Paper: Oxytocin shows promise in meth addiction (in rats)

Neuroscientists looking at meth-addicted rats found that higher levels of oxytocin, the much-studied hormone associated with social behavior and stress, decreases their demand for the drug, an article in Biological Psychiatry reports. They found that the effects are changed by actions in the part of the brain associated with aversion, motivation and rewards.

This study echoes findings in a 2014 report by some of the same researchers, which found that oxytocin decreases cocaine usage in addicted rats.

Paper: Mindfulness helps elementary students with stress

Researchers at the University of Colorado taught mindfulness techniques to a class of Denver 4th graders, who practiced it daily during homeroom check-in for 10 weeks. After comparing those students to a similar class without mindfulness, they reported improvements in pro-social behavior, emotional regulation and academic performance for those who practiced it. Their conclusion?

Mindfulness in urban classroom settings as a feasible option for students to help with personal stress and coping, as well as emotional and behavior regulation in schools and at home.

The methods came from two sources of mindfulness curricula for children:

  • MindUp, from the Hawn (as in Goldie Hawn) Foundation
  • Mindful Schools, which came out of a project in Oakland, California

Related: Mindfulness Goes to School: Things Learned (So Far) from Research and Real-World Experiences.

Article: Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment

Ruth Whippman takes on mindfulness in the New York Times: Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment

Mindfulness is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life, but it’s starting to feel suspiciously like it’s actually adding to them. It’s a special circle of self-improvement hell, striving not just for a Pinterest-worthy home, but a Pinterest-worthy mind.

Mindfulness is a $4 billion market, she reports.

As much as I believe that mindfulness is good, her skepticism is on point. It applies to every relaxation practice – yoga, deep breathing and all the rest. Coping with stress is much more than just learning to relax. As I’ve repeated many times, social support has the strongest correlation to our psychological resiliency. Spirituality – in the sense of having values and bigger-than-self purposes – also matters.

Whippman cites a U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality report, Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being, which surveyed almost 18,000 journal citations covering 41 trials with about 3,000 participants. Its conclusion was that these practices are helpful, but more study is needed:

Meditation programs, in particular mindfulness programs, reduce multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress. Stronger study designs are needed to determine the effects of meditation programs in improving the positive dimensions of mental health as well as stress-related behavioral outcomes.

We should stop teaching “eustress and distress”

Stress management often teaches that there are two kinds of stress – distress, which is what we usually think of as stress, and “eustress” – stress that is good for you. The idea of eustress – the word itself – came from Hans Selye, a pioneer in understanding how our bodies respond to challenges. Selye was an endocrinologist, focusing on hormones and the systems that regulate them.

One of Selye’s great insights is that when we experience a change or other challenge, we will have a physical stress reaction, whether we see it as positive or negative. For example, graduation from high school or college – an event the graduate certainly considers positive – is stressful. And of course it is – a fresh graduate faces uncertainty about what will happen next. Their social support network, a key source of resiliency,  is disrupted as they lose touch with classmates.

Selye’s fundamental insight, that both positive and negative events are stressful, has been demonstrated to be true in many, many research projects. Cognitive neuroscience is unveiling more of the mechanisms and complexities of our physical and emotional responses to stress.

Talking about “distress” and “eustress” is confusing. Psychologists use them because in casual talk, ee use the word “stress” to refer to both the cause and our reaction. “Graduation is stressful” and “I’m stressed about graduation” are both reasonable sentences, but they are saying two different things. The first is about what happened, the second is the graduate’s reaction to it.

Let’s swap in the other words. “Graduation is distressing me” sounds reasonable, but means the same thing as “Graduation is stressing me.” Let’s try the other one. “Graduation is eustressing me” not only sounds awkward, it doesn’t make any sense, since “eustress” is about the graduate’s reaction.  The accurate way to use the word would be “I am having a eustressful reaction to graduation” – a sentence that could only be pleasing to a psychologist.

Using these words was been based on the belief that the difference between eustress and distress is the intensity of our reaction.  We taught people that too much stress is bad for their health, so we should reduce and avoid stress in order to avoid crossing the line from eustress into distress. Now we know that there is no such line.

In recent years, convincing evidence shows that our perception makes a big difference in how our body reacts to stress. If we see a threat, our bodies react in ways that probably will cause illness in the long run. If we see a challenge, stress becomes our friend, we perform better and don’t undergo the physical reactions that cause health problems.

Our perceptions of whether we are facing a threat or a challenge are influenced by how much social support we have. When we are alone, almost anything will look like a threat. Isolation is toxic to our health. Values and spiritual beliefs also make a difference in whether we perceive stressful occasions as threats or challenges.

Instead of talking about distress and eustress, we should be teaching people that they can handle enormous amounts of stress and thrive, then give them tools – attitudes and actions – that transform how they think and react to life’s challenges.

 

Election 2016: When reality and “rules” collided

(Trigger warning – this post contains the “F” word – “Feelings.” A lot.)

If you’re on social media, you’ve probably seen reports of colleges cancelling classes or postponing exams because of election grief. You’ve probably also seen the responses – those students should just suck it up and turn down their sensitivity. Some of the “advice” has turned into outright mockery.

First, a reminder that it is never helpful to tell another person – or yourself – how they “should” feel. It is tempting when emotions strike us as inappropriate, weak or wrong and we want to explain them away. It is a natural inclination. But especially now, we need to look deeper, listen harder. I know that I’ve caused myself a lot of suffering by insisting that something “should not” upset me, because…. whatever.

After getting requests to help lead post-election emotional support groups, I’ve been asking myself if the election really is a subject for crisis intervention as I know it. My answer is a qualified “yes.” It is yes, because people are having strong reactions. We never base our decision to intervene on what happened, we base it on reactions. But it is a qualified “yes” because we are in new territory. In all of the crisis intervention training I’ve had, nobody ever taught me how to respond to a political event that impacts everyone,  in which so many people have strong beliefs and feelings. We’re at an intersection of psychology and sociology where I doubt anyone really knows what’s best.

For those who are bringing people together for emotional support, I’ve compiled some guidelines.

Here’s what we do know about holding strong (often unconscious) beliefs – they can be the source of great emotional pain, frustration and anger when reality disagrees. Today, people who strongly believed that the United States could never, must never elect someone like Donald Trump (regardless of who or what they think he is), are having that kind of stress. The more certain they were that “someone like Trump” could not or must not win, the stronger their emotions probably are.  Notice that this is about “facts” they believe, not judgments. It is quite different to believe “Trump cannot, must not win” versus “Trump should not win.” The latter leaves room for acceptance and disappointment – perhaps deep, deep disappointment – rather than the confusion, anger, frustration, resentment and even violence that the first one can trigger.

An “unenforceable rule” is the name that psychologist Fred Luskin, author of “Forgive for Good”, calls this kind of belief.  We need rules to make sense of the world, but when we hold onto unenforceable rules in the face of conflicting reality, we’re stuck – painfully, often angrily stuck, often with no clear sense of why.

For those who had the unenforceable rule “Trump cannot, must not win,” and now believe that his election will cause pain to them or to people they care about or identify with, the feelings are amplified. When the effects are personal, pain, anger and frustration are stronger.

Well, say the critics in social media, those people just need to get in touch with reality! But that doesn’t work – logic doesn’t wipe out feelings. In fact, saying things like “You’re out of touch with reality” will probably make the feelings worse – broadening the divide – because it amounts to telling them how they should feel.

In a Star Trek episode, a senior officer yells, “Lieutenant Worf, I order you to calm down!” It doesn’t work. It never works. Not with Klingons. Not with humans.

A supportive response starts with nothing more than acknowledging the pain, frustration and anger that many people feel, quite naturally, now that world has refused to go along with how they think it’s supposed to be. If you believe that’s just catering to weak-minded wimps, hang on. Those people have a great challenge before them. They can hold a grudge, build resentments, perhaps even cross the line from political protest into criminal behavior. Or they can take a more difficult, positive path for which Luskin’s book can be one of the guides. His book can be especially meaningful to those who were already mired in resentments against their political opponents.

Resentments are like taking poison and waiting for the other person – or political party – to die.

If you were one of the “Trump cannot, must not win” people, your choice is between getting stuck there or aiming for connection and compassion. I would invite you to start with compassion for yourself – the world really did suddenly stop making sense – on a global scale! – and that truly is difficult. You will find that compassion for others is a great source of peace.

If you’re one of those who is tempted to issue orders – “It’s reality, deal with it” – you’ll find that compassion will go much farther.

At some point, healing and growth call us to take action. In my opinion, the most important action we can all take these days is the hard work of reconnecting with one another. We are so disconnected. Our American individualism has been an ally, but it has also meant we were always a less interdependent society. Technology – from highways and TVs to the Internet and smart phones – has prompted more disconnections than connections. The election outcome surprised us because we are so disconnected. Most of us had no idea of the depth of discontent and anger, in our nation.

Far fewer of us would have held the “Trump cannot, must not win” unenforceable rule if we knew each other better. Too many voices are unheard, too many faces unseen – and although Trump tapped into the politics of disconnection, this is far from merely a political problem. When we are disconnected and dispassionate about each other, we are weaker. The more isolated we are, the less stress we can handle.  Creativity and growth thrive on exposing ourselves to others’ ideas, even – perhaps especially – ideas that disturb us. “Love your neighbor as yourself” includes the neighbors you feel uncomfortable around.

We need creative solutions today and disturbing ideas are often fuel for creativity. One of the most creative people I have ever known, who often seemed to most people (including me for a long time) to be a narcissistic, egotistical prima donna, invited me back to his company, over and over, for years, to criticize his ideas. It was my job – I was an industry analyst. But I wondered why he encouraged me, even though I would often publicly challenge his cherished ideas and products. If he really was a narcissist, why expose himself to that? After he died, when I read his biography, I realized that he was in the habit of keeping people around him who disagreed, who would argue. In fact, if you agreed with him regularly, that would get you fired. I can’t say that I ever really liked him, but I respect the way he embraced the challenge of people who would tear apart his ideas. His name was Steve Jobs. One more thing about Steve that many people either don’t know or don’t appreciate – he practiced meditation. Nobody should try to imitate Steve, but I think we would all benefit by following both of those habits, especially these days.

 

Here’s what is sinking in for me this morning, the day after Election Day 2016. No matter which of the main party candidates we chose, a large majority of us was not going to trust him or her to lead the country. Now we are tempted to continue lecturing and shaming one another on why we all “should” trust or distrust one or the other candidate or party. But “should-ing” on people doesn’t build trust, it worsens the distrust. The more we do that, the more unsafe political discussions become.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” (1 Cor. 12:21)

We cannot thrive, individually or as a culture, without healthy political conversations. We are “one body,” as Christian theology describes our need for one another. Until we begin to solve the problem of distrust, healing is impossible – personally and socially. This is a very hard problem. If it is to be solved, it starts in our hearts, ears, tongues, homes and neighborhoods. Changing the world always starts there.

In terms of human history, we are extraordinarily isolated people. We are disconnected physically, emotionally and spiritually. No wonder a great political gulf has opened up.

Twelve years ago on November 10th, a member of my extended family, a U.S. Marine, was killed in action in Fallujah. That night, in the midst of grief, I decided to pledge to myself to refrain from blaming the politicians I was tempted to criticize. I believe that began to make me a safer person to talk to about politics. I hope and pray that many choose a similar path.

I choose not to be defined by what I am against, but by what I am for and Who is for me.

Paper: Adolescent stress management – there’s an app for that

Researchers who gave adolescents a mobile phone app for mindfulness and self- compassion, which have been repeatedly shown to help with stress, found that the young people were willing to use the app regularly. Given the ubiquity of mobile devices, this is good news.

Abstract:

The aim of the study was to test the feasibility of a mindfulness and self-compassion based program for adolescents, to be delivered though mobile phones. Twenty racially and ethnically diverse US adolescents enrolled in a study to use the app for 30 days, after which they provided satisfaction data and participated in focus groups to describe their experiences and offer suggestions for improving the app. Usage data were also captured. Results indicated that participants used the app on the majority of days over the intervention period, reported finding it helpful for managing stress, and provided suggestions for substantive areas for improvement. These findings suggest that a mobile app may be a feasible way to disseminate a mindfulness and selfcompassion based program widely among adolescents.

DOI link.

Article: Middle School Suicides Reach All-Time High

NPR reports that the suicide rate for middle schoolers doubled from 2007 to 2014, reaching an all-time high. More of them now die by suicide than car crashes. The article describes six common myths about student suicides.

For those of us who do crisis intervention in schools in the aftermath of suicides, the statistic is all too real. Our Bay Area Critical Incident Stress Management Team helps schools with notifications, resources for the child’s family, students, the school staff and the community. Administrators are almost always focused on what they can do for teachers; the teachers are mostly focused on what they can do for the students. Nearly everyone is asking themselves what they could have done to change the outcome. It is a tough situation to walk into.

Eva Bee/Getty Images

Although schools know in theory that children sometimes kill themselves, when it actually happens, they know it in an entirely new way. We sometimes call this “crossing a line.” One you have crossed that line, you can never go back and “un-know” the reality. Although school has to go on, it’s not going to be the same again. You will never be the same again.

One of the most difficult parts of all suicides, but particularly painful for teachers and school staff, is to recognize the warning signs afterwards, when it is too late to intervene. There are almost always warnings when you know what to look for. Suicides are rarely impulsive and are preventable. (Nevertheless, we often tell friends and family afterwards that if someone is absolutely determined, they will probably succeed no matter what you do – and acknowledge how incredibly pain that helplessness is.)

Suicide is preventable because – and this might seem strange – it is a solution to life’s problems. The suicidal person unfortunately, mistakenly, comes to the conclusion that suicide is the only solution. It is absolutely possible to help them postpone their decision, giving them time and resources to recognize that there are other solutions. I have seen it happen – we regularly discover and intervene with other suicidal students in the aftermath.

Schools have to walk a fine line after a suicide – honoring and acknowledging the grief and suffering of the student who died, while avoiding activities that would send the message that suicide is an acceptable solution to life problems.

I’ve seen a pattern in many of the student suicides to which I’ve responded in recent years. There’s nothing scientific about this observation, but my instincts suggest it is not uncommon. The student who took their own life was often quite successful academically, involved in many activities, leading a very busy life. They become attracted to or involved romantically with another person, who rejects them. These are typical teenage experiences, except that these students seem to have become deeply, deeply invested in this one relationship, so that when it fails, they are left emotionally adrift. They are so busy with school and activities that they didn’t have time and space – and little encouragement – to develop a social support network with depth; instead, they “bet everything” on the one person. This pattern doesn’t always lead to suicide, but many teen and young adult suicides seem to fit it.

I believe that we will fail to truly address the problem if we only blame suicides on academic pressure, which often is the immediate reaction. Stress doesn’t have to be bad for you, but it certainly is when you are socially isolated. Disconnection is toxic for anyone who lets work or school become so important that they let go or fail to develop the kinds of relationships that we increasingly recognize are crucial to thriving under pressure.

We should not focus so hard on what is happening to these students; we have to remember to look for what is missing. To cope with stress effectively, we need strong connections to the people around us, to ourselves and nature, and to our spiritual values. When schools focus too much on academics and accomplishments, the stress-coping resources can easily lose priority.

Technology hasn’t helped – it has given us myriad new ways to connect with others in shallow ways, contributing to sedentary lives that disconnect us from our bodies and nature, disrupting traditional communities, and devaluing spirituality. In fact, spirituality has been so devalued and confused with religion that I feel as though any time I mention it, I also need to define it – spirituality (in the context of thriving under pressure) means having values and a sense of awe and wonder., bigger-than-self goals and purposes. Religion can be a source of spirituality, but schools can instill values, selflessness and care for others without crossing the line into religion.

Article: Therapists treating patients stressed out about presidential election

Fox News (which I’m afraid I view as a major source of stress) reports that therapists are seeing a lot of people stressed about the presidential election.  Not surprising, since there’s a widespread sense that things have gone out of control – a sure indicator of high stress.

“I’ve never seen this level of stress and anxiety over an impending election in my 26 years (of practicing),” said Nancy Molitor, a clinical psychologist from just outside Chicago.

What do counselors suggest? Yoga. And turn off the news.

The benefits of practices like yoga are clear, but I see it as a partial solution. When things feel out of control, we also need to reconnect with people and values. We need to build and nurture relationships in three dimensions – people, practices and values. Research suggests that social support actually has the strongest correlation to resistance and resilience under pressure.

This is a bad time to try to carry it all by yourself. My advice is to set politics aside much of the time and seek to find common ground with friends. The election is important, but there are more important matters, after all.

Article: How Transformative Tech Can Bring Out the Best in Us All

Nichol Bradford, CEO of Willow, published an insightful article today on SingularityHub advocating for “inner wellbeing” and the ability of a new generation of sensors and data analysis to bring harder science to the formerly touchy-feely world of studying emotion.

“Too often, the tools for developing mental and emotional wellbeing are mistakenly thought to be solely subjective, shrouded in mystery or religion, or dependent only on luck or human willpower,” she writes.  “This blind spot is dangerous. The lag between our inner well-being and outer abilities results in tremendous social and individual stress. Worldwide you can see people who are overwhelmed by the change.”

Indeed.

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