Why stressed minds are more decisive

“When we’re put under pressure, our brains can suddenly process information much faster – but only in certain situations, says neuroscientist Tali Sharot.”

Some of the most important decisions you will make in your lifetime will occur while you feel stressed and anxious.

Do we become better or worse at processing and using information under such circumstances?

 

A perceived threat made firefighters better at processing information

“My colleague Neil Garrett, now at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute in New Jersey, and I ventured from the safety of our lab to fire stations in the state of Colorado to investigate how the mind operates under high stress.”

“Firefighters’ workdays vary quite a bit. Some days are pretty relaxed; they’ll spend part of their time washing the truck, cleaning equipment, cooking meals and reading. Other days can be hectic, with numerous life-threatening incidents to attend to; they’ll enter burning homes to rescue trapped residents, and assist with medical emergencies. These ups and downs presented the perfect setting for an experiment on how people’s ability to use information changes when they feel under pressure.”

“When you’re stressed, your brain undergoes physical changes that can make it hard to ignore possible dangers.
We found that perceived threat triggered a stress reaction that made the firefighters better at processing information – but only as long as it conveyed bad news.”

“This is how we arrived at these results. We asked the firefighters to estimate their likelihood of experiencing 40 different aversive events in their life, such as being involved in a car accident or becoming a victim of card fraud. We then gave them either good news (we told them that their likelihood of experiencing these events was lower than they’d thought) or bad news (that it was higher) and asked them to provide new estimates.”

“Cortisol levels spiked, their heart rates went up and, lo and behold, they suddenly became better at processing unrelated, yet alarming, information”

“Research has shown that people are normally quite optimistic – they will ignore the bad news and embrace the good. This is what happened when the firefighters were relaxed; but when they were under stress, a different pattern emerged. Under these conditions, they became hyper-vigilant to any bad news we gave them, even when it had nothing to do with their job (such as learning that the likelihood of card fraud was higher than they’d thought), and altered their beliefs in response. In contrast, stress didn’t change how they responded to good news (such as learning that the likelihood of card fraud was lower than they’d thought).”

“Back in our lab, we observed the same pattern in undergraduates who were told they had to give a surprise public speech, which would be judged by a panel, recorded and posted online. Sure enough, their cortisol levels spiked, their heart rates went up and, lo and behold, they suddenly became better at processing unrelated, yet alarming, information about rates of disease and violence.”

“When you experience stressful events, whether personal (waiting for a medical diagnosis) or public (political turmoil), a physiological change is triggered that can cause you to take in any sort of warning and become fixated on what might go wrong. A study using brain imaging to look at the neural activity of people under stress revealed that this ‘switch’ was related to a sudden boost in a neural signal important for learning(known as a prediction error), specifically in response to unexpected signs of danger (such as faces expressing fear). This signal relies on dopamine – a neurotransmitter found in the brain – and, under stress, dopamine function is altered by another molecule called corticotropin-releasing factor.”

“Such neural engineering could have helped early humans to survive. When our ancestors found themselves in a habitat filled with hungry animals, they benefited from an increased ability to learn about hazards so as to avoid predators. In a safe environment, however, it would be wasteful to be on high alert constantly. A certain amount of ignorance can help to keep your mind at ease.”

“So a ‘neural switch’ that automatically increases or decreases your ability to process warnings in response to changes in your environment might be useful. In fact, people with clinical depression and anxiety seem unable to switch away from a state in which they absorb all the negative messages around them.”

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons and is edited for space.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180613-why-stressed-minds-are-better-at-processing-things

What Science Says About Achieving Peak Performance

I’ve peaked . . . not in the sense I’m going downhill now . . . but rather experiencing peak performance.  My first peak experience was memorable because it was a time in my life when I was the most self-conscious and questioning – a teenager in high school. I vividly remember, during a discussion, hearing my own words coming out of my own mouth, articulate, composed, effortlessly making the points I wished to make. I was peaking and flowing.

As an adult I’ve had a few times when I felt in the flow.  Looking back, each time met the 5 criteria described by Hans Hagemann and Friederike Fabricius in their book “The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance”

The main points Hagemann and Fabricius describe as the basis for creating peak performance:

  1. Creating psychological safety
  2. Regulating negative emotions
  3. Not entering a stress state.
  4. Gender and age matter.
  5. Leaning towards rewards, not threats.

“Peaked” by Peggy

1. Psychological Safety

Hagemann emphasizes that the most important thing that underlies peak performance is psychological safety.  If you are working in a climate of respect and appreciation,  you can do your best. 

If you are trying to perform well, using energy to inhibit negative emotions will take away from your performance.  “Two systems in your brain are competing. That leads to not being focused on anything anymore.”

To regain cognitive control, recognize and ‘label’ how you feel”.

Labeling emotions by Peggy

2.  Stress

In situations where you feel threatened, your stress response increases, which makes you physically stronger, but reduces your ability to think well.  

The stress response directs blood flow to the muscles – for fight or flight – and away from your brain.  The stress response says this is the time to act not deliberate and debate.

Take a few deep breaths to calm yourself.  That will send more oxygen to your brain and help you refocus.

 3.  Regulate your negative emotions 

When you try to inhibit negative emotions  — anger, frustration, disappointment — your rational and emotional systems  compete with each other.  

Name your feelings, either outloud or on paper, so your brain doesn’t have to busy itself trying to tamp down negative feelings and distract you from, consciously or unconsciously, performing well. 

4.  Lean towards rewards, not threats

In a “threat” state, “you get a rush of cortisol in your bloodstream – it’s that stress response making your muscles stronger, but and cutting off your cognitive thinking.  

Figure out what the pay-off will be in the situation and place your focus on the reward at the end (just like athletes do).   Your brain will help you “flow” toward it.

5.  Gender and age matter.

Hagemann refers to a “performance profile” as the amount of intellectual arousal needed to help an individual achieve peak performance. The amount of arousal needed to be at your peak are different for different people, and maybe for the same person at different ages. The amount of intellectual arousal makes a difference between men and women, old and young.  Some people are “sensation seekers,” and need a lot of arousal to hit their peak. That means they are often running on testosterone (he calls it “a very male thing”) while others can hit their peak with fewer stresses placed on them.

Both men and women have sensation seeking personality traits (like thrill rides, thrive on taking chances).   If you need a lot of arousal use the stress response to your advantage.  Relabel it as excitement and intently focus on the reward.

Have you ever been in “the flow”, had a “peak performance”?

What was it like for you?

(PA)

“The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance” by Hans Hagemann and Friederike Fabricius

http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/the-leading-brain/

 

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Why you can’t stop checking your e-mail

Our brains are wired to constantly seek novelty, and every new email that lands in our inbox with a ping sends a dopamine-fueled shiver of excitement through our cerebrum. Turning off notifications and setting and communicating clear email . . . can disrupt that addictive dopamine loop.

Addicted, by Peggy

But behavioral science would suggest there’s more than just neurotransmitters at work.

“a factor that may be driving our inability to disconnect is the peak-end rule, whereby people tend to judge an experience based on what it felt like at its most intense point and at the end. In other words, what we remember most about our inbox is just how awful it feels to face all those unanswered emails — that endless, running to-do list of other people’s priorities — that have piled up while we were away.  So we keep checking just to avoid that pain.

Another factor could be our human predilection for making decisions based on short-term payoffs, like deciding to fall back into a warm bed in the morning rather than get up and exercise.
“We love to get things ‘done,'” explained Iris Bohnet, a behavioral economist at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Email is terrible for that. If you only respond to these 10 emails, it feels like an accomplishable task.”
 

Ironically, if we did stop checking email, we really wouldn’t miss that much. In a survey, Daniel Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke, found that only 11% of the emails in our inboxes require immediate attention. The other 89% can wait.

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Get your FREE Incredibly Creative Stress Kit

“Stress-related disorders and diseases have been on the rise in the whole population for decades, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including those leading to . . . deaths of despair, but also to heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.”

“National surveys by the American Psychological Association that also capture how stressed, anxious and overwhelmed we feel show a similar increasing pattern. And it shows up in our bodies, even before we get sick or start down the many roads to self-harm.”

a judy collage

I personally have experienced just that.  My fibromyalgia flared for the first time during a particularly stressful time in my life.  The truth is I didn’t realize how stressed I was at the time.  Years later, it dawned on me that I had been in the center of  “the perfect” storm of stressful circumstances: My aging parents and in-laws were dying; my work focused on anger, anxiety, depression – any and all forms of psychological tension or stress; and my own hormonal changes.

I’ve seen similar circumstances with many clients and colleagues who, like me, coped with and habituated to the level of stress they were under and often didn’t know the magnitude of impact until much later when they became ill.  

All of us experience stress from work, money worries, traffic, political news, deadline pressure, relationship difficulties etc. and an even more basic cause which lies hidden at the intersection of psychology and biology:

Biology

“A central biological pathway is from excess cortisol — the fight-or-flight hormone — that characterizes being over-stressed for long periods of time. This “stress dysregulation” leads to risky health decisions, like addiction or overeating, and directly to many health problems linked to excess cortisol.”

Psychology

  • How we THINK triggers the stress response.  We don’t have to actually be in a stressful situation – it’s our perception of it that alone can trigger a neuro-biological stress response.
  • Slow-moving and cumulative social forces “get under the skin” early in life and can show up decades later in morbidity and mortality.
  • Losing a sense of control that you believed you had, whether real or not, justified or not, creates stressful dislocations.

There are many things that can be done to “de-stress”.  Most require time, money, effort or all three.  Basically, we like what is quick and easy.  To that end we’ve accumulated information and exercises over the 30 decades each of us was in practice and have now compiled some of it into a 19 page FREE PDF.  

Click here for your free copy:

The Incredibly Creative Stress Kit

You can always access the PDF by the “Free or Cheep Page” which is located in the masthead above the CATNIP banner on every page.

Please let us know what worked for you or how you modified any of the activities. 

Recent References:
Daniel Keating is a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and author of “Born Anxious: The Lifelong Impact of Early Life Adversity — and How to Break the Cycle,”

The Hamilton Project looked at the “physiological stress load” in the US using biological markers tied to cardiovascular, kidney and liver function to create a stress load index. This physical stress load, a precursor to many diseases, has increased in striking fashion since the late 1970s, and it is getting worse as each new age group enters adulthood.

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Here’s the Best Way to Cope with Family Tensions

The rosy pictures of family harmony is ever-present in the media during holiday season.  

As therapists we were privy to the fact that holidays are stressful and often bring out the worst in family and interpersonal relationships.  

Clients who had no family fantasized about what they were missing and clients with families fantasized about how to miss family gatherings.

Family Dynamics by Peggy

It’s gratifying to know we were on track with how we approached client holiday stress & strain.  The research bears this out:

  • It is not helpful to ruminate on what was, what could be, ruminate over and over about the hurt, anger, injustice of it all.  Rumination leads to depression and/or anxiety.  
  • It’s best to tell the “tale” once, focus on what hasn’t worked and find new ways to cope.

Here’s a synopsis of the research and article:

Family Arguments Over The Holidays? Replaying Them in Detail May Be the Best Way to Cope

“Repeated studies have found that people prone to depression can get worse if they excessively dwell or ruminate on a stressful incident such as a quarrel or a loss. But experiments by Exeter University psychologists have found that when individuals practised running emotional incidents through their head, focusing on sensory details and recalling exactly what happened, how it happened, and even where it happened, it helped them respond constructively and stopped them becoming so upset about a future or past stressful experience.”

“Psychologists at the University of Exeter have found that recalling the detail of shouting matches and disagreements, including exactly who said what to whom and how, may not be destructive and prolong the tension, but could help people keep incidents in perspective and stop the triggering of self-doubt and even depression.”

“After training to recall the details of an upsetting incident including the tone of a voice, the words used and how the event happened, people became more resilient and put the upsetting incident into context, stopping a downward spiral into low mood.”

“The same exercise of focusing on the sensory details of sad experiences and asking “How did it happen?” “How can I do something about it?” was also found to speed up recovery from doing badly on a test in undergraduates, and to improve interpersonal problem solving, such as finding a way to make up with your partner after an argument, in people who were currently or formerly depressed.”

“For people experiencing depression learning to focus on stressful incidents and to re-imagine them in full technicolour asking themselves ‘What is unique about this situation?’ ‘ How did it happen?’ – instead of ‘Why did it happen to me? had an a ‘significant’ impact on helping to alleviate mental ill health.”

Then again, one way to avoid all the holiday tension is to eat out or . . . leave town.

Read the full article:

http://neurosciencenews.com/psychology-replay-arguments-5819/

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Women – The Secret Ingredient to Living Long & Well

Stanford University:  “The lecture was on the mind-body connection – the relationship between 
stress and disease. The speaker (head  of psychiatry at Stanford) said, among
 other things, that one of the best things that a man could do for his 
health is to be married to a woman whereas for a  woman, one of the 
best things she could do for her health was to nurture her relationships with her 
girlfriends.

Meowie & Friends by Peggy

At first everyone laughed, but he was serious.

“Women connect with each other differently and  provide support
 systems that help each other to deal with stress and difficult  life
 experiences. Physically this quality “girlfriend time” helps us to
 create more serotonin – a neurotransmitter that helps combat depression and can 
create a general feeling of well being. Women share feelings whereas
men often form relationships around activities. They rarely sit down with a
 buddy and talk about how they feel about certain things or how their personal
lives are going. Jobs? Yes. Sports? Yes. Cars? Yes. Fishing, hunting, golf?
 Yes.  But their feelings? Rarely.”

“Women do it all of the time sharing from our souls with our sisters/mothers, and
evidently that is very good for our health.  He said that spending time with a friend is just
 as important to our general health as jogging or working out at a gym.”

“There’s a tendency to think that when we are “exercising” we  are
 doing something good for our bodies, but when we are hanging out with 
friends, we are wasting our time and should be more productively
 engaged—not true.” 

The Health Factor – Women without strong social ties risk health issues equivalent to being overweight or a smoker – it’s that serious.

Interesting Research findings:

  • Longevity – Married men live longer than single men, yet women who marry have the same life expectancy as those who don’t. However, women with strong female social ties (girlfriends) live longer than those without them.
  • Stress – For decades, stress tests focused solely on male participants, believing that all humans would respond in the same manner. When these same stress tests were finally conducted on females it was discovered that women don’t have the same, classic ‘fight or flight’ response to stress that men do. According to the research presented in The Tending Instinct, women under stress have the need to ‘tend and befriend.’ We want to tend to our young and be with our friends. Time with our friends actually reduces our stress levels.
  • More Stress – A study conducted by the UCLA School of Medicine found that when we’re with our girlfriends, our bodies emit the “feel good” hormone oxytocin, helping us reduce everyday stress. By prioritizing our female friendships and spending time with these friends, we take advantage of a very simple, natural way to reduce our stress.
  • Self-esteem – A recent study by Dove indicated that 70% of women feel prettier because of their relationships with female friends. It’s no surprise that our self-esteem is highly influenced by our girlfriends; this is important to understand for girls as well as women.

 

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Stress, Pain & Depression – The leg bone is connected to the hip bone!

I’ve noticed that when I’m in the most physical pain I also feel “depressed”.  Depression has become catch-all word and it’s sometimes difficult to sort out.  The biggest hallmarks are usually:

Trouble sleeping

Low energy

Can’t find motivation

Disinterested in life

It’s not necessarily simply depression! by Peggy

Research has uncovered stress links among depression and pain.   It can be the effects of excess stress which depletes natural dopamine stores and creates a ripple effect on nearby endorphins.  

Turns out that endorphins are necessary to prevent pain and maintain good mood.  

And here’s the connection:

  1. Stress interferes with dopamine function in the brain, inhibiting the messages it sends to create the feeling of pleasure and the absence of pain, and can lead to a state of overstress.
  2. Dopamine function is correlated to endorphin function.  In periods of continual stress, both compounds decline, leading to the weakening of the body’s natural defense against pain.

According to the Franklin Institute, when dopamine and the endorphins malfunction, minor injuries can become major obstacles and experiences of both pain and misery are heightened. Previously enjoyed activities will no longer provide pleasure.”

Once again . . . lowering stress levels is important.  Check out some CATNIP posts on how to lower your stress:

The Write Way to Emotional & Physical Well-Being

Frankly Freddie – Dog Owners are healthier hoofers

Are you one of 30 who are sensitive to Negative Ions

 

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