Stressful Age: Good News/Bad News For Boomers

Tiepolo at Stresshacker.com First the good news. A study based on the 2008 Gallup poll of 340,000 Americans has identified 50 as the age when people begin to feel better about themselves. Prior to that age, people generally feel progressively worse from age 18. The study was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Following the sharp reversal at about age 50, most people report better self-satisfaction at increasing levels up to age 85.

Now for the bad news. According to the latest figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate among people age 45-54 years has increased at a surprising pace since 2006. Typically, individuals aged ≥80 years have had the highest rates of suicide in the United States. Since 2006, however, rates of suicide among persons aged 45 to 54 years in the United States have been the highest. The majority of suicides in this age group were among white, non-Hispanic males.

The CDC speculates that problems related to mental health (depression), job loss, financial reversal (foreclosure, loss of investment value), or relationships (divorce, bereavement) might be contributing to the rising rates of suicide in this age group. Abuse of alcohol and/or drugs was a frequent precipitant or “facilitating” factor for the suicide.

Brothers, fathers, friends in this age group who may be feeling overwhelmed and have had a recent significant stressor may be at risk. Suicide crisis hotlines (in the United States: 1-800-784-2433 or 1-800-273-8255) are available as a first line of defense. Among the best protective factors is the availability of support from immediate family and close friends.

Are you a human being or a human doing?

When I make a mistake, forget something, mess up something or miss an appointment… is it just what I do sometimes, or does it say something about who I am? This is a crucial question whose answer can make a difference between a healthy or a not so healthy opinion of one’s self. Answering the question requires an understanding of the difference between “being” and “doing.” It is the being that determines a person character, true personality and, ultimately, his or her true self. It is the doing that often is out of character and does not accurately reflect the personality or the true self. The problem is, the doing is often confused with the being. Said another way, what a person does is often confused with who that person really is. Think of it this way: mistaking the doing for the being can lead to a misunderstanding of the person in almost every case. Take for example the immoral, cheating, antisocial individual who writes a large check to a charity and then receives a public recognition of generosity. Or, the church-going, honest, and caring individual who drives by a person in need and does not stop to render aid. Both individuals simply do or don’t do something in a specific situation. Their doing, however, can be interpreted by an observer as representative of the individual’s character, personality or true being, without it being the case. When the doing is not sincere or reflective of the true being of a person, it does not stand the test of time, the test of consistency, or both. In the first example, the evil nature of the individual may never become known to the charity that received the donation, but it is certainly going to be known to anyone who interacts with this person on a regular basis because the true being can never stay hidden for very long. In the second example, the good nature of the individual may not be reflected in the failure to stop and help but it would be known to others who see this person being good in many other situations. So, as far as a person’s social image is concerned, the difference between what people occasionally may do and who they truly are is straightforward: time and consistency will always tell the tale.

There is, however, another more significant problem that affects all individuals who do not understand the difference between what they do and who they are. They tend to misinterpret their own occasional or inconsistent actions as being reflective of their true being. In one scenario, they may form an opinion of themselves which is narcissistically positive by focusing on their occasional good deeds and conveniently ignoring their more frequent missteps. In another scenario, they may have an overwhelmingly negative view of themselves by focusing on their occasional (but perceived as too frequent) missteps and ignoring their good nature, sound character or engaging personality. Either positive or negative misinterpretation of a person’s true being is produced by focusing attention on infrequent, occasional, or inconsistent behaviors. Evaluating a person, or one’s self, based on too few observations (or data points) can lead to the wrong conclusion. A good example of this type of evaluation is that of a new couple who has just fallen in love with each other. Both parties, temporarily blinded by love, need, want, passion, lust or a combination thereof, may gather very little “hard data” on the other person and pay an inordinate amount of attention to what the other person does, misunderstanding his or her actions as being consistent, stable over time, and reflecting of the person’s true nature, character and personality. In many cases, thank goodness, this turns out to be true: he or she IS truly wonderful, and not just temporarily doing wonderful things. In some other cases, however, after the honeymoon is over and things settle down, the behaviors that are inconsistent with the person’s true being become rarer, while the behaviors that are reflective of the person’s true being become more frequent and consistent. At this stage, either the couple accept each other’s finally discovered true being, or they break up.

The hard truth in all of this: the opinion that I have of myself and others must be based, to be valid and usable, on time and consistency of behavior. The good news: this opinion can be changed (and indeed should be changed) on the basis of acquiring additional information on the true nature of the self or on that of others. In individuals who suffer from low self-esteem the opinion they have of themselves is often distorted by a negative observational bias: what they “do wrong” matters far more than who they truly are. The perverse reality in this is that, often, what they “do wrong” is based on their own poor observational skills, on a misinterpretation of motive, or a harshness toward the self that is frequently unjustified. They will say negative things to themselves such as, “I am such a failure, I always mess things up, I can’t get anything done, I am so stupid,” at every turn, many times, every day, no matter the circumstances. What they do becomes a definition of who they are which is far from being objective, measured or consistent with their true being. How many otherwise fairly successful, decent, good human being are walking around believing themselves to be otherwise and are therefore fighting depression, anxiety, and pessimism?

To break this cycle of despair, to change one’s opinion to a more balanced view, to truly find out that what we sometimes do is not the same as who we consistently are requires introspection. It is only by taking a look at our actions in context that we can see the many variables that have caused us to behave a certain way: the lady did not stop her car to help the person by the side of the road because she was traveling through a neighborhood that she deemed unsafe, or because she was running late to pick up her son, or a variety of other legitimate reasons. The man who gave to the charity did so to gain the advantage that an image of generosity could provide to him in certain business deals, or to impress a would-be girlfriend, or to soothe guilty feelings caused by a previous misdeed. Ascertaining our true self also requires honesty of intent, whereby we seek objectivity in knowing who we really are so that we can change what we can, accept what we cannot, and have the wisdom to know the difference.

Stresshacker Not Found. Click To Continue.

Riccio_SH Sometime between midnight and 5 am on Thursday, the computer server that “dishes up” Stresshacker went down. And stayed down. Eventually, during the day, it died. The result was the disappearance of Stresshacker.com from the Internet. Service was not restored until late on Thursday evening, and not fully (with a new server) until this Friday afternoon, for a total down time of about 12 hours.

First, my apologies to the visitors who tried to access Stresshacker.com and were met with a screen that proclaimed its disappearance. We have taken the necessary steps and hopefully this type of incident will not happen again.

Second, this was an object lesson on the management of stress and anxiety. My reaction cycled through the stages, from denial (this can’t be happening), to anger (this shouldn’t be), to bargaining (maybe I can get them to fix it fast), to despair (we are down forever!), and finally to acceptance (we can use the down time to research and choose a better solution). The stress process took a couple of hours, while the repairs to the server took six times as long.

The lesson for me: experience the stress fully (I had a darn good reason), let the anxiety ebb and flow, and then get to work to address the real culprit: better Internet service.

Stress Hardware Update: Limbic System 2.0

LimbicSystemGeographyThe term limbic system designates the entire neuronal circuitry and forebrain structures that control emotional behavior, motivational drives and the processing of present and past sensory experiences. The brain structures of the limbic system are located around the middle edge of the brain. Several limbic structures are involved in determining the affective nature of sensory inputs, i.e., whether the sensations are pleasant or unpleasant. The emotional qualities we attach to the input provided by our five senses are also called reward (when they are pleasing to us and therefore we crave more of them) or punishment (when they are unpleasant and therefore we seek to avoid them), or satisfaction or aversion. Neurobiological research on the functions of the limbic system dating back to its XIX century pioneer Pierre-Paul Broca (1861), later expanded by James Papez (1937), Giuseppe Moruzzi and Horace Magoun (1949), and Ross MacLean (1949, 1952) identified the “reticular” and “limbic” systems as regulating the energizing and expressive roles in the central nervous system.

The limbic system is comprised of numerous structures, the most important of which are the hypothalamus, the amygdala, the hippocampus, the cortex, the cingulate gyrus, the striatum, the pallidum, the thalamus, and Meynert’s nucleus basalis. Each of these structures performs a specific function, and often also serves to receive, transmit and amplify communication within the limbic system, with other areas of the brain, and with other parts of the central nervous system.

The Hypothalamus: The Central Autonomic Controller

A major component of the limbic system is the hypothalamus and its related substructures. The hypothalamus complex controls the internal state of the body, such as temperature, osmolality of the body fluids, appetite and thirst and the regulation of body weight. Despite its very small size of only a few cubic centimeters (which represents less than 1% of the brain mass), the hypothalamic complex has two-way communicating pathways with all levels of the limbic system and is the key structure for higher level coordination of autonomic and endocrine functions. There would not be a stress reaction, with its almost instantaneous activation of physical and psychological defense mechanisms, without the hypothalamus providing the critical signal activation.

The Amygdala: The CPU of Emotional Response

AmygdCingGyrusThe amygdala is a group of nuclei embedded in the anteromedial temporal lobe, which receives input from all five senses. It performs the analysis of form and color and facilitates the recognition of complex stimuli such as human faces. The amygdala can influence heart rate and blood pressure, gut and bowel function, respiratory function, bladder function, and many more instinctive physical reactions. It is in the amygdala and its connection to other limbic structures that the determination of the affective value of sensory stimuli (rewarding or aversive) is made and our mood (or feelings about something) is determined. Stimulation of the amygdala produces the defense reaction that prepares us for fight, flight or freeze, along with complex sensory and experiential phenomena, which may include fear, sensory hallucinations, feelings of deja vu, and memory-related flashbacks and nightmares. The amygdala receives neuronal signals from all portions of the limbic cortex and is the “central processing unit” in which the limbic system produces an emotional response to events, people and situations. The amygdala also interacts with higher brain regions that govern such processes as directed attention, declarative memory, and response inhibition (Davidson, Putnam, & Larson, 2000; LeDoux, 1995).

The Hippocampus: Memory Chips and Orientation

The hippocampus is a highly specialized region of the cerebral cortex, which along with surrounding areas of the parahippocampal gyrus is directly involved in memory processing and spatial orientation. The hippocampus provides the neural mechanism for association of different parameters that is necessary for the moment-to-moment incorporation of experience into our short- and long-term memory banks. Almost any type of input from the five senses causes activation of at least part of the hippocampus, which in turn distributes many outgoing signals to the anterior thalamus, to the hypothalamus, and to other parts of the limbic system, especially through the fornix, a major communicating pathway.

The Orbital and Medial Prefrontal Cortex: Food and Personality

PhineasGageThe cortical areas of the limbic system are divided into two interconnected networks with related but distinct functions. Many of these functions are related to food or eating (e.g., olfaction, taste, visceral afferents, somatic sensation from the hand and mouth, and vision), and neurons in the orbital cortex respond to multisensory stimuli involving the appearance, texture, or flavor of food. Therefore, the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex have the function of evaluating feeding-related sensory information and to stimulate appropriate visceral reactions. More importantly, damage to the ventromedial frontal lobe can produce dramatic behavioral changes, which suggests that the visceral reactions evoked through this cortical area are critical in evaluating alternatives and making choices. As the well-publicized 19th-century case of Mr. Phineas Gage’s accidental head impaling by a steel rod demonstrates, individuals with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex have no problem with their motor or sensory function, their intelligence or cognitive function, but show devastating changes in personality and choice behavior.

The Cingulate Gyrus: The Cement of Society

Intriguing data and ideas have been proposed by several researchers seeking to identify specific functions of the cingulate gyrus. In what has been termed the affiliation/attachment drive theory, Everly (1988) has shown experimentally that the removal of the cingulate gyrus eliminates both affiliative and grooming behaviors. MacLean (1985) has argued that the affiliative drive may be hard-coded in the limbic system and may be the anatomical underpinning of the “concept of family” in humans and primates. The drive toward other-oriented behaviors, such as attachment, nurturing, affection, reliability, and collaborative play, which has been referred to as the “cement of society” (Henry and Stephens, 1977), appears to originate in this relatively small limbic system structure.

The Ventromedial Striatum, Ventral Pallidum, and Medial Thalamus

The nuclei of the ventromedial striatum are also related to reward and reward-related behavior, whereby they inhibit or suppress unwanted behaviors while allowing other behaviors to be freely expressed. The dorsolateral striatum and related areas of the globus pallidus appear to be involved in switching between different patterns of motor behavior, whereas the ventromedial striatum and pallidum may allow changing of stimulus–reward associations when the reward value of a stimulus has changed. These areas are examples of the complexity and redundancies built into limbic system structures that permit multiple iterations of signal transmission and reception, and a much more complex and refined analysis of sensory inputs from the five senses.

Nucleus Basalis (of Meynert)

The nucleus basalis of Meynert is a prominent group of large cells located in the basal forebrain, most of which are involved in the activation of acetylcholine or GABA neurotransmitters, indispensable in activation of the stress reaction and our defense mechanism when a physical or psychological threat is perceived. The magnocellular basal forebrain nuclei are well situated to modulate brain activity in relation to limbic activity.

Disorders of the Limbic System

Although lesions to limbic structures do not necessarily result in sensory or motor deficits, any loss of function in these structures is usually associated with a variety of psychological problems, including depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia.

Structural changes have been noted in the hippocampal formation, medial thalamus, and prefrontal cortex in schizophrenic subjects. Images obtained through positron emission tomography scans show that the amygdala, prefrontal cortex and medial thalamus are abnormally active in patients suffering from severe unipolar and bipolar depression.

The complete removal of the amygdala and other nearby structures in laboratory settings causes specific changes in animal behavior called the Klüver-Bucy syndrome, whose characteristic symptoms are a complete lack of fear of anything, extreme curiosity about everything, rapid loss of short-term memory, tendency to place everything in the mouth and sometimes even trying to eat solid objects, and a sex drive so strong that it leads to attempts to copulate with immature animals, animals of the wrong sex, or even animals of a different species. Although similar lesions in human beings are rare, afflicted people respond in a manner not too different from that of the affected animal.

Stress Software: How Fear and Exercise Are the Same

Dali_1951_RaphaelesqueHeadExploding When it comes to stress, exercise and sheer terror are one and the same.

An adaptive and vitally important characteristic of the nervous system is its ability to increase arterial pressure almost instantaneously. This can take place in times of good stress (exercise, getting out of the way of an incoming bus), but also in times of bad stress (loss, grief, calamity, adversity, job strain).

During dangerous situations (real or perceived as they may be), arterial pressure rises to as high as twice its normal value within a few seconds. This spontaneous alarm reaction triggers a dramatic increase of arterial pressure that can immediately supply blood to any or all muscles of the body needed to respond. This translates into an enormously increased ability to fight against or to flee from the cause of danger.

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When Stress Hurts: The Psychology of Pain

SerraDosOegaos_EN-US952673641Psychological factors that play a role in the onset of physical pain are the subject of this, the fourth post in the series on the close association between psychological stress and psychogenic pain.

Likely Causes of Psychogenic Pain

Negative interaction with one’s spouse has been correlated with the sudden appearance of pain symptoms in otherwise healthy individuals (Campbell, 2002; Hughes, Medley, Turner, & Bond, 1987). Numerous studies show that the appearance of pain is often closely associated with the onset of psychological stress, financial problems, job dissatisfaction (Melin et al., 1997), unemployment, and with other less severe but long-lasting life stressors (Bennett et al., 1998). Covington (2000) speaks of a continuum of suffering of pain and stress and suggests the terms “psychologically augmented pain” (p. 292) to describe physical suffering that appears to be at least partially caused by psychological factors.

Chronic stress in adults, especially over many years and of particular severity, often results in alterations in the allostatic control system, which in the case of gastrointestinal disorders can lead to an exacerbation of symptoms (Bennett et al., 1998). Earlier in life, significant stressors in an infant’s life have been shown to produce a permanent upward modification in the levels of Corticotrophin Release Factor secretion and in the overactivation of the locus ceruleus (Ladd, Huot, Thrivikraman, & al., 2000). Moreover, prolonged abuse or neglect at any stage of life has been linked to a permanent alteration of the HPA axis response to stressors (Heim, Newport, & Heit, 1999).

Certain life stressors have been positively linked with the onset and persistence of gastrointestinal disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), functional gastrointestinal disorder (FGD), and gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD). Research has also established a correlation between acute stress in adults (such as rape or combat situations) or early life stressors (such as child abuse) and the later onset of these gastrointestinal disorders (Mayer, 2000).

Stress-related Muscle and Bone Pain

Pain in the muscles and joints is often associated with stress. Musculoskeletal pain localized in the lower back, shoulders, and arms appears frequently to be unrelated to any disease and thus bear all indications of having psychological causes (Harkness, Macfarlane, Silman, & McBeth, 2005). Researchers postulate that an increase in this type of pain observed in data collected by the Arthritis Research Campaign over a 40-year span may be due to “an increase in the proportion of the population who are psychologically distressed”  (Harkness et al., 2005, p. 893).

Other research suggests that musculoskeletal pain may be caused by multiple factors such as psychosocial environment, individual personality, specific behaviors, and mental stress. A study by Melin and colleagues (1997) on several hundred factory workers, assembly line workers, and supermarket cashiers suffering from musculoskeletal pain showed that the telltale signs of strong HPA axis activation, i.e. urinary catecholamines and cortisol, salivary cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate, and norepinephrine output all increased due to psychological stress.

Stress, Mental Health and Pain

Physiological pain and psychological disorders such as depression often coexist. Blackburn-Munro & Blackburn-Munro (2001) reported that while approximately 30 percent of individuals who report pain are diagnosed with clinical depression, 75 percent of patients diagnosed with depression also suffer from physical symptoms, including pain. Drossman (1982) provided evidence that individuals who seek medical help for irritable bowel syndrome are significantly more likely to present with psychiatric disorders, abnormal personality patterns and greater life stress.

Katon et al. (2001) in their extensive review of large epidemiological studies found that headache and other variously localized pain are associated with approximately 50% of visits to primary care physicians, and that most of the time, no clear medical explanation of the pain symptom is found. Stressful life events, anxiety and depressive disorders, childhood and adult trauma, and specific personality traits have all been found to be associated with multiple physical symptoms. Kroenke & Mangelsdorff (1989) reviewed over 1,000 patient records and noted 567 new complaints of chest pain, fatigue, dizziness, headache, edema, back pain, dyspnea, insomnia, abdominal pain, numbness, impotence, weight loss, cough, and constipation, and that an organic etiology was demonstrated in only 16% of these cases.

Finally, data from the World Health Organization’s study of psychological problems in general health care was used by Gureje and colleagues (2001) to examine the course of persistent pain syndromes among 3197 randomly selected primary care patients in 14 countries, which evidenced a strong and symmetrical relationship between persistent pain and psychological disorders.

Previously in this series:

Next:

  • Fibromyalgia, Severe Headaches and Other Stress-Related Misery
  • Medical and Non-Medical Treatments for Stress and Psychogenic Pain

Generalized Anxiety: The Logic of Unending Gloom

I am sure there is a reason why things keep going the wrong way. Once my grandmother told me that I looked like someone who would never be happy. I still remember her saying that, her tone of voice was so… matter of fact. All I have to do to believe her is to look at my relationships: it’s like looking at a trailer park after a tornado. (…) Oh my so-called career… let’s not even go there. (…) I had so many dreams when I was a kid. Where have they gone? I can’t even dream anymore. Heck, I can’t even sleep. (…) And my health! Every bone in my body screams bloody murder… I panic just thinking about going somewhere. (…) Why can’t I just be happy?

These statements (taken from a variety of similar cases) are representative of the way of thinking that is characteristic of individuals suffering from a stress disorder. They are so categorical–and, in the patient’s view, so logical–that anything anyone could say or do would appear to be just another futile attempt at fixing the irretrievably broken. The gloom can be so palpable and real that it falls over the therapy room like a cloak.

vanGogh_1889_StarryNight_MOMANY The apparent logic of these statements requires the experienced therapist to apply a judicious dosage of empathy and attunement while gently challenging their validity, in order to establish a positive therapeutic relationship.

Unfortunately, this type of personal narrative is not uncommon. In fact, most individuals who come in for help on issues of depression, anxiety, and stress disorders have a similar presentation. In some cases, the symptoms are focused on a specific stressor, but in many cases

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Freshmen Stress, Debt Worries Grow Higher

JeffersonMemorial_EN-US2610056053Results of the 2009 survey of over 200,000 first-year students at 4-year American colleges, administered by the Cooperative Institute Research Program of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, show that at least 67% of freshmen are concerned about financing their college cost, the highest percentage since 1971. Moreover, 53% of first-year students have taken out loans to finance college, 4% more than in 2008 and the highest percentage in the last ten years. 

The global economic downturn is having an impact on the characteristics, attitudes, and beliefs of incoming first-time students at four-year institutions. They are more concerned about finances, more likely to take out loans and need grants in higher amounts. They will likely be graduating with higher debts and have shifted majors and career aspirations away from business fields. Although the values of these students coming into college show a slight retrenching towards financial security and less towards social agency, there is hope that their increased desire for volunteering and community service will foster an increase in such attitudes during their college careers. — Pryor, J.H., Hurtado, S., DeAngelo, L., Palucki Blake, L., & Tran, S. (2009). The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2009. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

The students are describing themselves as being “below average” in their emotional health in higher numbers than ever before. The percentage of students who described their emotional health as above average fell from 64% in 1985 to 52%. Female students have a less positive view of their emotional health than male students, by a wider than ever margin: 18% of the men compared with 39% of the women. Female students also accounted for 60% of the number of students who reported having sought mental health services during their first year of college.

Among the principal causes of the increase in stress, the economy appears to play the major role, due to much greater financial pressures on parents and the students’ own worries about college debt and job prospects after graduation. 29% of the students surveyed reported that they had been frequently overwhelmed by stress during their senior year of high school, up from 27% last year.

School Bullying Is Much More Than ‘Just What Kids Do’

aaMondrian_BroadwayIs school becoming an increasingly dangerous place for our children’s mental and physical health? A study of 43,321 high school students confirms that student-on-student bullying has become a serious problem in public and private schools across the United States. Its behavioral, health and social consequences are lowered academic achievement and aspirations, increased anxiety, loss of self‐esteem and confidence, depression and PTSD, general deterioration in physical health, self‐harm and suicidal thinking, feelings of alienation in the school environment such as fear of other children, and absenteeism from school. In response to recent high-profile bullying cases, the U.S. Department of Education has sent this letter to over 15,000 school districts across the country, in which school officials are reminded of their responsibility and legal obligation to protect the civil rights of all students, regardless of their nationality, race, sex or disability status.

The study, conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, was released on Tuesday and is the largest ever undertaken of the attitudes and conduct of high school students. The truly sobering results show that 50% of all high school students admit they bullied someone in the past year, and 47% say they were bullied, teased, or taunted in a way that seriously upset them in the past year. 33% percent of all high school students say that violence is a big problem at their school, and 24% say they do not feel safe at school. 52% admit that within the past year they hit a person because they were angry. 10% of students say they took a weapon to school at least once in the past 12 months, and 16% admit that they have been intoxicated at school. The study clearly shows that there is almost no difference between public, religious private and non-religious private schools in the students’ perceived safety, or in the percentage of perpetrators and victims of bullying.

In the press release accompanying the results, Institute Director Michael Josephson said, “If the saying, ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never harm me’ was ever true, it certainly is not so today. Insults, name calling, relentless teasing, and malicious gossip often inflict deep and enduring pain. It’s not only the prevalence of bullying behavior and victimization that’s troublesome. The Internet has intensified the injury. What’s posted on the Internet is permanent, and it spreads like a virus – there is no refuge. The difference between the impact of bullying today versus 20 years ago is the difference between getting into a fist fight and using a gun. The combination of bullying, a penchant toward violence when one is angry, the availability of weapons, and the possibility of intoxication at school increases significantly the likelihood of retaliatory violence.”

Faith And Stress: The Connection

My view is that "bad" stress is handled through scripture, prayer, and faith. That is not naïve but a way to perceive the circumstances of life which would invade our peace and joy. –Doyle Kee

Hurricane at Stresshacker.com The belief in the existence of a supernatural being who has
a plan for each human being, and the opportunity to connect with others who share the same belief, can be powerful relievers of the stress of life. The psychological appeal of faith is beyond dispute: there are over 100,000 registered religions in the United States alone, and membership is constantly on the rise. An even greater number of people accept a form of personal spirituality which includes the belief in a higher being, without subscribing to any one specific movement.

Religious belief and affiliation appear to rise significantly in times of severe stress. Some of history’s most prominent, and some of the most unusual and charismatic, religious movements have arisen in times of great political, economic and societal turmoil. In times of war, widespread famine, poverty and natural disasters, and impending death and illness nearly all religious groups have seen and continue to see their appeal grow.

Sigmund Freud, in his book on The Future of an Illusion admitted, without accepting it, that faith in God could reduce psychological stress. Carl Marx famously stated, “religion is the opiate of the masses” in the introduction of his book Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. And we can certainly consider the meaning attached to faith by the 9/11 suicide bombers who went to their death (and took many with them) as a testament to the power of their religious fervor.

The Connection Between Faith and Stress

Research has shown that faith in a supernatural being, with all its corollaries and attributes, appears to be particularly effective in relieving certain specific psychological stressors. Here are the most important ones:

  • Psychological and physical escape from stress: religious organizations offer physical as well as spiritual shelters where food, clothing, and healthcare are available, along with social support, structure, and spiritual guidance.
  • Consolation, devaluation of and disassociation from the illusory trappings of the material world, and the ephemeral appeal of beauty, money, success.
  • Appealing models of resilience and positive outcomes in the face of life-threatening stressors.
  • Cognitive and dialectical techniques that are useful in coping with stressors, such as individual prayers, group rituals and collective petitions. Nearly all religious movements provide ways of giving voice to individual and collective distress, including the fast-growing Internet-based churches.
  • Explaining the inexplicable: in a world that seems ruled by chaos and administered by randomness, faith in a superiorly organized universe is an appealing provider of stability. By prayer, penance, code, dietary laws, rituals, or positive thinking, faith-based movements promote a sense of personal control.
  • A meaning to life and to life’s end. Faith can promote a hopeful and optimistic outlook with its emphasis on a more peaceful (and stress-free) existence and its promise of life after death.
  • A refuge from aloneness and abandonment. The profoundly comforting sense of belonging to a community of mutual love and support, and the incomparable feeling of being loved unconditionally by someone who epitomizes love and trust are perhaps the most appealing attributes of faith.

As an intensely personal experience, faith remains beyond the investigation by scientific means. In psychological terms, faith can positively influence us in cognitive and emotional terms, in the way we come to perceive ourselves, our world, and our future. When embraced sincerely and whole-heartedly, it can become an important protective factor against the effects of stress in our lives.

Humor: The All-Natural Remedy Against Stress

GinettoA stress reaction to challenging people and situations may be expressed by anger, hostility, aggression or seething inward rage. These instinctive reactions have their obvious drawbacks, but are altogether too common. There are other, more adaptive and sublimated responses (see this post for a complete list) that can turn angry reactions into assertiveness, the ability to effectively stand up for one’s rights, to engage in a respectful and yet passionate discussion of opposing points of view, an energy-releasing all-out workout at the gym, or humor. There is an abundance of evidence that proves the therapeutic value of humor. When used appropriately, this 100% natural remedy against stress is an adaptive, cathartic release of tension, a safe outlet for hostility and anger, and an effective defense against depression. Moreover, humor not only indicates emotional intelligence but also causes healthy neurological, immunological and physical changes. The mere act of laughter immediately increases muscular and respiratory activity, elevates the heart rate and stimulates the production of anti-stress hormones.

What Psychologists Say About Humor

American psychologist and psychotherapist Gordon Allport, in his research The Nature of Prejudice reported that 94% of people he questioned said their sense of humor was either average or above average. Allport stated that “the neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure” (p. 280).

American existential psychologist and author Rollo May, in Existence, suggested that humor has the function of “preserving the sense of self. . . It is the healthy way of feeling a ‘distance’ between one’s self and the problem, a way of standing off and looking at one’s problem with perspective” (p. 54).

mans-search-for-meaning-viktor-franklAustrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, in his best-selling autobiographical Man’s Search for Meaning, shared as his learned experience that, “to detach oneself from even the worst conditions is a uniquely human capability.” He specified that this distancing of oneself from aversive situations derives “not only through heroism . . . but also through humor” (p. 16–17).

American physician and psychologist Raymond Moody (Glimpses of Eternity and Life After Loss: Conquering Grief and Finding Hope), noted for his well-researched studies on grief, loss and the possibility of an after-life, also pointed to the ability to detach oneself as intrinsic to humor: “A person with a ‘good sense of humor’ is one who can see himself and others in the world in a somewhat distant and detached way. He views life from an altered perspective in which he can laugh at, yet remain in contact with and emotionally involved with people and events in a positive way” (p. 4).

What Is Humor?

Humor is expressed in many ways: verbally (a funny story, joke, stand-up routine), visually (a mime’s movements, funny faces and gestures) or behaviorally (slapstick, pie-in-the-face comedy). It can be triggered by a book, hours-long stage or film productions or by just a few words, as in this very short story,

A passenger carried his own bomb onto a plane. When questioned by the TSA, he said that it was for his own safety, because the odds of there being two bombs on the same plane are virtually nil.

What makes this story humorous? The stress-relieving fun of it lies in the entirely natural and universal human need to seek safety and reassurance, which is however expressed by integrating two contradictory beliefs, no matter how absurd the result. In fact, it is the absurdity or incongruity of the synthesis that is the essence of humor.

Humor is therefore a mental capacity, the skill of discovering, expressing, or appreciating the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous. Its effectiveness, i.e. the difference between funny and inappropriate, depends on the incongruity between what we expect to happen or to be said and what we perceive with our senses. Not all incongruity is humorous: in addition to being there, the incongruous must also be meaningful or appropriate, and must be at least partially resolved.

Humor and Human Development

BabyLaughingIn developmental psychology, humor is a form of play expressed by the manipulation of images, symbols, and ideas. Humor can be detected in infants of about 18 months of age who have acquired the ability to manipulate symbols and objects. Some believe that humor may be present in infants as young as four months old if humor is defined as the ability to perceive incongruities in a playful way and accept them without distress.

From a very early age, humor serves a number of social functions. Beginning in early adolescence and into young adulthood, humor can be an effective coping strategy, can reinforce interpersonal connections, or can be used to test the status of relationships.

One of the most important signs of a healthy self-esteem and maturity is the ability to laugh at one’s own shortcomings and mistakes. Most prominently in adulthood, humor is often used to express forbidden feelings or attitudes in a socially acceptable way, a device at least as old as the Renaissance fool or court jester who was, up to a point, allowed to speak of unpleasant truths and openly mock those in positions of authority.

Humor and Mental Health

Flirt_DepressionIt is a recognized fact in mental health practice that the presence of humor in a person’s narrative is a healthy way of reducing anxiety and indicates the ability of reasserting mastery over a situation. Conversely, one of the clear signs of depression is the inability to appreciate or use humor in any situation.

A judicious use of humor ushers in the opportunity to detach from the most painful aspects of a situation, albeit briefly, and exercise some control over its impact by laughing at the seemingly inescapable predicament. This dynamic, psychological attempt at regaining control by interjecting an element of incongruity is concretized in this popular German witticism about two contrasting points of view, “In Berlin, the situation is serious but not hopeless; in Vienna, the same situation is hopeless but not serious.”

{tab=Humor and Pain}
pain-signA 2005 study by Zweyer and Velker conducted at the Department of Psychology, Section on Personality and Assessment of the University of Zurich, 56 female participants were assigned randomly to three groups, each having a different task to pursue while watching a funny film: (1) get into a cheerful mood without smiling or laughing, (2) smile and laugh extensively, and (3) produce a humorous commentary to the film. Their pain tolerance was measured using a cold presser device before, immediately after, and 20 minutes after the film. Results indicated that pain tolerance increased for participants from before to after watching the funny film and remained high for the 20 minutes. Participants low in trait seriousness had an overall higher pain tolerance. Subjects with a high score in group 1 showed an increase in pain tolerance after producing humor while watching the film whereas subjects with a low score showed a similar increase after smiling and laughter during the film.

{tab=Humor and Immunity}

ilovebacteriaThe functions of the immune system that are essential for good health are known to be strongly affected by psychological experiences. Stressful events often result in immunosuppression, which leaves the body highly vulnerable to illnesses. Dillon, Minchoff, and Baker (1985) hypothesized that if stress and negative emotions can cause immunosuppression, it may also be true that humor, a positive emotional state, may be a potential enhancer of the immune system. In testing their hypothesis, they found that laughter induced by a humorous video caused a measurable and significant increase in concentrations of salivary immunoglobulin A (S-IgA), which is often described as the first line of defense against upper respiratory infection. Later research by Dillon and Totten (1989) replicated and expanded on these findings. Working with a group of mothers who were breastfeeding their infants, they found a strong relationships between humor and S-IgA.

Further connections between humor and immune system functioning were established by Lefcourt, Davidson, and Kueneman  in 1990, who found that the presentation of humorous material resulted in increased concentrations of S-IgA. When the humorous material was universally rated by participants as being highly funny (they used the video “Bill Cosby Live” for this research), S-IgA concentrations of most participants increased. However, when the humorous material produced variation in funniness ratings (when they used Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s “2000-Year-Old Man” video), larger increases were found only among some of the participants.

Changes in immune system activity with laughter are not restricted solely to immunoglobulin A concentrations. Berk et al., in their 1988 study, reported that mirthful laughter while watching a humorous film was associated with increased spontaneous lymphocyte blastogenesis (production of white cells) and increased natural killer cell activity.

Because immunosuppression appears to commonly occur in stressful circumstances when negative emotions are triggered, these findings would suggest that humor reduces negative emotions and/or increases positive emotions, with a corresponding beneficial effects on the functions of the immune system.

{tab=Humor and Stress}
climate-change-bears
In addition to interacting with immune system functioning, humor has also been found to influence physiological responses associated with stress. In a landmark study, Berk et al. (1989) examined the effects of humor on neuroendocrine hormones that are involved in classical stress responses. The study participants were asked to watch a 60-minute humorous video during which blood samples were taken every 10 minutes. A control group of people who were not watching the funny video were asked to enjoy 60 minutes of “quiet time” during which they were exposed to neutral stimuli. Blood samples were tested for the presence of eight hormones which usually change during stressful experiences, such as corticotrophin (ACTH), cortisol, beta-endorphin, 3,4-dihydroxyphenylacetic acid (dopac, a metabolite of the neurotransmitter dopamine), epinephrine, norepinephrine, growth hormone, and prolactin. Five of the eight hormones were found to have measurably decreased among participants who watched the funny video, while they remained virtually unchanged in the control group.

The importance of humor in prolonged stress situations, and its effectiveness as a stress-reducer, can hardly be overemphasized. The ability to laugh, not only with others but also at oneself, is a vital skill of survival that promotes better adaptation to adversity. Former prisoners of war have claimed that single instances of a humorous circumstance made them feel better for weeks to months later. A remarkable example of how humor can serve as an emotion-focused coping response in highly stressful circumstances is the case of Brian Keenan, whose powerful book An Evil Cradling: The Five-Year Ordeal of a Hostage describes the way in which he and other hostages in Lebanon used humor to survive their incredible ordeals during five years of captivity.

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Best Omega-3 Against Depression

aaInness_1878_AutumnOaksThe polyunsaturated fatty acid omega-3 is an important weapon in combating inflammation, the principal cause of stress-related illness. However, when it comes to helping lift depression, not all types of omega-3 fatty acids are equal. According to a study presented at the 49th Annual Meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology which took place Dec. 5-9 in Florida, only eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) has been shown to produce significant mood improvement in patients with depression. The other type of omega-3 fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), has no effect on depression.

The two omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are found together in food (primarily fish and nuts) in a 1:1 ratio, but man-made supplements contain either EPA or DHA or a combination of both, in a ratio that may favor one vs. the other and may vary by manufacturer. In order to take advantage of omega-3’s antidepressant effects, it is therefore important to choose supplements that have an EPA-predominant formulation.

Among the many Omega-3 supplements that are rich in EPA for antidepressant effects, some of the highest rated are NutraSea Herring Oil (with a 3:1 EPA to DHA ratio), AST Bioactive Omega-3 EPA Amino Hybrid (with a 5:1 EPA to DHA ratio), and Pharmax High EPA Fish Oil.

Stress News: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Stress and the Unborn

Overexposure to stress hormones in the womb can program the potential for adverse health effects in those children and the next generation, but effects vary depending on whether the mother or father transmits them, a new animal study suggests. The results were presented this past Saturday at The Endocrine Society’s 93rd Annual Meeting in Boston.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Depressed-Soldier-02A new study from the Journal of Traumatic Stress finds that for active-duty male soldiers in the U.S. Army who are happily married, communicating frequently with one’s spouse through letters and emails during deployment may protect against the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms after returning home.

Veterans of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars showed a 50 percent reduction in their symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after just eight weeks of practicing the stress-reducing Transcendental Meditation technique, according to a pilot study published in the June 2011 issue of Military Medicine.

Individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are likely to have a higher chance of developing heart disease and to die prematurely, US researchers reported in the American Journal of Cardiology. They found that those with PTSD were more likely to have coronary artery disease, an accumulation of plaque in the arteries that lead to the heart disease.

Stress and Multiple Sclerosis

Contrary to earlier reports, a new study finds that stress does not appear to increase a person’s risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS). The research is published in the May 31, 2011, print issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Stress and Alzheimer’s Disease

Stress promotes neuropathological changes that are also seen in Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich have discovered that the increased release of stress hormones in rats leads to generation of abnormally phosphorylated tau protein in the brain and ultimately, memory loss and dementia.

Why Hardiness Is Faster Than Competitiveness

aaBruegel_HuntersSnowDo you know someone who deals with stress by working harder and faster to produce more in a shorter time? These so-called type A personalities appear to have a stronger than average sense of urgency, can be more highly competitive, and may be frequently and more easily angered when things don’t go their way. Stress reduction and stress management is perhaps one of their most urgent needs, yet these individuals are perhaps the least likely to take the time to learn effective self-management techniques.

Unfortunately, as discussed in our recent post on the impact of stress on the heart, type A personalities suffer from a significantly higher rate of cardiovascular disease than type B personalities. The former may be more successful at getting things done faster. Type B’s may be slower and somewhat less effective, but they can play and relax without guilt, are much less hostile and unlikely to exhibit excessive competitiveness.

Hardiness Matters More Than Speed

The evidence for the difference in health outcomes between type A and type B originally came from groundbreaking research by S. C. Kobasa of the University of Chicago. Dr. Kobasa looked at personality as a conditioner of the effects of stressful life events on illness by studying two groups of middle- and upper-level 40- to 49-year-old executives. One group of 86 individuals suffered high stress without falling ill, whereas the other group of 75 individuals became sick after experiencing stressful life events.

The results of the study showed that, unlike the high stress/high illness executives, the type B group was characterized by more hardiness, a stronger commitment to self-care, an attitude of vigorousness toward the environment, a sense of meaningfulness, and an internal locus of control. These “slower-paced” individuals appear to view stressors as challenges and chances for new opportunities and personal growth rather than as threats. They report feeling in control of their life circumstances and perceive that they have the resources to make choices and influence events around them. They also have a sense of commitment to their homes, families, and work that makes it easier for them to be involved with other people and in other activities.

SH_Rcmds_smAccording to Herbert Benson and Eileen Steward, authors of Wellness Book: The Comprehensive Guide to Maintaining Health and Treating Stress-Related Illness, the incidence of illness is much lower in individuals who have these stress-hardy characteristics and who also have a good social support system, exercise regularly, and maintain a healthy diet.

[amtap book:isbn=0671797506]

This is a stress management book well worth reading, because it specifically targets hardiness and better stress management with type A personalities in mind. It is the Stresshacker Recommended selection for this month.

Worst Stress Relievers: Owning Guns

SeattleSunset_EN-US1535293454Stressed by the danger of a home intrusion? We may be tempted to purchase a gun to feel safer and relieve this type of stress. The remedy, however, has its own problems. Statistics have shown consistently that guns cause more deaths to their owners and their family members than to would-be intruders. The danger for owners and their families comes from several factors: an increased risk of injury and death in domestic violence situations; a higher rate of successful suicide; an increased likelihood of accidental injury; and a rise in the rate of homicides.

In particular, the risk of successful suicide attempts is not to be underestimated: a self-inflicted gunshot is the leading cause of death among gun owners in the initial years immediately following gun purchase. In an article published by The Washington Post, the authors report that out of 395 deaths in homes where guns were present, there were 333 cases of suicide, 41 cases of domestic violence homicide, and 12 accidents. Only 9 cases were shootings of an intruder.

Guns are the most commonly used weapon in over 65% of domestic homicides. When a couple owns a gun, the risk of partner-on-partner homicide is five times as great. Three times as many women are killed in homes where a gun is present than where no such weapon was available. Children fare no better: 5,285 American children were killed by gunshots according to the 2005 data published by the Centers for Disease Control. During the same year, no child was killed in Japan, 19 were killed in the UK, 57 in Germany, 109 in France, and 153 in Canada.

It is fair to say that guns, which in theory are acquired to increase safety, vastly increase the risk of serious injury or death to their owners and their families. Outside the home, guns increase the frequency and seriousness of crime rates, as well as increase the risk of injury and death among crime perpetrators and their victims. It is also well-known that gun-related violence raises health care utilization and costs, criminal justice system expenditures, higher costs to taxpayers and for insurance premiums. No one will argue the point that gun-related violence produces a legacy of grief and hardship.