characteristics of mindfulness more broadly: in relation to age and overall well-being. This research, from Flinders University in Australia, defined mindfulness as the ability to be aware of one’s experiences and to pay attention to the present moment in a purposeful, receptive, and non-judgmental way.

The researchers emphasized in this summary that using mindfulness techniques can be instrumental in reducing stress and promoting positive psychological outcomes. Here, they sought to investigate the relationship between aging—from middle age onward—and such capacities as staying attentive to the present moment; being non-judgmental; acceptance of age-related changes; and overall positive emotions.

How to Declutter the Marie Kondo Way

This introduction to Marie Kondo’s decluttering work is powered by Good Housekeeping.

What is the KonMari Method?

The KonMari Method is Marie Kondo’s minimalism-inspired approach to tackling your stuff category-by-category rather than room-by-room. There are six basic rules to get started:

  1. Commit yourself to tidying up.
  2. Imagine your ideal lifestyle.
  3. Finish discarding first. Before getting rid of items, sincerely thank each item for serving its purpose.
  4. Tidy by category, not location.
  5. Follow the right order.
  6. Ask yourself it it sparks joy.

And five categories to tackle:

  1. Clothes
  2. Books
  3. Papers
  4. Komono (a.k.a. Miscellaneous Items)
  5. Sentimental Items

While many people associate her method with tidying, it’s really about discarding items that lack value. To determine what makes the cut, Kondo has you start by removing everything out of your closets and drawers (category one), all the books off your shelves (category two), all the paperwork out of your desk and bins (you get the idea). Once you have a big pile, you’re to go item-by-item and consider if it sparks joy. While Kondo admits that this can feel awkward or unnatural at first, she assures readers and viewers that you’ll get better at recognizing what sparks joy as you go. Once you’ve tossed items in every category, you should have a much smaller set of remaining items that you can return to various closets, drawers, shelves, and boxes. Note that you’re to finish one category before moving onto the next one.

Because you’re actively choosing items that spark joy, and discarding what doesn’t, the intention of the KonMari method is to end up with a clutter-free home that is better able to bring more joy and prosperity to your life. While tidying, she encourages you to visualize the life you want to live — to be less stressed, for example — and what you need to get there. Anything that won’t help on that journey isn’t deserving of your space or you, she says.

Click here to read the full article on Good Housekeeping.

Don’t forget to check out our 30 Days of Purpose and Productivity throughout April and our “Using Social Distancing to Grow” Bingo Card to track your progress.


Day 6: Write Down Affirmations

Here is an excerpt from The Blissful Mind to help you get started today.

Affirmations are positive reminders or statements that can be used to encourage and motivate yourself or others. Often it’s a lot easier to affirm others than it is ourselves, but we need to remember to encourage ourselves as well.

  1. I create a safe and secure space for myself wherever I am.
  2. I give myself permission to do what is right for me.
  3. I am confident in my ability to [fill in the blank].
  4. I use my time and talents to help others [fill in the blank].
  5. What I love about myself is my ability to [fill in the blank].
  6. I feel proud of myself when I [fill in the blank].
  7. I give myself space to grow and learn.
  8. I allow myself to be who I am without judgment.
  9. I listen to my intuition and trust my inner guide.
  10. I accept my emotions and let them serve their purpose.
  11. I give myself the care and attention that I deserve.
  12. My drive and ambition allow me to achieve my goals.
  13. I share my talents with the world by [fill in the blank].
  14. I am good at helping others to [fill in the blank].
  15. I am always headed in the right direction.
  16. I trust that I am on the right path.
  17. I am creatively inspired by the world around me.
  18. My mind is full of brilliant ideas.
  19. I put my energy into things that matter to me.
  20. I trust myself to make the right decision.
  21. I am becoming closer to my true self every day.
  22. I am grateful to have people in my life who [fill in the blank].
  23. I am learning valuable lessons from myself every day.
  24. I am at peace with who I am as a person.
  25. I make a difference in the world by simply existing in it.

Don’t forget to check out our 30 Days of Purpose and Productivity throughout April and our “Using Social Distancing to Grow” Bingo Card to track your progress.

3 Steps to Navigate COVID-19 Anxiety

Medical response centers in Chengdu, China developed an integrative intervention model to address the psychological distress caused by COVID-19 and deliver much needed mental health support1 (Zhang, et al, 2020). This new report utilizes information gathered from natural disasters like earthquakes combined with the current virus outbreak. Overall, they found people need more information, more assessment tools, and more coping methods.

They also advise having and utilizing a Personal Resilience Plan. This must be tailor-made for each of us, by us, since we all respond to stress in different ways through the lens of our unique experiences, values, and expectations. Your resilience plan needs to reflect your values, strengths, and resources. Building this helps ourselves and our families, as well as the communities and organizations we are connected to.

Building your Personal Resilience Plan can take some creativity and self-reflection as well as evaluating your support resources. To get started, I will review the 3 features of resilience that repeatedly emerge in scientific research, 3 types of coping needed to get through challenging times, and offer 3 deeper reflections as an avenue to building personal resilience. I invite you to take a few minutes to answer the reflective questions along the way and write out an emotional emergency preparedness plan with your family that includes outside resources such as community-based support, as well as resilience we nurture within ourselves.

What are 3 common features of resilience?

1) Recovery that is swift and thorough. (Q: What will help me recover from this setback?)

2) Sustainability of purpose in the face of adversity. (Q: What is the purpose that drives me to move forward?)

3) Potential for growth. (Q: What am I learning from this experience?)

What are 3 types of coping?

1) Problem-solving based coping to prepare for or fix things you can.

2) Emotion-based coping to navigate a spectrum of emotions including fear, anger, loneliness, and grief.

3)  Meaning-based coping for events that persist or remain unresolved, that may also spur growth.

But how do I get rid of the anxiety?

During the 1990s HIV/AIDS epidemic, Susan Folkman and colleagues found something profound in their work helping people respond and adapt to the direst of circumstances that included social rejection and stigma along with severe illness and death2-3. They found that life in the face of certain death brings more than sorrow and painful emotions to the heart. People in the worst of situations could experience joyful emotions and engage in positive social interactions. Wellness means much more than the absence of negative emotions (so no need to rid yourself of them before experiencing joy); rather it’s the co-occurance of both troubling and positive emotions. Being able to hold them both closely reflects emotional maturity.

This sentiment is seen in much older communications that we don’t often come across in the scientific literature. A 12th-century German Benedictine abbess, philosopher, and Christian mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, described how we are meant to fly like eagles with two wings: one wing of suffering and one of grace4. We cannot soar with only one of these wings, but need to hold in our awareness the pain along with the glory, simultaneously. This dichotomy is a beautiful albeit challenging tension to hold as we connect deeply with seemingly opposing realities. Some might say we need one to experience the other.

3 Ways to look deeper into your personal resilience:

Here are 3 exercises you might write down on your own or with your family to prepare yourself for the challenges of our current changing situation: 

1)  Recognize what is most difficult for you right now and lean into what you are experiencing. Arguing with your anxiety, escape-avoidance coping (substances, entertainment) and blame will bring temporary relief at best. Reaching out, reaching inward, or upward in new ways will promote flexibility and growth. Share your concerns with others and reflect on what frightens you deeply. Spend time connecting with what is hardest for you right now while also standing into the joy of each breath we are given.

Q: During this crisis, what might you have to let go of? In what ways might you be more connected?

2) Write a story with you as the resilient hero. In what ways are you already resilient? If you experience discomfort thinking of yourself in this way, first start by thinking of someone you know who exhibits openness, flexibility, grit, and adapts to new challenges again and again. Then think back to a difficult time in your life where you persevered, changed course, thought outside the box, and applied skills that brought about positive change. Describe it in detail.

Q: What are the attributes you have that allow you to continue in the face of hardship? How have you already made the world a better place?

3) Take wise and compassionate action. There are some scary knowns and unknowns right now. Move forward with the next right thing and realize this may change from moment to moment. Invite clarity about what the next mindful action you could take is and how it relates to what you value most.  Center yourself in each decision with breath to engage those parts of your rational and compassionate brain. Practice trusting your internal reserves as well as how you might support others.

Q: How would you like to look back on this pandemic years from now? What role did you play?

One thing we can count on: everything is transient. Our security is that everything changes.

Q: How might the current difficulties transform you?

How to Manage the Psychological Effects of Quarantine

(Below is an excerpt from Psychology today. Click Read More at the bottom for access to the full article.)

Psychology, Quarantine, and Consequences

Although social media can mitigate the effects of quarantine for many people, it can’t replace human interaction in physical space. Compound that with being confined to a small area—perhaps a room in an apartment when an infected person needs to isolate from family—and then consider the many worries about the possibility of getting infected, or infecting other people, not to mention the financial consequences. You get a recipe for real psychological distress.

A recent review of the psychological impact of quarantine reports that most studies of quarantined subjects observed effects such as confusion, anger, and post-traumatic stress symptoms, sometimes lasting even three years after the end of the quarantine.

A study from Canada examined the psychological effects of quarantine during the SARS outbreak of 2003. The median duration of quarantine was 10 days. They found a high prevalence of psychological distress symptoms. Twenty-nine percent of participants reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress and 31 percent of respondents reported symptoms of depression. Participants in this study described a sense of isolation and were particularly affected by the lack of social and physical contact with family members.

Being quarantined at home with other family members can be a blessing or a curse. It is an opportunity for families to come together and strengthen their bonds. But being constantly together involuntarily can put considerable stress on relationships. Small children may be overjoyed at the opportunity to be with mom and dad almost all the time; adolescents, on the other hand, may be less enthusiastic, and tensions can arise.

The Mentally Vulnerable, the Elderly, the Hospitalized

People who are particularly vulnerable to suffering psychological distress during and after quarantine are those with a history of psychiatric illnesses.

If a person is already suffering from anxiety, the sense of helplessness and lack of control induced by a forced quarantine can only exacerbate the anxiety. For people who are claustrophobic, being confined to a small space can be extremely stressful. People with suicidal ideation can be particularly at risk under these circumstances.

Another vulnerable population is the elderly, who are confined to their homes or in facilities, where infection can spread easily if not prevented. Because older people are more at risk for mortality, their quarantine must be more complete. And, since they are often dependent on others as it is, their increased helplessness can lead to elevated anxiety and depression.

Also, people who are confined in hospitals, whether because of the coronavirus or for other reasons, can find themselves isolated from their family and friends when hospitals impose restrictions on visitors, which is already happening.

Mitigating the Effects of Quarantine

Research shows that quarantine is better tolerated and compliance improves when people get information about the nature of the disease and the benefits of quarantine.

It is far better to get people to agree to quarantine by convincing them and offering information, than by forcing them. That increases their sense of agency and reduces helplessness as they become active participants in their circumstances. This is an important psychological concept. When faced with external pressures, the feeling of agency enables a person to feel more like a survivor than like a victim—increasing their sense of control.

Keeping people informed about the consequences of breaking the quarantine and explaining how isolation can actually save lives and benefit the community can turn quarantine from a scary nuisance into a truly meaningful act of altruism—a form of self-determination in the face of tremendous pressures.

  • It is critical not to abandon those who are most vulnerable. People who suffer from mental illness need to have access to therapists and medications—with telemedicine if need be. Mental health professionals, community and family members need to be aware of the challenges that isolation presents to the people under their care—or those in the community—and check on them often.
  • Older adults, living alone, need to be contacted often and reassured, while at the same time making sure they are not unduly exposed to the virus, given their health vulnerability. If there aren’t family members around, it becomes the responsibility of the community.
  • Those in nursing homes or hospitals still have access to people who care for them, as long as they are able to understand and interact. Phone, texting, email, even posted letters can make a difference. The act of reaching out is more important than anything that needs to be said. Patients who are isolated need to know that they still count. 

Social distancing could have devastating effect on people with depression

As the coronavirus advances across the country, more Americans are staying in their homes. That sort of “social distancing” is considered essential to slowing the spread of the virus and easing the burden on the beleaguered health infrastructure.

But for those suffering from depression, especially those who struggle with suicidal thoughts, it is definitely not what the doctor ordered.

Any “isolation is so devastating to our own mood because we’re left stuck with our own thoughts,” said Emily Roberts, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist. “If you’re struggling with a mental health disease, if you are relying on therapy which requires you getting out of your house, it’s going to be very hard to motivate yourself to get the help you need.

“The fact that there’s so much of an urgency to disconnect creates a lot of fear with people.”

The potential side effect of the crisis is something mental health professionals are scrambling to address amid the uncertainty of COVID-19, especially as health resources are diverted to the most immediate concerns. The scale of those concerns in turn is precisely what makes this time an unprecedented stressor for even the most well adjusted among us.

“It’s unclear from one day to the next what any local community is going to do in response to the coronavirus, if people are going to have to stay at home, which then has implications on how we work on caring for them,” said Lynn Bufka, associate executive director for research and policy for the American Psychological Association.

“What’s going to be the implication for disruption? Not everyone is going to be able to continue to get the help they need. Clinicians are very much thinking right now about how to do that.”

Meditation Relieves Perceived Stress And Leads To Specific Cerebral Changes

For researchers at IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, a study evaluating the effectiveness of Transcendental meditation (TM) among healthy participants led to promising findings.

According to new research, released in the journal Brain and Cognition, Transcendental meditation was linked to reductions in perceived stress. The technique, first developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, involves the use of a mantra practiced with eyes closed, a few times a day.

Researchers studied 34 healthy participants, half of which incorporated Transcendental meditation to their daily routine for 40 minutes per day. The other half carried on without meditation implemented into their normal daily routine.

Before the participants began their routines, psychometric questionnaires were administered to measure levels of anxiety and stress. Additionally, functional magnetic resonance imaging tests were conducted to gain further insight into stress levels at a neuropsychological viewpoint, by measuring brain activity and changes in functional connectivity in certain brain areas. The tests were then initiated again at the conclusion of the study.

“Transcendental Meditation (TM) is defined as a mental process of transcending using a silent mantra. Previous work showed that relatively brief period of TM practice leads to decreases in stress and anxiety,” researchers stated.

It’s Easier to Beat Social Anxiety Than You Think

Researcher Stephen Porges discovered that when we are with other people, we unconsciously exchange signals that influence how safe we feel. Strangers trigger the release of stress hormones which cause the urge to escape. But if the stranger’s body language signals us that they are not a physical threat, what Porges calls the Social Engagement System activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) enough to override the urge to escape.

What about emotional safety? When people are sizing each other up, no signals of emotional safety are being sent or received. In the absence of calming signals, some feel emotionally safe and others do not. A person with a solid history of being accepted does not need signals from others to feel at ease. He or she has what attachment theorist John Bowlby called internal working models of secure relationship. This internal resource signals the PNS to override the negative effect of whatever stress hormones are present.

But a person with a history of being judged and criticized lacks internal working models of security. With insufficient internal emotional support, they are vulnerable to stress hormone effects. They depend on signals from others to feel emotionally safe. Unfortunately, in social situations, signals may be mixed. Or there may be too many people sending signals for the signals to be processed.

Do you need to build an internal working model of a secure relationship that can carry you through the stress of social situations? Here’s how. Think of the people you are physically safe with. From that group, identify a person you feel emotionally safe with. Look for someone who does not judge you. When with a non-judgmental person, you unconsciously receive signals that there is nothing you need to be on guard about. Because of this calming effect, the memory of the person’s presence can activate your PNS and keep you calm in a challenging situation. You simply need to pre-link the person’s presence to the situations you will encounter.

To set up the linking exercise, list the situations to be encountered. One by one, link each situation to the memory of your friend’s face, voice quality, and touch. These are the three areas that convey the signals that activate your PNS. Don’t imagine yourself in the situation. That could cause stress. Instead, imagine a cartoon character in the situation. A cartoon character in a stressful situation is amusing. We don’t take their predicament seriously because, no matter what happens, cartoon characters always find a way out.

1. Link to Their Face

Imagine the cartoon character in that situation. Pretend your friend is holding the cartoon touching their cheek. Keep that in mind for a few seconds to link the cartoon character’s situation to the calming effect of your friend’s face.

2. Link to Their Voice

Pretend you and your friend are looking at the cartoon together. Imagine talking about the situation the cartoon character is in. In a few seconds, that links the situation to the safety signals in your friend’s voice.

3. Link to Their Touch

While talking about it, imagine your friend is giving you an affectionate hug (or whatever touch is appropriate for your relationship). This links the calming signals coming from your friend’s touch to the situation the cartoon character is in.

Continue the linking exercise using a cartoon character as a stand-in for yourself until you have linked each situation to your friend’s face, voice quality, and touch. Linking a stressful situation to a calming person is powerful. The PNS calms us by overriding the effects of stress hormones. It is activated by a person who accepts us completely. We feel our guard let down when our PNS is fully activated by another person’s signals that we are safe in every way.

Having an optimistic partner may stave off cognitive decline

Does your partner see the glass as half full or half empty? Do they tend to expect things to turn out for the best or the worst?

Researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing have found that by having an optimistic outlook, a person can help the long-term physical and mental health of their partner.

Such is the power of optimism that it can help stave off the risk of various health issues, such as cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease, as a couple grows old together. 

This is a boon given that most industrialized societies are aging. According to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), in the United States alone, the number of people aged 65 years and older hit a new high of 52 million in 2018. The PRB predict that this number will nearly double by 2060.

Not only that, but there are 5.8 million people in the U.S. living with Alzheimer’s disease — the most common form of dementia — and someone develops the disease every 65 seconds.

“[M]any industrialized societies are aging at a very fast rate. This presents a lot of unique challenges that we might not be ready for,” said Dr. William Chopik, speaking to Medical News Today

Dr. Chopik is a co-author of the new study, which appears in the Journal of Personality

In addition, he noted that people are living longer than ever, “which translates to a large number of individuals living with cognitive impairment and dementia.” 

“As a result,” he said, “we were motivated to find out what predicts cognitive decline, and we discovered that a lot of it has to do with you, but some of it also has to do with your romantic partner.”

Identifying the link

The study followed 4,457 heterosexual couples from the Health and Retirement Study for up to 8 years.

It showed that there was a potential link between marriage to an optimist and the prevention of cognitive decline.

But how does optimism — the general expectation that good things will happen in the future — in a partner affect long-term mental health?

“Optimists do all sorts of healthy things,” said Chopik. “They are more physically active, maintain healthy diets, and avoid harmful things [such as drugs and alcohol].”

Optimists lead by example, and partners often follow their lead, says Chopik, noting that people typically spend a lot of time with their partner.

Researchers found that in looking at predictors for Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, a lot revolve around lifestyle choices.

“Compromised health earlier in life, in combination with some genetic factors, is among the largest preventable risk factors for cognitive decline,” said Chopik.

“So, basically, we know that being physically healthier — for example, being more physically active, eating a healthy diet, being more mobile, avoiding major illnesses — is associated with reduced risk for cognitive decline.” 

“But we were most interested in what predicted the healthy living. It turns out being optimistic about the future helps a lot.”

Is It Possible to Program Your Happiness?

Happiness researchers base their work on the fundamental idea that psychology needs a better understanding of the factors that help people feel better. Rather than just focus on psychological disorders or problems, happiness studies use positive psychology as their theoretical basis.

From your own experience, you know that life goes better when you’re happy than when you’re not. You wake up in the morning eager to start your day, focusing on what you’d like to achieve. However, a thought enters your head reminding you that you have some unpleasant tasks ahead of you in the coming hours. Perhaps, instead, you remember an argument you had with a close friend the day before, filling you with regret and disappointment in yourself. Your good mood disappears, and your happiness starts to plummet.

What if you could overcome these detours to your feelings of well-being by shifting your focus away from those negative thoughts? Researchers in positive psychology propose that you can increase your happiness levels by thinking not about what’s going wrong but instead about what could go right.

The “best possible self” intervention is a simple exercise in which you visualize your best possible future. Going one step further, you could also take a few minutes and write down what you would consider your best possible future life. A “hoped-for possible self” is, as the term implies, the sense of who you could be rather than who you are at the moment. On the negative side, a “feared” possible self is one you dread.

According to a new study by Johannes Bodo Heekerens and Michael Eid of the Freie Universität Berlin (2020), there is considerable evidence suggesting that the best possible self-intervention in which you focus on your hoped-for possible self can improve feelings of optimism and positive affect.

However, the German authors note that studies evaluating the long-term benefits haven’t been established. Moreover, studies measuring the impact of this intervention haven’t always defined their outcome measures in precise enough terms, such as distinguishing between momentary changes in affect vs. affect in the past week. Adding to this problem, previous researchers haven’t always distinguished among the more nuanced aspects of positive outcomes such as life satisfaction, optimism, and happiness.

The authors concluded, “inducing an optimistic outlook encourages positive emotions,” a finding in line with the “process” approach to understanding emotions. According to this view, you can regulate your emotions by changing your outlook. Similar to other studies showing the benefits on emotion of such interventions as positive self-affirmations, the best possible self intervention isn’t one that will change your life forever. If done right, though, it could help you feel better for perhaps as long as a week. You will not, however, experience a “lasting change in well-being” (p. 20), as some advocates have claimed about this procedure.

In view of these mixed findings, how can you take advantage of that momentary bump in your happiness that a positive self-intervention can stimulate? In the first place, the authors note that you need to take it seriously and become sufficiently engaged in the activity. Just imagining your life going better when you wake up in the morning and then going about your daily routines without giving the matter further thought isn’t going to alleviate whatever bad mood you happen to be experiencing.

It seems clear that, with these qualifications in mind, there are benefits for your mood in the moment of taking the time to see yourself as able to achieve your goals and overcome your present obstacles. Even if this effect only works for a week, as suggested by the German study, there’s nothing to stop you from engaging in it again after your mood starts to slump downward. That increased positive emotion may also help you become more successful in what you’re trying to achieve even within that brief period of time. Other people will respond more favorably toward you which, in and of itself, can help you feel better about life.

To sum up, it’s important to look carefully at whatever new fads for improving your happiness might seem to offer. In the case of dreaming up your best possible self, the research seems to support its benefits, if not in the long-term, then for your present levels of fulfillment.

9 Ways to Find Your Purpose As You Age

Purpose and Health

In general, surveys show that older people are happier people. But getting older is not a bed of roses either. Eventually, the losses pile up.  Friends, family members, or partners may die.  You may acquire one or more chronic illnesses or become disabled.  You may feel that your choices are narrowing. 

But fortunately there are still ways to find meaning in your life despite these losses.  “Fortunately,” because recent research reveals that living with a sense of purpose—acting in accord with your most cherished values and goals– has numerous benefits for both physical and mental health. For example, feeling that you have a purpose decreases your chance of premature death, according to a study of almost 7000 adults between the ages of 51 and 61.  Amazingly, those without a sense of purpose were almost twice as likely to die in the four years of the study. 

Other studies show that a sense of purpose promotes healthy behaviors and is associated with better physical and mental health outcomes.  A 2019 study by a team of British researchers found that a sense of purpose also promoted happiness and a sense of well-being among adults 50- 90. The same researchers observed that older adults with a sense of purpose were more likely to have close friendships, enjoy the arts, practice healthy habits, and experience less chronic pain and illness.  A recent study of seniors in a retirement community suggests that a sense of purpose might even alleviate loneliness.

According to this NPR article, it doesn’t matter what your purpose is as long as you have one. But where do you look to find your unique purpose as you age?  

Nine Paths to Purpose

For part of the answer, I returned to a favorite book: Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. In this short, powerful book, Frankl describes his daily experiences and observations while a prisoner in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. There he developed his beliefs about what can sustain the desire to live even under the most inhumane and desperate circumstances.   

Frankl observed that those inmates who had a sense of purpose were more likely to survive the degrading conditions of the camp. While the rigors of aging in no way compare to life in a concentration camp, they have in common the need to find meaningful goals when life gets rough. 

Below are nine paths to purpose that can be helpful to anyone at any age, but they are especially relevant to older adults.  I’ve drawn on Frankl’s work for #1, #2, and #9.  The ninth path may not strike you as particularly cheerful, but I think you’ll find it bracing and even inspiring in its own way.  By the way, you don’t have to choose just one path. You might find yourself following each of the nine paths in turn, even in just one day.

     1. Work mission. 

Some older adults are able to continue the paid work they love to do. Their motto is: “Never retire.” Other active older adults use retirement as an opportunity to try out a second career.  Still others find employment where they can, because earning an income is either necessary or a source of independence and pride.  Many older adults find meaning in unpaid work such as volunteer work, personal projects, or home improvement. 

One reason Frankl was motivated to survive the daily torment of the camps was because of a book he wanted to finish.  Although he was forced to relinquish his manuscript when he entered the camp, he wrote his key ideas on scraps of paper and stuffed them in his pockets.  After his liberation from the camps, he wrote that book and many others.

If you are no longer motivated by traditional work goals, however, you could find your particular purpose in one of the motivators below.

     2. Love and friendship.  

Finding meaning in the love of another person is an inspiring motivator.  For example, Frankl was able to survive the camps in part by imagining a future reunion with his wife.  Many older people find meaning in relationships with spouses, friends, children, and grandchildren and in taking care of beloved others.

     3. Compassion for others. 

Compassion and concern for others may protect against feelings of meaninglessness, accord to this study.  As one senior said, “If you’re feeling lonely, then go out and do something for somebody else.”  Even making brief connections with relative strangers—acknowledging their presence, wishing them a good day, giving a compliment–can be a source both of meaning and happiness.   Listening to someone with an open mind, reaching out to someone who may be lonely, or sending a card can provide good cheer to someone who is down in the dumps.

4. Small joys and pleasures.  

But what if you don’t have some lofty-sounding “purpose project” in your life? Just learning to appreciate small pleasures is a habit worth cultivating.  Noticing a bird or plant outside your window, having a warming cup of coffee, exchanging hugs—these tiny moments when noticed and absorbed provide a source of satisfaction to both body and brain. 

According to the “Bold School” newsletter of the Washington Post, researchers have studied a population in Okinawa, Japan, where people live longer than anywhere in the world.  Researchers attributed this longevity to the practice of “ikigai:” “This ‘sense of life worth living’ includes looking for joy in small things, being present and creating a harmonious atmosphere.”

     5. Staying strong and healthy.

You won’t be able to accomplish much if you lack energy and strength.  And just staying strong to perform the normal activities of daily living is an accomplishment in itself, because it means that you can still be independent.  Take walks, go to the gym, get a personal trainer, eat right–you know what to do!

     6. Creative projects and play.

Creative activities, humor, and play of all sorts can provide a purpose for many people. Hobbies, sports, and experiences such as art, travel, music, nature, reading, and culture can touch us deeply and enlarge our capacity for empathy.  They may also reduce symptoms of chronic pain and worry by making life more enjoyable, according to PT blogger David Hanscom.  Expressing your identity through art or actions is a way to be happy, a way to affirm who you are, and a way to find purpose.

Click Read More for more Tips.

The Surprising Reason Mindfulness Makes You Happier

Experiencing positive feelings can improve our health and quality of life. However positive emotions are difficult to change because almost half of our happinessseems to be a function of genetic factors. Nevertheless, some practices have been shown to increase positive emotions, including practicing gratitude, spending money on others, doing lovingkindness meditation, and practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is both a set of skills and an orientation to life that involves maintaining open attention on whatever is happening in the present moment and bringing an attitude of acceptance and openness to whatever is going on internally or externally. Some studies have shown that mindfulness interventions increase positive feelings but we don’t really know why this happens. A recent research study sought to delve deeper into this issue.

Observing your present-moment  experiences

 One facet of practicing mindfulness  involves slowing down and deliberately focusing on different aspects of your experience such as what you feel in your body (e.g.,body temperature, breathing, muscles) your thoughts, emotions, your senses (what you see, hear, taste, feel or smell) or what is happening around you (e.g., listening mindfully to someone who is talking). When your attention wanders, you begin to notice this shift and deliberately bring it back to whatever you have decided to focus on. This deliberate direction of attention is called Monitoring.

Monitoring your ongoing experience may make you feel happier by helping you slow down to appreciate things or to notice more of the happy things that are going on around you. You may begin to pay more attention to the trees and flowers, enjoy the feel of the sun on your skin, or bask in the warmth of your partner’ or child’s  loving gaze.

On the other hand, paying attention to both positive and negative feelings as they arise may also make you more aware of negative feelings and sensations like tension in your body. Some feelings or thoughts may be uncomfortable or difficult to tolerate. Positive feelings may be observed but then quickly replaced by negative ones. Therefore it may take more than Monitoring to help us be happier.

Accepting your Inner Experiences

A second facet of mindfulness is Acceptance. Practicing acceptance means allowing your experiences (e.g., thoughts, feelings, sensations, cravings) to be as they are, viewing them with kindness, gentleness and openness. It is the middle ground between suppressing your feelings or over-identifying with them. When you sit with difficult experiences and give them space they can become less aversive. Acceptance is the opposite of judgment or clinging. Judging and criticizing yourself means not accepting that things are as they are and cannot be changed in this moment. Clinging means not allowing positive experiences to end, forcing ourselves to feel happy when we don’t, or trying to avoid the natural pain and ups and downs of life.  Acceptance can increase positive feelings because it can change the meaning of our stressors, making them more tolerable. By not trying to force our lives or experiences to be a certain way by judging less, we can be more open to the present moment and our naturally arising feelings of contentment, interest, pride, joy, curiosity and so on.

The Study

The researchers compared the effects of two different mindfulness trainings – Monitoring Only (teaching only 1 skill) versus Monitoring + Acceptance (teaching both skills) with a control condition (no treatment or inactive treatment) in two different studies of stressed community adults. One study used in person mindfulness training while the other study taught these skills via smartphone. Both positive and negative emotions were assessed at the end of the day (diaries) and also at 4 random times each day using the smartphone for 3 days before and after the study.

Results showed that while all the active mindfulness interventions (Monitoring Only and Monitoring + Acceptance) reduced negative feelings equally from before to after the study, they differed in their effects on positive feelings. For improving positive feelings the Monitoring + Acceptance group had a significantly stronger effect, compared to Monitoring Only and Control conditions.

These results mean that practicing mindfulness  can make us happier only if we learn to tolerate, make space for, and accept whatever experiences arise, rather than judging them, letting them define us, or running away from them. Perhaps Acceptance leads to a mindset shift in which we can let go and be ok with things as they are, rather than focusing on what we don’t have, what we should have done, or what might happen in the future. Letting go of trying to control everything can make space for you to take a breath and feel the joy of the present moment, whether it’s walking your dog, hugging your child, having lunch with a friend, or doing interesting work. Becoming aware of what you feel, negative thoughts, or the tension in your body (Monitoring) is only part of the work.  You also need to practice allowing those feelings and sensations to be there without trying to force them away, worrying about them, letting yourself be defined by them or judging yourself for having them.

Below is an exercise to help you practice acceptance in your daily life:

Allowing the Feeling In

If you are struggling with feeling something that you don’t want to feel (e.g., anger or sadness), try to make room for that feeling. Start by giving it a name  {e.g., I’m feeling angry) and then notice where you feel it in your body (e.g., your chest). Try to bring curiosity to the experience, letting the anger be there and noticing if it moves in your body, goes down or increases, whether it’s hot or cold, expansive or tight, and other qualities of it. Notice what the anger makes you want to do (e.g., shout and scream) and notice that you have a choice whether to do that or not. You can just watch the impulse to begin with to give yourself more time to process the situation before you act.