Making Your Marriage Last and Thrive

SH_Rcmds_smWhat makes a good marriage last? According to the best evidence provided by thousands of studies and experimental research (most prominent that of Dr. John Gottman), marriages where the spouses provide a safe haven for each other and a secure base from which to face the world together provide the best chances of success. A key skill that all good partners acquire is that of arguing in a fair manner, which respects the other’s point of view (without necessarily agreeing with it), seeks to understand the reasons underneath each respective position, and negotiates a fair compromise.

If you are a couple, you most likely have arguments. Big or small, they can ruin a day and, even worse, a relationship. Dr. Sharon Morris May says, "It’s not how similar you are or even your level of conflict that determines your marital success but how you deal with your emotions, vulnerabilities, and dragons when you argue." In her book, How To Argue So Your Spouse Will Listen: 6 Principles for Turning Arguments into Conversations, Dr. Morris May presents conflict through the lens of attachment theory, helping couples understand why they argue, how they argue, and how to unravel arguments. The book also helps spouses identify what’s really going on in their brains and in their bodies when they argue, the cycle they get stuck in, the emotions fueling the cycle, and what can help them argue in more considerate and connecting ways.

[amtap book:isbn=0849918685]

How To Argue offers six practical principles that can help turn arguments into real conversations: Establish a Safe Haven, Comfort Each Other’s Dragons, Get Inside Each Other’s Emotions, Learn How to Complain, Learn How to Apologize, and Bookend It With Good Times.

Learning how to argue so your spouse will listen and in ways which will not lead to irreparable breaches is a fundamental skill that perhaps you did not learn in your prior relationships or from our own parents. The good news is that it is a skill that can be learned at any age and virtually at any point of your marriage: this book, the Stresshacker Recommended book for this week, can teach you how.

Of Washington, Stress, and the Mind

b_800_600_16777215_0_stories_immagini_Inverno_Alba_sul_primo_piazzaleThe way we perceive a situation, and decide whether it is positive or negative, is an active, continuing process of appraisal of the risks, costs, and likely gains of our
possible responses. Three individuals may be stuck in traffic at the same time and each may perceive and appraise the situation quite differently. “OMG,” one may say, “late again, my boss will be furious!” The second may think, “I’m going to be late, but my boss will understand how unpredictable this traffic really is.” The third may settle in, turn on the radio and say, “It’s a good thing I left a little early, I can’t speed this up so I’ll just catch up on the news.”

Depending on this cognitive appraisal of a situation, the stress reaction will mobilize the body to action. The greater the anxiety generated by the situation, the higher the level of physical and psychological arousal. Sometimes, overt behavior will be produced directly by the mobilization of impulses, drives, or wishes. One specific and frequent set of behaviors is likely to occur most frequently, as a behavioral inclination to act in a certain way due to our background, beliefs and available resources. Depending on the content of our thoughts about the situation, the behavioral inclination may be a desire to withdraw (flight), attack (fight), approach, or avoid (freeze). The emotions corresponding to these inclinations are anxiety, anger, affection, and sadness, respectively. The ultimate response to a stressor can be conceptualized as a structure of the mind, where a set of beliefs about one’s self, the world, and the outcome activates and controls the behavioral inclination and the emotional response.

Life’s stressors, especially if significant to our physical, psychological and social well-being can disrupt the normal activity of the mind. In addition to almost immediate loss of the ability to concentrate, recall, reason and control impulses, a severe and unexpected stressor produces a relative increase in instinctive, more primitive, and less rational processes. Instinctive reactions are usually paired to specific stimuli. These almost mandatory reactions are characteristic to the specific sensitivity of each individual. They can give way to inappropriate or excessive behavioral reactions. For example, the need for a stiff drink, reaching for a cigarette, crying, or being unable to breathe or move can be automatic, with little insight and thus virtually unstoppable.

The wide differences between people in their specific sensitivities explains why an event that is an almost unbearable stressor for one person may be an annoying or even benign situation for another. The seasoned public speaker may still get butterflies in the stomach, but is able to carry on and deliver an excellent presentation, whereas another may be terrified at the very idea of speaking before an audience.

Core differences in one’s personality also account for the wide variations in individual
sensitivities to stressors. The independent and somewhat misanthropic personality will not be sensitive to the same stressor as the individual who craves human connection and feels dependent on it for validation. Excessive or ineffective reactions to stressors, such as hostility, anxiety, and depression, also result from specific behavioral inclinations, personality structure, and specific sensitivities.

Finally, reactions to stressors may be dictated primarily by one’s internal motivations, with no apparent connection to the events or circumstances of the outside world. For example, the belief that the only road to happiness is through total success is characteristic of achievement-oriented individuals who are therefore extremely vulnerable to excessive and ineffective reactions at the slightest doubt of failure—regardless of evidence to the contrary.

Obama & Boehner at Stresshacker.comStressful interactions with other people who may be equally as stressed, albeit for different reasons, produce a mutually reinforcing cycle of excessive and ineffective reactions. Specific psychological mechanisms, such as an egocentric approach, negative framing, and polarization, increase the level of arousal experienced by each individual and, consequently, to higher and higher levels of collectively shared stress. This cycle seems to be in evidence at this time in Washington, as the executive and legislative powers appear to be locked in a mutually reinforcing cycle of excessive and ineffective reactions to each other.

Mental Health USA: An Inconvenient Truth

aaWyeth_1946_WinterIn 2009, almost 20% of the adult population in the United States (19.9% or 45.1 million people) had a mental illness of some kind during the prior twelve months. Those with a serious mental illness were 4.8% of the adult population, or 11 million people.

These are the sobering results of the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), a report presenting estimates on the prevalence of mental disorders and mental health services utilization among adult Americans.

The results showed that adult women were more likely than men to have a mental illness of any kind (23.8 vs. 15.6%) or a serious mental illness (6.4 vs. 3.2%). An estimated 8.4 million adults, or 3.7%, had serious thoughts of suicide, 2.2 million (1%) had made suicide plans, and 1 million (0.5%) had attempted suicide within the past year.

The survey results estimate that among the over 45 million adults with any mental illness in the past year, almost 9 million had substance dependence or abuse. Among the 11 million adults with a serious mental illness, almost 26% also had substance dependence or abuse.

Only 17 million people with any mental illness received mental health services, whereas 28 million neither sought or received any treatment. Six in ten adults with a serious mental illness received mental health services, while almost 4.5 million received no treatment at all.

aaWyeth_1948_ChristinasWorldThe survey is conducted each year by the Office of Applied Studies, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services using computerized interviewing. The 2009 results were extrapolated from screening completed at 143,565 addresses, and 68,700 completed interviews. In this survey, the category any mental illness includes the presence of a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder in the past year (excluding developmental and substance use disorders) of sufficient duration to meet diagnostic criteria specified within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR). The category serious mental illness includes a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in substantial impairment in carrying out major life activities.

You can see the complete results of the 2009 survey, published a few days ago, on the OAS-SAMHSA web site by following this link.

9 Ways to Beat Procrastination…Tomorrow.

Langisjor_EN-US2321196967Procrastination is three times as stressful as getting things done right away. First, because tasks that need doing aren’t getting done; second, because it is stressful to think about all that needs to be done…and remains undone. Third, procrastination in itself is a source of stress due to its impact on self-esteem and psychological well-being.

Procrastination is a delay in deciding to start a task or in completing it. Men and women in roughly equal percentage suffer from this debilitating condition. Situational procrastination happens to everyone and simply describes an occasional delay that does not indicate a habitual pattern. Dispositional procrastination applies to people who delay many tasks on a regular basis, including tasks that are important and sometimes even critical to optimal functioning. Among dispositional procrastinators, two major types can be discerned based on their presumed motivation: arousal procrastinators, who (often subconsciously) need to be motivated to act by the adrenaline rush that comes from cutting it close to the deadline, and avoidant procrastinators, who are de-motivated to act by their fear of failure or success and/or by task aversion.

Here are nine ways to beat procrastination that have been proven to work with many people. (Try one or two, if you have some time…perhaps tomorrow?)

1. Learn to Tell Time

lastminuteHabitual procrastinators, even when faced with simple tasks, don’t seem as capable to estimate the time necessary to perform the task as non-procrastinators. They overestimate how much time it will take to finish the task, and are therefore reluctant to begin it; or they underestimate how long it will take to complete it, and are afraid of not being able to finish it. Learning to better estimate time to task completion is a skill that needs to be developed by procrastinators who, for whatever reason, seem to fall short of its mastery.

GTD-cover2. Banish Disorganization

Not being able to plan a task, misplacing some of the things needed to perform a task effectively, or losing track of what has already been done are areas that cause people to delay starting a task or its completion.

Getting rid of the very idea of disorganization is the start of a better strategy for getting things done. The enormously popular book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity may help…

3. Post-It and Read It

Sometimes the simplest things carry the most value. Any procrastinator can benefit from the little yellow notes strategically posted in visible locations that act as silent reminders of tasks that need to be done. If the notes are read and acted upon, procrastination can become a less frequent problem.

4. Make It Easy to Concentrate

Not having a specific, designated place in which to concentrate and focus exclusively on a task introduces the scourge of distraction to the misery of indecision. Being in a place where there are too many other stimuli competing for attention is not a winning strategy. Getting in the zone and achieving flow is key to task completion.

LeoMarvin5. Take Baby Steps

Sometimes even a relatively simple task can appear complex, until it is broken down into smaller chunks. Behavioral psychologists recommend chaining, which is a series of responses needed to perform a particular target end-behavior or, in simpler terms, baby steps. Getting things done one small chunk at a time. Simple. It works.

6. Take Small Time Bites

Complexity of the task can be compounded by the (often incorrect) estimation of the total  time needed to complete it. To take care of this aspect of the problem, it helps to break down the task into small bites of time—say, 5-minute segments—instead of staring at the total time needed and freezing in place.

7. Put the 80-20 Rule to Work

Even the best laid out strategy of eliminating procrastination cannot be accomplished in one day. We simply can’t go from “total procrastination” to “total completion” in one fell swoop. A more realistic and achievable plan may be to apply the 80-20 rule, where success means completing at least 80% of the tasks, instead of aiming for 100%.

8. Seek Role Models

Go with a procrastinator and you’ll learn to procrastinate more. Seek non-procrastinators as role models, get past the negative comparisons, and you will learn useful techniques and approaches that may come natural to them, but can be a godsend on the way to getting things done.

9. Take Responsibility

Everyone knows that there are consequences for delays and for failing to get things done. Procrastinators know that, too. Unfortunately, the habit of making excuses that can be accepted by others simply sharpens the skills for coming up with “reasons” that just sound plausible. A procrastinator who is willing to take responsibility is only a few short steps away from kicking the habit.

How Owning a Dog Extends Your Life

Puppy_1-21-09Human interactions have a biochemical signature that is most evident in what happens between a mother and her baby. A study presented at the 12th International Conference on Human-Animal Interactions that took place this summer in Stockholm offers convincing evidence that the same biochemical process plays a role in the bond between dogs and their owners. Researchers Linda Handlin and Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute believe oxytocin is the “bonding hormone” that is released in humans and in dogs during mutual interactions. To test their theory, blood samples were taken from dogs and their owners before and during a petting session. “We had a basal blood sample, and there was nothing, and then we had the sample taken at one minute and three minutes, and you could see this beautiful peak of oxytocin,” said Uvnäs-Moberg in an interview on PBS. “The fascinating thing is, actually, that the peak level of oxytocin is similar to the one we see in breastfeeding mothers.”

The hormone oxytocin has a powerful physiological effect. It can reduce blood pressure, increase tolerance to pain, and reduce anxiety. Research indicates that owning a dog could even extend your life. “If you have a dog, you are much less likely to have a heart attack, and if you have a heart attack, you are three to four times more likely to survive it if you have a dog than if you don’t,” added Uvnäs-Moberg.

Oxytocin: The Baby-love Puppy-love Hormone

Oxytocin is a polypeptide hormone that has long been known to stimulate the contraction of the uterine muscles and the release of milk during breast-feeding. It is now recognized as an important modulator of the stress response. Stored in and released from neurons in the posterior pituitary as well as in the brain, oxytocin is synthesized in cell bodies of the magnocellular neurons located principally in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus. However, oxytocin is more ubiquitous as it is also synthesized in neurons that are widely distributed within the central nervous system. Oxytocin facilitates mother–infant interactions and tends to facilitate behaviors that oppose classic fight-or-flight behavioral responses to stress.

The Study: Dogs Have Feelings of Love, Too

Mother and childHandlin and Uvnäs-Moberg sought to establish a correlation between levels of oxytocin and those of the stress hormone cortisol during interactions between dog owners and their dogs. Ten female dog owners were asked to evaluate the quality of their relationships with their dogs via a standardized questionnaire. They were also asked to interact with them, stroke them and talk to them for one hour. The owners’ oxytocin levels correlated significantly with questionnaire items indicating positive feelings and closeness to the dog, while cortisol levels were significantly correlated to items regarding negative feeling towards their dog. The dog’s oxytocin and cortisol levels also correlated significantly with the owners’ answers to items regarding their attitude toward the dog. The scientists concluded that hormones in both human and animal were related to the owners’ perception of their relationship with the dog. “A short-term sensory interaction between a dog and its owner [can] influence hormonal levels in both species,” says Uvnäs-Moberg. “The dogs’ oxytocin levels displayed a significant rise just three minutes after the start of the interaction. There was also a significant positive correlation between the dogs’ and the owners’ oxytocin levels after 15 minutes.”

The Vote: Fear, Anger and Resignation?

IVotedLest Stresshacker be labeled left, right or center, this post is about the prevailing psychological states of US voters that may have prompted the choices made yesterday at the polls in the midterm election. The brief moment in the voting booth when each voter was about to punch, press or pull on the input device was as always the point of real decision, along a continuum of choice either matured over a long and careful analysis of the options or arrived at on the spur of the moment. The vote was either reaction or response, instinct or deliberation. In any case, this vote was a blend of rationality, emotion and convenience, a culminating of feelings that translates into a choice.

Americans voted not only with their minds and hands, but also and perhaps mostly with their hearts. They voted for or against their congressman, their senator, Congress in general, and president Obama. Former speaker Tipp O’Neill said famously that all politics is local, meaning that in his view decisions are made at the polls mostly on the record of the local incumbent and challenger. The advent of 24/7 news access and the impact of social media may have changed this to the point where those who lost or won their seat may have been helped or hindered, more than used to be the case, by a broader and more macroscopic view.

Voters, interviewed extensively by news media as they exited their polling stations, reported not liking the way the President is doing his job, and they sounded even angrier at Congressional Democrats, which may explain why they gave the House back to the Republicans. Given the magnitude of the shift, it also appears that Obama policies passed through the filter of voter anxiety, as voters looked back at a decade of economic decline. And this, only two years after “the audacity of hope” propelled Mr. Obama into the White House, is remarkable in itself.

senateThat this was the most expensive midterm election campaign in the nation’s history, when a record $3.8 billion was spent in all races big and small, only confirms the perception by contributors and recipients of this sizable amount of money that this election reflected more than rational choice—it expressed a mood, a feeling, an emotional reaction pointing to prevailing psychological states that range from simple malaise, to frustration, overt anger and underlying fear. Nothing can focus the mind and the pocketbook like justified fear for one’s present and future situation.

And the situation in the United States appears indeed grim, although it may not be as bad as reported, due to the well-known axiom that good news does not sell newspapers, online clicks or TV commentaries. If there is good news about the economy, it may not be reported with the same alacrity (and a bit of schadenfreude) as the bad. It is therefore not surprising that the interviews with voters conducted for the National Election Pool, a consortium of television networks and The Associated Press, show a majority of Americans saying that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Almost 90% said they were worried about the economy and more than 40% said their family’s situation had worsened in the last two years. Enough to worry and be angry about.

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.”

Deflation: Chronic Stress on a National Scale

Palmyra_EN-US856764098"The economy isn’t recovering fast enough." One of the principal reasons is that sales of anything, from houses to double no-foam lattes, are down or flat across the board. American consumers are worried about their personal financial health, their jobs (or lack thereof), their families’ future, the sorry state of the economy, gridlock in Washington, and the fear of another bank/mortgage/stock market crash.

The piling up of this real heap of trouble over the last couple of years has caused most Americans to go into stress reaction mode: fight, flight or freeze. The evidence is mounting that most are choosing to freeze. Businesses that sell goods and services report flat or lower sales to fewer buyers. In a so far vain attempt to get the consumer economy moving again, prices have been and continue to be reduced through special offers, discounts, two-fers and other creative ways meant to entice more buyers.

As consumers refuse to take any risk, either because of their worries or simply waiting for prices to fall further, deflation may now be setting in. Deflation is the opposite of inflation and defines a situation when prices are mostly falling, sales stagnate or fall, with "lower business profits, which lead to layoffs and lower consumer spending and further price declines. [Deflation] makes it more difficult to pay off debt because the value of debt rises relative to income. It provokes hoarding, as consumers, businesses and banks hold on to cash, expecting that prices will keep falling," as characterized by the New York Times. In short, the paralysis of freeze

So it is that unending economic turmoil since 2008, record-high job losses, stagnating or falling employment, and the double-whammy mortgage/foreclosure crisis appear to be provoking one of the most severe stress reactions in generations, in individuals, families, and businesses across the nation. While a few are now fighting to get the economy moving again, a significant number may have left the fight and given up trying, and many more still could be just frozen in place, unable to move forward with their decisions, investments, and major purchases.

As understandable as it may be, this nationwide stress reaction is just what it is, a reaction. It is not a formulated response against a severe and persistent set of stressors, which would require the exercise of sound judgment, decision-making and risk-taking. Instead, the risk to the US economy is that this reaction may become chronic and take years before progressing toward an effective response.

The red lights are flashing and the alarm bells are ringing, urging meaningful action that will address the emergency. Not much appears to be happening. Until the paralysis of freeze is overcome and a real response begins, the alarm bells will continue to ring, while deflation takes hold. Chronic stress, on a national scale.

Mild to Deadly: Stress At Work

CloudToGround_EN-US2741696585 Stress at work can take many forms and range in severity from mild annoyance to burnout. It may be relatively easy to tell if co-workers appear to be under severe stress by observing the appearance and persistence of certain characteristic behaviors. It may not be so easy to diagnose dangerous levels of stress in ourselves, however, especially when other considerations of self-esteem, personal ambition to succeed, economic pressure, deadline requirements, and career goals may interfere with a sound and unbiased self-diagnosis.

Mild vs. Severe Stressors: It’s About Control

The first consideration is the severity of the stressors. Are they mild and can they be addressed by making appropriate adjustments? Stressors such as a noisy environment, not knowing one’s job objectives, and skipping meals can be (although not always) addressed by closing the door, asking for clarification, and committing to take lunch and snack breaks as needed.

The second consideration is whether or not the stressors are under our control. The presence or lack of control creates an internal vs. external locus of control situation, with important psychological consequences (see this post on the difference between internal and external locus of control).

Stressors that are beyond our control are far more difficult to address, as for example when there are too many things to do and not enough resources to get them done. Its opposite, the situation when there is hardly anything to do at all, is also stressful and may not have an easy solution.

Other relatively difficult stressors that may not have a solution within our control is not enjoying the job, and not knowing what else one could be doing or being in a situation where a change of job is just about impossible. In the current job market, this may not be an uncommon situation, as jobs that used to be good have become more stressful and jobs that were bad to begin with have not gotten any better.

Another difficult stressor where external control may be an issue is the experience of being caught between conflicting demands, often with insufficient information or resources to address them appropriately. Not feeling appreciated or under-appreciated while putting in long hours and hard work can also create a considerable level of stress.

On the other hand, many stressors can be successfully addressed because they do fall within our control. The most common are interruptions and how they are handled (the well-known inability to say “no”). Another is poor delegation skills, or not sharing work responsibilities with others. These are two examples of stressors that, although not easily eliminated, at least can be controlled and limited in their impact by making changes that are well within our possibilities.  

When Stress at Work Is too Much: Burnout

There are times when the symptoms of stress are just too severe, too persistent and too intractable to be dismissed. They interfere not only with productivity and efficiency on the job, but they also have important negative health consequence in addition to being detrimental to interpersonal relationships at work and at home. The resulting complex cluster of psychological, physical and behavioral symptoms is defined as occupational stress or, for short, burnout.

The emotional exhaustion of burnout can result in diminished interest in work, fatigue, and detachment. Hopelessness is common: we "give in," "numb out," and "march like robots through the day."

The depersonalization of burnout, or the defensive distancing from the surrounding world, can result in diminished contact with coworkers and the public, withdrawal of psychological investment, self-absorption, and an overall negative attitude toward others.

The dissatisfaction of burnout, or the perception of unsatisfactory personal accomplishment, can result in feelings of failure, fatalism, diminished competence, and incapacity to respond to further job, personal and environmental demands.

Early Warning Signs of Work Stress

One of the first noticeable signs that stress is beginning to have a behavioral impact is irritability. Fellow workers will notice this first. They may or may not be able to point it out, but if they do, it is worth paying attention to their feedback and asking ourselves a few questions.

The second sign is fatigue. Even though it is hard to miss, fatigue very often goes unchecked not because it isn’t visibly affecting us but because we may refuse to acknowledge it. Pushing harder can become a mantra, a repetitive “principle-driven” set of behaviors that pushes rest and relaxation aside, with potentially serious health consequences.

Difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness are also early signs of severe stress. Sometimes, stress affects memory in such a severe manner that, by evening time, we can’t remember what we did all day, or what we ate for breakfast.

Sleep ceases to be a safe haven for regenerating and recharging and becomes a place of torture. Lack of sleep is linked to so many health consequences, and to stress itself, in a circular causality pattern. Less sleep means more vulnerability to stress, which leads to more stress by the time we get to bed, with even less chances of getting a good night’s sleep. A potentially deadly vicious cycle!

The body complains about stress, too. Its messages take the form of bowel irritation, chronic fatigue, asthma and other respiratory ailments, headaches, rashes, tics, cramps, and many more pains and problems that appear to come out of nowhere and stubbornly refuse to go away.

Finally, withdrawal and depression may raise their ugly head. Burnout has arrived. It may take a few years to get here, or maybe just a few months of severe stress. In any case, burnout may be the end game of one very simple losing strategy: ignoring the obvious, steaming through the warning signs and hoping that stress will just go away by itself.

Get Away From the Maddening City—Now!

Blackwell at Stresshacker.com Incidence of schizophrenia and other psychoses is greater in urban than rural areas, but the reason remains unclear. Various studies have found the link between living in the city and severe mental illness, and none have determined a specific cause. A new study claims to have the explanation. The study examined a group of over 200,000 people born between 1972 and 1977 whose medical history was cross-referenced with demographic, school, municipality, and county information.

The study, published this month in the Archives of General Psychiatry examined whether individual, school, or area characteristics could be associated with psychosis and whether the effects of individual characteristics on risk of psychosis varied according to location.

The incidence of psychosis was significantly higher among people living in urban settings as compared to those living in the country.  Further data analysis showed that psychosis appears to be a reflection of the increased social fragmentation that has become a feature of city living.

The principal researcher, Dr. Stanley Zammit of the Center for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics of Cardiff University, said that previous studies had found that the severity of schizophrenia risk depends on the context of the living situation, with increased risk found for those living in an area with few people of their own ethnicity.

Of this study, Dr Zammit says that "it was somewhat surprising that we found this sort of context-dependent effect across a range of characteristics: ethnicity, social fragmentation, and deprivation. Although it makes sense that such an effect would not be restricted to ethnicity but to potentially any characteristic that might define someone as being different from their peers as they grow up."

With the caution that is characteristic of studies that avoid the presumption of absolute revelation, the researchers point out that much more investigation is needed before it could be said (if ever) that living in the city causes schizophrenia. What can be said from this and other similar studies, however, is that there is a greater risk of developing a severe mental illness such as psychotic disorder for people who live in a predominantly urban setting. Is this enough to make you want to live in the boonies? Maybe not. But this may be another consideration for a move to the more distant ‘burbs.

How Great Companies Minimize Employee Stress

How do truly outstanding companies minimize their employees’ stress? What programs do they implement that appear to make it easier to join the company, fit in well within the organization, grow and prosper as an employee?  In their book, Best Practices in Talent Management: How the World’s Leading Corporations Manage, Develop, and Retain Top Talent, Goldsmith and Carter provide a wealth of examples of on-boarding and talent retention programs that facilitate difficult transitions, demystify the process of change, and contribute greatly to reducing tension and work stress.

The book is the Stresshacker Recommended selection for this week.

[amtap book:isbn=0470499613]

Among the case studies highlighted as best practices:

Avon Products: Clear Objectives = Clearer Execution. This case illustrates the practical implications of defining objectives around “executing on the what” as well as “differentiating on the how.” In other words, simple, well-executed practices communicated through an executive coaching model.

Bank of America: A truly exceptional executive on-boarding program. The B of A’s new hire turnover rate of approximately 12% compares to estimates as high as 40% turnover in large corporations. On-boarding reduces the stress of being new to a large company because it is a socialization process rather than just an orientation program.

Corning Corporation: Making use of the collective wisdom of internal experts rather than relying solely on external consultants. Corning seeks to grow “innovation leaders” through a well-designed 5-step development process.

Ecolab: Employees are successfully integrated into the organization’s corporate culture and values. Values include spirit, pride, determination, commitment, passion, and integrity.

General Electric: To high-stress jobs, GE applies a process of sorting (separating necessary from unnecessary items), setting in order (arranging items in sequence of use), shining (maintaining the work area), standardizing (ensuring consistent application of sorting, setting in order, and standardizing), and sustaining (maintaining and improving the previous four steps).

Kaiser Permanente Colorado Region: A practical approach for addressing the not-uncommon problem of an organization that was too reliant on hiring new people without seeking to develop the people who were already there.

Microsoft: A judicious application of research conducted by the Corporate
Leadership Council (CLC) to real-world problems in the organization. Employee development is organized around five key areas: senior leadership commitment to developing people, managers continuing engagement in the process, promotion of open interpersonal contact among employees throughout the organization, communication of development plans with clear goals, and targeting of on-the-job work experiences to build skills and competency.

Past: Regret. Present: Stress. Future: Worry!

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
–William Blake: Auguries of Innocence

Wasting time and time management, hourly wage, multitasking, deadlines, bank accounts, financial investments, insurance and retirement planning are all facets of the same way of thinking about time. They signify a linear understanding of time: present becomes past and present anticipates the future. The passing of time is conceptualized as the inexorable ticking of the clock, the falling away of calendar pages, the steady progression of weeks, years, centuries.

The Linear Time Trap

HaroldLloyd_Time Our focus on the passing of time has behavioral consequences, in that our choices and preoccupations reflect its linearity. We think of the past with either longing or regret, we are concerned for our individual and collective future, and we seek to squeeze every second of the present time (at the expense of sleep, relaxation, vacations, the view, smelling the roses) in securing a safer and (it is only hoped) more peaceful (and more relaxed) future. It is a quest that never ends, so long as there is a future ahead of us.

How are we managing linear time? Many have observed that many people seem unable to adequately make sense of their past or fulfill their plans and hopes for the future. The missed opportunities or perceived failures of the past, the demands of what appears as a shrinking present, and the worries and uncertainties of the future can manifest emotionally as guilt, regret, stress, anxiety, and unfulfilled expectations. Behaviorally, they may result in often futile attempts to “manage time” (understood simply as ways to cram more activities into our day), attempts to forget about the passing of time (with various pleasure enhancing products and activities), and earnest pursuits of that one thing (or two, or ten) that will insure and ensure a safe future.

The Endless Chase After the Future

Thinking of time in a linear fashion, we can reflect upon the past as well as make plans for the future. The only true reality is the present time and that’s where anything that is going to happen happens, just before it becomes part of the past. It would seem that a focus on the present is our best choice. In reality, however, it is the endless preparation for the future that consumes the majority of most people’s lives. Most human activities are undertaken to help make a better future, rather than as ends in themselves.

While there are clear benefits to thinking of time in a strictly linear manner, with an emphasis on what is yet to happen, this approach is not devoid of problems.  For many, the present is burned quickly by and becomes little more than planning for the future, which, in reality, never exists.

Is There Another Way to Think About Time?

The linear perception of time appears to be more of a Western cultural phenomenon. Larger portions of humanity perceive time as polychronic. Contrary to linear time, a polychronic view of time sees it as more fluid and not as rigid or precise, allowing for plans to be changed more easily and without much trouble. Schedules and timetables are not as important, and lateness is more acceptable. Many actions are performed at the same time, and completion of tasks is more important than preset schedules.

A polychronic perception of time is more prevalent in Latin American, Native
American, and Middle Eastern cultures, as well as in Asian cultures that view time as circular. Nature itself appears to keep a circular rhythm of time, with the return of day after night, warmth after cold, growth after fallowness, in a repeating cycle that seems to know no beginning and no end.

It is not unusual for Westerners accustomed to linear time to feel psychologically stressed when coming in contact with a culture that follows polychronic time. It seems more chaotic, disorganized, and far less predictable. Even leaving aside the fact that these cultures tend to have fewer problems with time-induced stress and anxiety disorders, the alternative of what is now being called “slow” time has an almost magic appeal. Minimalist approaches to life, slow food movements, flexible work time… perhaps an end to the slavery of the clock is near. Happy Labor Day!

Marriage Reduces Level of Stress Hormones

Venice at Stresshacker.com It is a well-established fact that being married can improve health outcomes. Now, new research findings get more specific and suggest that a long–term bond between two people can also reduce the production of hormones associated with stress. This is according to Dr. Dario Maestripieri, Professor in Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago and lead researcher, who published the results of the study in the August 2010 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Stress.

To measure the effects of a committed relationship on stress levels, Dr. Maestripieri and his team monitored changes in salivary concentrations of testosterone and cortisol in response to a mild psychosocial stressor (a set of computerized decision-making tests) on a sample of over 500 participants. The aim of the study was to investigate any gender differences in hormonal responses to psychosocial stress; the relationship between pre-test hormone levels and stress-induced hormonal changes; and any possible sources of same-gender variation in pre-test hormone levels as compared to hormonal responses in a larger human subject population. 

The results show that males had higher concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol than females both before and after the test. After the stress-test was administered, cortisol level increased in both sexes but the increase was larger in females than in males. Single males without a stable romantic partner had higher testosterone level than males with stable partners, and both males and females without a partner showed a greater cortisol response to the test than married individuals with or without children.

It would appear from the test results of this study that married individuals, when faced with a new stressor, respond with a lower production of stress hormones. This can have two major benefits: it can permit a more deliberate response to the stressor (as the system is not overloaded with a debilitating and hormone-filled stress reaction), and it can, over time, reduce the accumulation of allostatic load on the organism—two good things that help married people confront challenges in more supportive, less stressful, and more effective ways.

Women’s Heavy Burden of Stress-Gets Heavier

Lake Wanaka at Stresshacker.comThe most recent survey of stress in America indicates that women continue to bear the heavier burden of stress, particularly due to financial concerns and worries over their family’s health and family responsibilities. Women consistently report more physical and emotional stress than men, and are more likely to lack the willpower to make changes recommended by health care providers, the survey results also show. What is causing this unhealthy gender bias? Allostasis, or more precisely allostatic load, is the key to understanding gender differences in stress. Let’s first understand allostasis, its benefits, and potential dangers.

Allostasis: Too Much of a Good Thing

Allostasis defines the processes that attempt to maintain the body’s internal stability in the face of physical or psychological challenges. Physiological and behavioral changes are initiated automatically during the stress reaction to external environmental and developmental threats, such as danger, conflict, financial worries, interpersonal difficulties, family and job demands, and other life stressors. Allostasis as a process is a very good thing and aids in survival and coping. It can work well at restoring the body’s equilibrium and ensure an adequate response to the threat. However, allostatic processes can cause physical and psychological damage when they extend beyond their intended short-term activation. This prolonged state of activation creates a burden on the system, known as the allostatic load.

Four factors can contribute to the formation of a heavy allostatic load:

  1. Repeated physical or psychological challenges (e.g., prolonged financial stress, a stressful job, multiple and conflicting demands of time and resources, a serious illness, childhood trauma, adult abuse or violence)
  2. Inability to adapt to these repeated challenges (the feeling of being at the end of one’s rope)
  3. Inability to produce an adequate response to the stressor (such as the phenomenon of learned helplessness, depression or anxiety)
  4. Inability to end the stress reaction even after the stressor has been removed (chronic stress)

Allostatic load accumulates over time. The continuation of multiple small changes in physiological and psychological functioning (which are meant to be only short-term), due to a persisting state of alert against perceived threats (the classic stress syndrome), creates the potential for illness.

What Happens to the Body During Allostasis

During the normal stress response and the body’s process of allostasis, the stress hormones serum dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine are secreted into the blood stream. The immune system and neurological responses are activated, along with muscular, cardiovascular and pulmonary system. Alongside these physical reactions, psychological changes take place in response to anxious, fearful, hostile or aggressive states produced by the stressor. Behavioral changes also occur in trying to cope with the stressor, sometimes consisting of alcohol abuse and other substances,  working too many hours, or exercising compulsively. Sleep disturbances, depression and other psychological symptoms are usually the first evidence of an increasing allostatic load.

At the physiological level, allostatic load can cause atrophy of the hippocampus and structural changes in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, resulting in a more or less severe impairment in spatial learning and memory. Certain tell-tale physical responses are also indicative of a heavier allostatic load: higher blood pressure, changes in waist-hip ratio, higher serum high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and cholesterol, and glycosylated hemoglobin levels.

These psychophysical changes, though helpful in the short run, can cause damage. This damage is the cost of maintaining an allostatic state longer than is optimal for health. Numerous studies of allostasis show the risk of stress-induced illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, depression, anxiety, and immune/auto-immune disorders.

What about the effects of allostatic load on women?  Details after the jump.

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Oil Spill Causing Stress Symptoms in Gulf Coast

More than a third [of the Gulf residents surveyed] report children with new rashes or breathing problems, or who are nervous, fearful or “very sad” since the spill began. And even though the gusher of oil has been stanched, almost a quarter of residents still fear that they will have to move.

These are some of the findings of the first major survey of Gulf Coast residents conducted since the BP oil well was successfully capped. The survey, conducted from July 19 to 25 by the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, suggests that the spill’s effects have not been contained along with the oil itself. The NYTimes article is at After Spill, Broad Anxiety Among Gulf Resident, Survey Finds – NYTimes.com.

All of the above, plus other reported symptoms such as a persistent and overwhelming level of anxiety, a substantial level of psychological stress, concerns about children’s mental health, more insecurity, and mysterious rashes that can become infected, point to a widespread stress reaction to the oil spill and to its economic and environmental consequences.