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Sat, 24 Jun 2017
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


The secret to crushing your anxiety? Strengthening your vagus nerve

Mental Health Month is all about awareness. After all, mental health is the lens through which we all view the world around us. If you haven't had an experience with depression or anxiety yourself, it's likely you know someone who has struggled with a mental health condition. This month, our goal is to feel more connected through the struggle and talk more openly about what works, what doesn't, and what our experiences have really been like. Because at the end of the day, we're all on the road to better mental health together.

Anxiety can be a real doozy; it's impossibly complicated, deeply personal, and really, really hard to predict. There are times when we think our anxiety is behind us—that we are finally one step ahead—but then something shifts and we are on our heels again, fighting to get back to a place of peace and calm. We are all students of our anxiety and that's why understanding exactly how our nervous system works—and what we can do to calm it—can be incredibly empowering.

But what does calming your nervous system really mean? Many people would describe it as slowing the heart rate, deepening the breath, and relaxing different muscles—but what actually connects these sensations to the brain? Well, allow us to introduce you to the vagus nerve, the part of the body that seems to explain how our minds control our bodies, how our bodies influence our minds and might give us the tools we need to calm them both.

Comment: Waking the Vagus: Wandering nerve could lead to range of therapies


After 62 years of marriage, Texas couple dies together while holding hands

© wthr.com
Tom and Delma Ledbetter
After nearly 62 years of marriage, Lake Jackson couple Tom and Delma Ledbetter left this world about two weeks ago.

"Mama was from Nebraska, and daddy was from Arkansas," said Donetta Nichols.

Nichols is one of the Ledbetters' daughters. She tells us the couple first met in their early 20s through mutual friends. "He was stationed in Florida and my mother and her girlfriend had moved to Florida," she said.

Their first date of sorts happened when Tom had to "just move his car."

"They drove around two, three different blocks or whatever and they came back and they parked and he said he reached over and he grabbed her hand and he said, 'I don't know what made me do it.' He said, 'I just reached over and gave her a kiss on the cheek,'" Nichols said.

Three weeks later, they were married. Two daughters soon followed, then grandchildren and then great-grandchildren. It was a life filled with love and laughter. Then, in April of this year, Delma fell ill and did not recover.


Conversations on parenting in dark times

© desmogblog.com
For many of us, it is insanely difficult to wrap our hearts and minds around the prospects which lie ahead for humanity. The list of potential calamities is long and varied, and the scenarios that rise to the top of the 'most probable today' column shift all the time. Are we looking at full-blown nuclear war, or will it 'just' be Fukushima cesium making its way into our food and water? Could it be rising acidified oceans, unpredictable weather fueled by hotter seas, or maybe a methane 'burp' that leads to an abrupt end to agriculture? And then, even if we somehow evade all of these and manage to survive, what about the social and political chaos that is being fomented by right-wing 'populists' around the globe? What will happen when climate refugees are either: a. us, or, b. camping in large numbers in our backyards? Where will water come from? Food? Security of any sort seems less than certain looking into the decade ahead.

It is entirely possible that things will unfold in a manner none of us can foresee and if that happens, then we will have to be nimble and respond accordingly. No guarantees, no promises. We are in uncharted waters and not only is there no easy answer for the collective, but we must all find our own way, both in this limbo time, when for many of us, things continue pretty much as before, and in the years ahead, as the status quo collapses.

Life Preserver

Psychological Medicine Journal: Yoga helps depression

The ancient practice of yoga has long been revered for its mental and physical benefits. The research standing behind it is just a bonus, merely supporting what many yogis could already tell you from personal experience.

In today's fast-paced society that strips away our ability to slow down and enjoy the moment, stress, anxiety, and depression are on the rise. Depression alone affects more than 15 million American adults, or about 6.7 % of the U.S. population age 18 and older, in a given year.

The most common treatment for depression remains a combination of antidepressant medicine and psychotherapy — sometimes called "talking therapy." But new research suggests we may wish to break these standards for treatment.

According to a new study, titled "Adjunctive yoga v. health education for persistent major depression: a randomized controlled trial," which was published in Psychological Medicine, more than half of depression sufferers saw their symptoms improve by over 50% with weekly yoga classes.

Comment: Learn more about the benefits of yoga:


"Mom Brain": Why it's good for mothers and babies

According to a new study, pregnant women lose gray matter in their brains—and this process helps them figure out what other people need and feel.

My fellow mothers will recognize the symptoms of so-called "mom brain"—that feeling of fuzzy forgetfulness that seems to strike many moms as we juggle diapers and dirty dishes. But does this condition have any basis in science?

A new study in Nature Neuroscience suggests the answer is yes. Pregnancy does seem to change a woman's brain—perhaps permanently—so that she can better connect with other people.

Prior research has suggested the pregnant brain may have fuzzy moments—but they don't last long. For example, memory function does decline, especially when it comes to verbal information, during the last trimester. But after the baby is born, mom's memory and cognitive ability seem to bounce back. In fact, some studies have found motherhood actually makes rodents smarter.

The new study, by a team of researchers based in Spain, gathered four groups of participants: 25 first-time mothers, both before and after the birth; 20 women who had not yet had children; 19 first-time fathers; and 17 men without children.

These participants were scanned in a fMRI machine so that researchers could compare their brain structures. The changes they saw were mainly associated with gray matter, the brain tissue that contains neurons and synapses involved with memory, emotions, and decision-making, among other functions.


Flexible thinkers: Bilingual speakers think about time differently than monolinguals

For those who can speak only one language, people who have the ability to speak several are often a source of fascination. What language do they think in? Can they switch mid-way through? Do they dream in one language or both?

It turns out these questions are not without merit as people who can speak two languages actually experience time in a different way.

A study from Lancaster University and Stockholm University, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that people who are bilingual think about time differently depending on the language context in which they are estimating the duration of events.

Linguists Professor Panos Athanasopoulos and Professor Emanuel Bylund explained that bilinguals often go back and forth between their languages consciously and unconsciously.

Comment: Speaking in tongues: the many benefits of bilingualism

Post-It Note

Structure and simplicity: Why your brain loves those to-do lists

© Jamie Grill/Getty Images/Tetra images RF
Don’t be vague - make sure your list contains detail.
Almost everyone struggles with getting stuff done. But some of us struggle with the stage before that: just figuring out what it is we need to do. The to-do list is, in theory, the answer. It's a time-honoured system that's beautiful in its simplicity: work out what needs to be done and in what order, write down the tasks, do them, and then, one-by-one, cross them out.

Psychologist and author Dr David Cohen believes his struggle to stay organised is helped, but not entirely solved, by his to-do lists, which must be on paper - preferably in a diary - and need to be constantly monitored. "My family think I'm chaotic," he says, "but I would be much more so without my lists - they've kept me in line for years."

Cohen puts our love of to-do lists down to three reasons: they dampen anxiety about the chaos of life; they give us a structure, a plan that we can stick to; and they are proof of what we have achieved that day, week or month.

In less harried days, our memories might have done the work. Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was perhaps the first to note the brain's obsession with pressing tasks. The so-called "Zeigarnik effect" - that we remember things we need to do better than things we've done - stemmed from observing that waiters could only recall diners' orders before they had been served. After the dishes had been delivered, their memories simply erased who'd had the steak and who'd had the soup. The deed was done and the brain was ready to let go.

Comment: More tips on improving productivity:


Can you feel your heartbeat? You might be better at perceiving others' emotions

You really should listen to your heart. People who are more aware of their heartbeat are better at perceiving the emotions of people around them. What's more, improving this ability might help some people with autism and schizophrenia.

Can you feel your heart beating softly against your breastbone? Or perhaps you feel hungry, thirsty or in pain? If so, you are perceiving your internal state -- a process called interoception. It's thought that to generate emotions, we first need to interpret our body's internal state of affairs.

So if we see a rabid dog, we only feel fear once we recognise an increase in our heart rate or perceive a sweaty palm. Some people with conditions that involve having poor interoceptive abilities also have trouble interpreting their emotions.

But researchers have also speculated that interoception is important for understanding what other people are thinking, and even guessing what they think a third person might be thinking -- known as theory of mind. The idea is that if we have trouble distinguishing our own emotions, we might also find it hard to interpret the emotions -- and corresponding mental states of others.


Creative people may process reality differently

If you're the kind of person who relishes adventure, you may literally see the world differently. People who are open to new experiences can take in more visual information than other people and combine it in unique ways. This may explain why they tend to be particularly creative.

Openness to experience is one of the "big five" traits often used to describe personality. It is characterised by curiosity, creativity and an interest in exploring new things. Open people tend to do well at tasks that test our ability to come up with creative ideas, such as imagining new uses for everyday objects like bricks, mugs or table tennis balls.

There's some evidence that people with a greater degree of openness also have better visual awareness. For example, when focusing on letters moving on a screen, they are more likely to notice a grey square appearing elsewhere on the display.

Now Anna Antinori at the University of Melbourne in Australia and her team are showing that people who score more highly when it comes to the openness trait "see" more possibilities. "They seem to have a more flexible gate for the visual information that breaks through into their consciousness," Antinori says.


Generating positive momentum to change your life one small step at a time

I've always been thrilled by the feeling of a plane taking off. No matter how often I fly I am amazed by the experience of the plane barreling down the runway with increasing velocity until it reaches such speeds that it begins to lift off into the sky. That feeling of becoming airborne, of the momentum of takeoff, is nothing short of incredible. But I have to go no farther than the local soccer field or basketball court to witness the power of momentum. As a spectator of many high school sports over the years, I find it fascinating to witness how powerful momentum is on the field. Sometimes all it takes is one goal, or basket, or home run, to completely change the energy of the game and send a team that had been struggling to score, to ultimate victory.

But momentum can work in the opposite direction too, the kind that spirals downward and makes you feel stuck in a rut. I have certainly seen this momentum at work in the lives of some of my patients, and at times, in my own life. It can show up in the form of procrastination, anxiety, stress, depression, loss of motivation, hopelessness, or other insidious forms. Momentum of this sort can be quite powerful too, making it harder and harder to move forward. Sometimes it can feel more difficult to take that one step forward than to do nothing at all.

It can be helpful to take inventory of the ways in which momentum has shown up in your own life, creating both downward and upward spirals. Think of a time when you were in a downward spiral? What helped you to move out of it? Think of a time when you experienced the effects of positive momentum. What actions were you taking that helped to perpetuate the forward motion? I notice with myself and my patients that inaction, whether due to fear, or procrastination, or depression, or self-doubt, is usually behind most downward spirals. There are often things that we can be doing to get ourselves out of a rut, to help ourselves feel better, but we aren't doing those things.

Comment: Why one life hack can change everything for you: The simple things that matter