Psychology Around the Net: July 21, 2018

Whether you read this with your Saturday morning coffee or while winding down after a busy weekend, you definitely want to make some time to catch up on the latest in this week’s mental health news!

This week’s Psychology Around the Net takes a look at the so-called “narcissism epidemic” of Western culture, whether or not “scream therapy” is a useful tool for treating anxiety, how poverty affects the mental health of menstruating women, and more.

How the West Became a Self-Obsessed Culture: Many blame smartphones and social media as the self-indulgent tools that have fostered a so-called “narcissism epidemic,” but according to British author and journalist Will Storr and his new book Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us, Western culture has always been self-obsessed; we’ve just spent the years building up a culture that helps overstate our own successes and failures.

Police Killings Tied to Worse Mental Health for African-Americans: A new U.S. study suggests that the police killings of unarmed black people are associated with worse mental health for African-Americans throughout the United States, even if they have no direct connection to the killings or deaths.

Millions Are Battling Mental Illness — These Entrepreneurs Are Trying to Tackle it Via Technology: Two entrepreneurs are using technology to help the millions of people who manage mental health problems every day. Alison Darcy has founded Woebot, a chatbot and app that utilizes the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, and April Koh has cofounded Spring Health, which sells digital mental health benefits to employers. And these women aren’t going unnoticed — both are featured in Business Insider‘s list of 30 health-tech leaders under 40 to keep your eye on.

Beef Jerky and Other Processed Meats Associated With Manic Episodes: Could nitrates — the chemicals used to cure meats like salami, hot dogs, beef jerky, and other processed meats — contribute to mania? An analysis out of John Hopkins University shows it might.

New Study: Period Poverty Could Have Mental Health Consequences: Some of us take access to menstrual products for granted. For some of us, it’s like purchasing hygiene products as basic as soap. So, have you ever stopped to think of what your life would be like if you didn’t have such easy access to them? A new study reports that not only does a lack of access to these items not only disrupts everyday life like going to school and work, but can also put women at a greater risk for depression and anxiety.

Does “Scream Therapy” Actually Work for Anxiety? Psychologists Weigh In: “Scream Therapy” is exactly what it sounds like: pure, raw, and primal screaming at the top of your lungs. It’s controversial among psychologists, but psychotherapist Franklin Porter explains screaming — which is actually a component of “Primal Therapy” — isn’t a therapy by itself. It’s the release you feel after you scream that can acts as the bigger therapy tool.

Original Article

The Power of Pausing Before Speaking

No doubt, you’ve wondered why communicating with a loved one isn’t always easy.

What we may overlook is how our emotional tone can poison the atmosphere for productive conversation. Practicing pausing before we speak can be a powerful way to create a friendlier climate for heart-to-heart communication.

We’re wired with a longing for love and intimacy. Attachment Theory tells us that we don’t thrive when we’re not feeling a safe and deep connection. There is a lot at stake in our partnerships. We want to be seen, heard, and understood. We want kindness, caring, and affection.

When these core needs aren’t met, we might sense danger. We might become irritable and reactive as our fight, flight, freeze response is triggered.

As a couples therapist, I often see people getting triggered. Deep down, there is a sweet and tender longing for connection. But what often gets communicated is not sweet at all. The emotional tone that comes across is caustic, attacking, blaming, and shaming, which is kryptonite to the connection.

It is sad to see how couples push each other away without much recognition of how they’re sabotaging themselves.

It is more satisfying to blame and shame another than to take responsibility for how we’re contributing to the mess. One way we contribute to discord and disconnection is by reacting rather than responding. Reacting is what our amygdala is good at. It is the product of millions of years of evolution. Without it, we would not have survived as a species.

Our sympathetic nervous system reacts immediately to real or imagined dangers in our environment. A tiger glares at us while hunting and we run for cover. Over-thinking it might guarantee that we’ll become lunch rather than find lunch.

Unfortunately, this is often our reaction when our sense of safety with our partner seems threatened. Perhaps an old trauma of disconnection is getting activated. We might shut down and not want to talk. We flee to the safety of the TV or a computer game. Or our preferred style might be to go on the offensive, perhaps with some version of “How can you be so self-centered? You’re clueless! It’s always about you!”

These words are not infused with the sweet nectar that might draw our loved one toward us. And our tone is not congruent with the vulnerable longing for connection that is being painfully frustrated.

What to do?

One of the hardest things to do when we’re activated is to slow down. When every fiber of our being is sensing a serious threat, we may feel compelled to unleash a nasty torrent of toxicity toward our partner, without realizing the effect we’re having.

Sadly, we often don’t realize the power we actually have over our partner, who probably wants the same thing that we do — a loving, safe connection.

The good news is that we have the power to contribute to creating an atmosphere of safety in our relationships. The first step is to pause before we react. I know it’s not easy, but if we can practice pausing when our blood is boiling, we turn down the heat and allow a chance for things to cool a bit before we open our mouths.

Pausing gives us a chance to collect ourselves, remember who we are, and get more of a handle on what’s going on inside us. Are we feeling angry, frustrated, sad, or hurt? Pausing gives us a change to notice these feelings—and become mindful about the tender needs and longings from which these feelings spring.

Pausing allows us time to be gentle with these feelings, which allows them to settle. It allows for self-soothing, which positions us to first notice and then convey what we’re feeling in a more responsible, authentic, congruent way.

If we can take a breath, notice the fiery sensations in our body and dance with this fire rather than unleash it toward our partner, we’re then positioned to contact and express our vulnerable feelings. By increasing safety in the relationship, we vastly improve our chance of being heard.

It’s much easier to hear, “I’m feeling sad and have really been missing you and would love to have some time together soon,” rather than, “You’re work is more important than me, why don’t you spend the night in your office!”

We can’t control how others respond to us, but we have some control over our tone of voice and choice of words.

If we can pause before speaking, we give ourselves the gift of contacting what’s really going on inside us — a tender and vulnerable longing beneath the layer of violent reactivity. If we can then find the courage to express our actual felt experience, our tender sharing might turn things around so that we get heard in a new way, which may then offer the deeper connection we’re longing for.

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Original Article

6 Healthy Behavior Tips for Well-Being This Summer

Summertime should be a time for individuals, families and friends to spend together doing what makes them laugh, enjoy each other’s’ company, and contribute to everyone’s overall well-being. In the middle of vacation or weekend getaway planning, or just carving time out of your busy schedule for some fun activities, keep these six healthy behavior tips in mind.

“Summer means happy times and good sunshine. It means going to the beach, going to Disneyland, having fun.” – Brian Wilson

Get active outdoors.

With a preponderance of good-weather days to take advantage of, why not do just that? Get outside with friends and family and participate in the wealth of activities summertime seems to invite. Science shows that being outside in nature has wide-ranging health benefits, everything from reducing the risk of heart problems diabetes, stress, high blood pressure, premature birth and premature death to an increase in overall well-being. A popular health practice in Japan is “forest bathing,” and the desire to commune in greenspace has rapidly caught on in America. With all the national, state and city parks, as well as conscientious homeowners planting trees, shrubs and gardens, there’s ample opportunity to get outside and take in what nature has to offer. Exercise, play sports, go to the beach or amusement park, have a picnic, fish, snorkel, go for a walk. The choices are endless.

Hydrate and eat light.

Water is your body’s best friend when it comes to effectively combatting summertime heat. The sun is extremely dehydrating, along with challenging or vigorous physical exercise and activity when the temperatures soar. You may not realize you’re thirsty until the damage is already done. Avoid the risk of sunstroke and other medical complications, some of which can be life-threatening, by regularly drinking water and other non-alcoholic fluids. Health experts say to start by drinking 16-20 ounces of water 1-2 hours before exercising, and 6-12 ounces of water every 15 minutes when you’re outside. When you come back inside, you’re still not done rehydrating. Drink another 16-24 ounces. While you’re at it, avoid stuffing yourself in the heat. You’ll feel sluggish, unmotivated to get moving, and your digestive system will have to work harder to process all that food. Instead, eat light and avoid too much sugar and carbohydrates. You’ll sleep better at night too.

Put away the smartphone while driving.

You might think you’re wonderfully ambidextrous and adept at multi-tasking, yet the science is not on your side. It’s impossible to fully devote your attention and focus to more than one activity at once. Something’s going to give. When you’re behind the wheel, put away the smartphone, say all the experts. Even though you firmly believe it’s not all that dangerous to sneak in a quick text, call or peruse social media at the stoplight or while idling in traffic, the obsession to engage in this unhealthy behavior may do more than cause other drivers to honk their horns at you. You could very well cause or be in an accident because your concentration isn’t where it should be – on your driving.

Research shows that talking on a smartphone or other mobile device increases risk of a crash by 2.2 times, while texting increases that risk by 6.1 times. The researchers also found that females are more likely than males to use phones while driving, and more years of experience driving decreases distracted driving. They noted that drivers, while usually able to self-regulate in certain instances, such as in heavy traffic or curving road conditions, they’re less likely to be able to identify where it’s safe to use the phone. The strong recommendation: put the phone away until you can pull over to safely use the device.

Protect your skin from UV rays and exposure to carcinogens from barbequing.

Relaxing at the beach can be a prosocial way for friends and families to get in some quality time, yet it’s always wise to bring along several layers of protection against the sun’s harmful ultra-violet (UV) rays. Clothing you can add or shed certainly helps, including wide-brimmed hats, as do various sun protection factor (SPF) creams and lotions. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends choosing a higher-protection broad spectrum SPF sunscreen (30 or 50) that’s water-resistant for the best protection. Summertime cookouts on the barbecue have long been a favorite, yet new research shows that the skin (in addition to the lungs) absorbs harmful carcinogens from compounds released during smoking and grilling. Just because you’re wearing a shirt and pants, or other protective clothing doesn’t eliminate the exposure. For this reason, experts recommend washing those barbecue-smoke exposed garments right afterward.

Do your best to stay cool.

Excessive heat and high humidity are extraordinarily dangerous to your health, responsible for heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and organ and other bodily systems failure as the circulatory and central nervous systems shut down. When temperatures climb into the 100s, the humidity skyrockets, and remains there for days on end, you feel depleted, drained, unmotivated, dull and it takes longer to concentrate and focus. Keeping the body cool is a must, so make sure you have access to somewhere indoors where the temperature is controlled and cool. Whether that’s an air-conditioned room at home, a shopping mall, movie theater, restaurant, sporting event or entertainment venue, do your best to stay cool.

Laugh a lot.

Nothing makes you feel immediately better like a good laugh. In fact, laughter is such an excellent medicine, if it could be packaged and sold, it’d be worth millions. Since you can’t buy laughter, however, it’s priceless. Tell some family-friendly jokes at your next get-together to spark congeniality in the group. Be on the lookout for a good comedy on TV, through a streaming service, or at the movies. Sit back with those you care about and let yourself enjoy the humor. Go ahead and laugh out loud. Laughing helps you effectively cope with stress, make more of social relationships, helps in coping with distress, reduces feelings of anger and helps boost happiness. Smiling and laughing may even help you live longer.

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…” Great lyrics by George Gershwin from the classic song he wrote for the 1935 musical Porgy and Bess.

Original Article

Using the 5 Second Rule to Initiate Tasks

The title — The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage — intrigued me.

According to the publisher, Mel Robbins’s self-help book is “based on a simple psychological tool that the author developed to motivate herself. Using a technique that involves counting down backwards from five to one, she gave herself the extra push she needed to complete dreaded tasks, become more productive.”

Could this technique help solve my task-initiation problem?

I am a brain injury survivor. I have clusters of thin-walled blood vessels in my brain. Two of them bled. To prevent additional bleeds, I underwent brain surgeries, which left me with a number of challenging symptoms, including difficulties initiating tasks.

Though similar to procrastination in its end result, brain injury-related issues with task initiation feel very different. I am fully aware when I procrastinate, and I often laugh at myself in the process. When I procrastinate, I make conscious choices. Instead of working on the annual report, I choose to do the laundry, edit an essay, or take my dog for a walk. And when I run out of excuses or get too close to the deadline, I get started.

Trouble initiating tasks is more akin to the difficulty of shifting to a new undertaking after completing a long and involved project, when it feels almost impossible to switch to the next activity.

I usually have no idea that I’m having trouble initiating a task. I know with absolute certainty that I will get to the task—just not right now. In my mind, starting isn’t an issue, because this internal conviction that “of course I’ll do it” is so strong. It’s as if there’s a disconnect between the belief that I’ll do the task and the cognitive action required to actually initiate it. I’m not choosing to distract myself, and I’m not trying to postpone the inevitable. There’s simply no conscious awareness and no control over it.

Compounding the challenge is that brain injury-related task initiation problems don’t follow any recognizable pattern. They arise without warning and are frequently unrelated to the nature of the task, interfering equally with tasks I enjoy and those I’d rather avoid. They can last anywhere from several days to several years. They often end abruptly, for no apparent reason. When my brain releases me, I’m off and running, all signs of struggle gone, as if the problem never existed.

To combat my difficulties beginning an activity, my neuropsychologist suggested I keep a daily list and block off chunks of time in my calendar to work on those tasks. Fortunately, my brain injury brought on a level of rigidity—once an item is on that list, I feel compelled to address it.

Alas, identifying problematic tasks to include on the list is not straightforward, because the same “I know I’ll get to it” belief means there’s no problem, and it doesn’t occur to me that it belongs on the list. And I sometimes can’t initiate writing the list—I know I’ll write it, just not right now.

I’d recently been having trouble beginning a new essay on a topic I wanted to explore. It had been simmering in my mind for a while, and I felt ready to begin writing. But I couldn’t. I tried tricking my brain into cooperating by breaking the task into smaller and hopefully more manageable chunks.

I was able to sit down in front of my computer, but my brain refused to attempt the next task. Later, I managed to open a new file, but my mind wouldn’t move beyond that chunk. I left the file open, knowing I’d get to it (just not now). A few days later, I typed a title, but couldn’t start the body of the essay. I knew exactly how I wanted it to begin. The words were there. But I wasn’t.

Galvanized into action by Robbins’ five second rule, I was determined to try it the next morning.

As I finished getting dressed, I thought about working on the essay. “5-4-3-2-1” and there I was, at my computer, tapping away, the essay taking form just as I’d imagined it.

Every time my inner voice suggested I needed to take a breather, before I had time to question my motive, I applied the five second rule. “5-4-3-2-1” and I was back on track. After finishing a first draft, I wondered about working on another troublesome essay. Five seconds later, I was back at the keyboard. Feeling like I was on a roll and afraid that I’d fall prey to my damaged brain if I paused, I moved on to sending email queries about speaking engagements and book events.

The next problematic item that came to mind gave me pause—I needed to grade a pile of essays. This time, the five second rule failed, because common sense kicked in. I had reached my limit—fatigue overwhelmed me and my brain blanked out. I absolutely had to rest, or I’d be in no shape to do anything.

I came away from that day feeling good about myself. I’d been more productive than I’d been in a long time. But I was also exhausted. Applying the five second rule had thoroughly drained me.

I have since realized that the five second rule doesn’t work for me exactly the way Mel Robbins explained it. I haven’t abandoned it, but as with so many other things post-injury, I am learning to adapt it to my particular circumstances. I have to pace myself, and as soon as I recognize the early signs of fatigue, I use the rule to take a nap.

My conclusion?

The five second rule rules.


Robbins, M. (2017). The 5 Second Rule: Transform your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage. Savio Republic. ISBN-10: 1682612384

This guest article originally appeared on the award-winning health and science blog and brain-themed community, BrainBlogger: The 5 Second Rule: Task Initiation.

Original Article

Reduce Anxiety by Shifting Focus to Positive Cues

Dr. Brady Nelson and colleagues at Stony Brook University recently published a study in the journal Biological Psychology which found that you can mute the brain’s anxiety/threat response with simple shifts in attentional training.

They found that a brief 5-10 minutes intervention of Cognitive Bias Modification (or CBM) training is enough to reverse a default neural response, a supposed hardwiring that creates a negativity bias in our attention. In CBM training the default gets shifted to allow a person to instead focus more on positive cues. At the level of cognition, this helps cuts off the cascade of an anxiety response.

Let’s imagine you’re giving a pitch to a group of investors. You’re nervous. Your gaze falls on the person in the front row. You notice their facial expression: a furrowed brow, sideways smirk, maybe a disapproving head shake. You begin to panic. You notice other people in the crowd looking the same. Your mind races and you can’t concentrate. You completely botch the presentation.

The negative feeling sticks with you, and every time you have to give a talk, you’re faced with a crippling sense of anxious dread, triggered by the thought of repeat failure.

But all the while, you didn’t notice that there were actually more smiling happy faces in the crowd than scowling ones.

Humans notice the negative more than the positive. It’s a hardwired evolutionary-based response that makes the brain more sensitive to loss than to gain. This negativity bias in cognition allowed us to survive as a species, but is crippling for life in the modern world.

New research, however, offers a solution: We can change our brain (and overcome anxiety) by training ourselves to pay more attention to the positive.

Train your attention, change your brain.

The tendency to pay attention to negative things is the reason you often have such difficult overcoming anxiety. It is, unfortunately, a default psychology. But the science is beginning to show that this default state can be overridden and reversed. You can train your attention. You can change your brain.

It’s called cognitive bias modification training, or CBM. A simple but highly effective intervention practice that nudges you to look for the positive things in your immediate environment.

The best cues you can use for training: Faces. Why faces? Because your brain is highly sensitive to the information they convey. You are programmed to detect all kinds of emotions, both positive and negative, on the faces of other people.

Try the following. Next time you’re in a social setting, challenge yourself to “find” the positive emotions on faces. There are several different contexts where this can work:

  • People watching (on transit, out in crowded public spaces, etc.): Start off by just watching other people in a crowd. Make sure that you’re looking around at people is “normal” given the context you’re in. You have to be careful that your people watching doesn’t become awkward staring.
  • Small group gatherings: These are places where there’s a larger group of people all broken off into smaller groups for discussion (e.g., networking event). As you engage in conversation with a few people, try to find the positive facial expressions.
  • Formal presentations: This can be a great place to do CBM training. But it can quickly backfire, as our initial example in the above intro illustrates. The reason is because those emotional reactions are directed towards you and what you’re saying. It’s much more personal. Work your way up to this last stage of CBM training.

Across all these contexts, what positive emotion cues are you looking for? It’s more than just a simple smile. Go deeper. For example, positive emotion (on the face) happens through the movements of tiny facial muscles. Look out for the ever-so-subtle musculature changes in these three main areas:

  1. The sides of the mouth pinching together and raising up (muscle called the zygomaticus major).
  2. The nose raising on either side and creating a “shelf” across a line of the nostrils (muscle called the levator labii).
  3. The outer edges of the eyes crinkling and creating a squinting expression (muscle called the orbicularis oculi).

The most positive facial cues are when all three muscle regions are activated (also creates the distinction between a “real” and “fake” smile). Challenge yourself to find people’s faces that have all three.

In addition to these in-the-moment interventions, there’s also now various CBM apps/games being developed. An online program called MindHabit includes a number of games that get users to find the smile in an array of faces. They also have a similar game that uses positive/negative words rather than faces.

Similarly, a new app called Happy Faces is giving user-friendly CBM training with various types of stimuli. A bonus feature with their app is it offers personalized training where you can include your own pictures as part of the game stimuli. So the faces you attend to during the game aren’t random strangers, but people you know.

Get into the simple habit of playing these games for as little as 5-10 minutes a day. These small exercises and games are easy to implement and have shown to effectively train attention. By focusing more and more on the positive, and pulling attention away from the negative, you are effectively cutting anxiety off at the pass. You aren’t letting it take hold. And now, new research is offering further evidence that it works by altering activation patterns in certain key brain regions.

The study: The brain’s response to CBM training

The researchers behind the study were curious to see if a single training session of CBM would affect a neural marker called the error-related negativity (ERN).

The ERN a brainwave that reflects a person’s sensitivity to threat. It fires whenever the brain encounters possible errors or sources of uncertainty, leading a person to notice things that might be going wrong around them. But it’s not all good. The ERN can go haywire. For instance, it’s known to be larger in people with anxiety-related disorders, including GAD and OCD. A large ERN is indication of a hyper-vigilant brain that is constantly “on the lookout” for potential problems—even when no problems exist.

In the current study, the researchers predicted that a single CBM training session would help curb this threat response and lead to an immediate reduction in the ERN.

The researchers randomly assigned participants to either a CBM training or control condition. Both groups performed a task, once before the training (or control) and then again after. They had their ERN activity monitored using electroencephalographic recording (EEG). This technology uses a wearable cap with embedded electrodes that track and record the electrical activity of the brain — in real-time. The participants in the study completed a task that generated a number of performance failures. What the researchers were curious to see was the level of reactivity the brain showed (in this ERN signal) in response to these failures. Remember:

  • a sensitive (and anxious) brain would see failures as more negative = larger ERN signal
  • a resilient (and calming) brain would see failures as less negative = smaller ERN signal

So the real question: Can a one-off “find-the-face” CBM task help pull a person’s attention away from the negative and lead to a smaller ERN?

In line with the predictions, they found that those who underwent the short CBM training elicited a smaller ERN compared to the control participants. The brain’s threat response was reduced from before to after the training, simply by instructing people to shift their attention towards positive (and away from the negative) stimuli.

The results indicate that CBM training minimizes the brain’s negativity bias by targeting the ERN—in effect by dampening the brain’s sensitivity to failure and uncertainty.

And an actual change in brain state through a single session of CBM is particularly encouraging when you consider the fact that cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBT) have not been shown to elicit such neural changes.

One important implication of this work is that CBM is capable of altering brain activity in people from a non-clinical population. Majority of prior research has looked at people with anxiety-related psychopathologies. Here the findings suggest that everyone can benefit from CBM, and that everyone looking to achieve peak mental performance can benefit from overcoming anxiety.

Recap and wrap-up

A minimal level of anxiety and stress is a good thing for peak performers. It keeps you on your toes. But too much of the negative, and things can begin to go awry. The question is, then, how do you stay in that optimal zone?

CBM training is highly effective in its ability to alter the target source of your brain’s hardwired negativity bias. Through implicit, experiential, and rapid-based training, we are coming to understand that the core negativity response can be muted in order to get into the anxiety sweet spot.

Remember to engage in these simple exercises, whether it’s in-the-moment or on an app. Your job is to override the negative default state, and direct your attention towards the positive, away from the negative. Start with the apps/games to familiarize yourself with the process. Then work your way up to real-life social situations.

Original Article