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Mental Health, Neuroscience, Technology

What email does to your brain

What email does to your brain

man yellingUpdated 10-2-14: A follow-up post, with tips on how to manage your inbox, can be found here.

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10-1-14: Have you ever been in a situation in which you were feeling great until you received an email out of the blue that completely upset your day? How does it feel to receive 30 such emails first thing in the morning? There’s a reason why: Research shows that just looking through your inbox can significantly increase your stress levels (see research described here).

Why is this? Let’s start by defining stress. Stress is the experience of having too great a task to accomplish with too few resources to meet the demand. In the past, for our ancestors, this stress might have looked like meeting a hungry wild animal in the jungle. Today, however, it takes on a much more simple, yet equally powerful form: an inbox. Email overload is just another way in which we experience that there is too great a task (the huge list of to-dos) to handle. In the study mentioned above, email overload had a lot to do with the stress response as measured psychologically and physiologically through heart rate, blood pressure and a measure of cortisol (the “stress hormone”).

Is it just the amount of emails that lead to stress though? There’s another element that we are forgetting. The emotional impact of each email. Think about it: Usually, in our email-less past, we would experience maybe one highly emotional event a day or maybe two or three at the most, e.g. a confrontation with a colleague, perhaps a spat with a spouse, and/or a phone call from an angry neighbor. Our stress response is evolved to handle and recover from a small number of stressful situations but not a whole host of them. Unless we live in unusually extreme situations such as warzones, for example, our life usually doesn’t have frequent and sequential stressors thrown at us.

Today, however, just sitting down at our desk to check our email with a cup of coffee can bring on a deluge of emotional assailants. Between 30-300 different emotional stimuli are delivered to you within the span of minutes. From an email from your boss asking you to complete a task urgently, to a passive-aggressive message from a family-member, to news from a colleague that he’s out sick and you have to take over his workload. One hour of email can take you through a huge range of emotions and stressors. Sure, you can get happy emails too – photos of your nephews, someone’s marriage announcement – but unfortunately, research on the negativity bias shows that our brain clings more to the negative and they don’t always balance out.

That’s when our emotional intelligence is impacted. We know that when our stress response is activated, the parts of our brain that respond with fear of anxiety tend to take over, weakening our ability to make rational choices and to reason logically this study). You may be stressed; what’s more, your own ability to respond appropriately is impacted. We know that our emotions impact the way we act. You’re going to reply with a different tone if you’re upset (even at someone other than your email recipient) than if you’re not.

Have you ever pressed “send” only to regret it moments later? Don’t blame yourself. Research shows that getting depleted because you have too much on your plate reduces your self-control. For example, it can make you take more risks when maybe you should be more cautious (e.g. this study). It’s harder to have a say over our impulses when there’s just too much going on. As in too many emails, with too many different messages leading to increased stress and emotional overload.

When you’re doing a million emails – all about different topics and requesting you for different things, you are, by definition in a situation of overwhelmed multitasking. And multitasking, research shows, leads to lower productivity and makes you lose a lot of time out of our day!

So what’s the answer to the assailment of email on our lives?

Before you contemplate moving to a farm, selling your smartphone on Ebay, raising chickens and goats and cutting technology out of your life forever despite your love of selfies – WAIT, there’s a solution. Think about it – email didn’t exist 10 years ago! That means that there is a way to undo the madness. I’ll share a number of tips in my next post… Stay tuned.

Emma Seppala, PhD, is associate director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and a research psychologist at the School of Medicine. She is also a certified yoga, pilates, breath work and meditation instructor. A version of this piece originally appeared on her website.

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Complementary Medicine, Mental Health

The remarkable impact of yoga breathing for trauma

The remarkable impact of yoga breathing for trauma

“Military guys doing yoga and meditation?” I’ve been asked in disbelief. It’s true that when they first arrived to participate in my study (a yoga-based breathing program offered by a small non-profit organization), the young, tattoo-covered, hard-drinking, motorcycle-driving all-American Midwestern men didn’t look like your typical yoga devotees. But their words after the study said it all: “Thank you for giving me my life back” and “I feel like I’ve been dead since I returned from Iraq and I feel like I’m alive again.” Our surprisingly positive findings revealed the power that lies in breath for providing relief from even the most deep-seated forms of anxiety.

As many of us know, there is an unspoken epidemic that is taking 22 lives a day in the U.S.

Who is impacted? Those who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in protection of others: Veterans.

How? Suicide.

Why? War trauma.

Average age? 25.

After a long deployment of holding their breath in combat, these men and women often return to civilian life no longer knowing how to breathe. Though the military trains service members for war, it doesn’t train them for peace. Ready to give up their life for others, service members embody the values of courage, integrity, selflessness, and a deep commitment to serving. They’ve trained under extreme conditions to do things most civilians don’t encounter: lose parts of their body, kill or injure another human being under orders or by mistake, get right back to work and keep fighting hours after seeing a friend killed, be separated from families and loved ones for months and even years, and live with the horrendous physical and emotional consequences thereof upon their return home.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that 20-30 percent of the over 2 million returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This anxiety disorder involves hyper-alertness that prevents sleep and severely interferes with daily life, triggers painful flashbacks during the day and nightmares at night, and causes emotional numbness that leads to social withdrawal and an inability to relate to others. Side effects of PTSD include rage, violence, insomnia, alienation, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. PTSD symptoms are associated with higher risk of suicide, a fact that may explain the alarming rise in suicidal behavior amongst returning veterans.

While traditional treatments work for some, a large number of veterans are falling through the cracks. Dropout rates for therapy and drug treatments remain as high as 62 percent for veterans with PTSD. Symptoms can persist even for veterans who actually undergo an entire course of psychotherapeutic treatment and drug treatment results are mixed.

Our research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Stanford showed that the week-long Project Welcome Home Troops intervention was successful, with our analyses showing significant decreases in PTSD and anxiety. Improvements remained one month and one year later, suggesting long-term benefit. More telling even than the data are the veterans’ words; with a veteran of the war in Afghanistan writing:

A few weeks ago shooting, cars exploding, screaming, death, that was your world. Now back home, no one knows what it is like over there so no one knows how to help you get back your normalcy. They label you a victim of the war. I AM NOT A VICTIM… but how do I get back my normalcy? For most of us it is booze and Ambien. It works for a brief period then it takes over your life. Until this study, I could not find the right help for me, BREATH’ing like a champ!

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Mental Health

Six mindfulness tips to combat holiday stress

Six mindfulness tips to combat holiday stress

mindfulnessIs the holiday season stressful or even lonely? Heard about the scientific benefits of mindfulness but just don’t see how you could fit it in? Especially during the holidays? We often mistakenly think meditation requires sitting in lotus posture, preferably on a lotus flower in the middle of a still lake in Thailand with birds chirping in the background. Although that would be nice, it’s clearly not always possible and the good news is that it’s not necessary either! No matter what we are doing – whether it is commuting or traveling, eating or talking, sitting around or doing chores, each of these activities presents an opportunity for mindfulness! Here are six easy ways to integrate mindfulness into your holidays (and any day)!

Most meditation exercises are designed to bring your mind back into the present moment where it is happiest and calmest. About 50 percent of the time, we aren’t in the present moment, according to a study of 5,000 people by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University. Our minds tend to wander and the researchers concluded that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” It is a fascinating fact that, no matter what we’re actually doing, pleasant or unpleasant, we are happiest when our mind is in the present moment. So here are some easy exercises that work, no matter where you are:

1. During the Commute/Travel

Driving mindfully. So often, we regard our commute or cartravel as a stressful annoyance. The worst is when we are stuck in traffic. But hold on, here’s a chance for you to sit back, relax and focus on your breathing. Bring your mind back into the present moment and see if you can become aware of everything around you. Usually our mind is always wandering, especially when we’re in an uncomfortable situation. Being stuck in a commute or in traffic allows us to develop being in the present moment. Have screaming children in the backseat? Practice fully accepting the moment as it is. Chances are they will calm down as you do… The result? You’ll arrive calmer and feel more rested and even restored.

2. During Meals

Eat mindfully. We often stuff our faces while watching TV, between meetings or in front of our computer. During the holidays, we tend to overeat. We are so busy consuming, we sometimes fail to fully pay attention to the flavors that grace our mouths. Try eating a snack with full attention. Notice how it looks and smells, feel the burst of flavors as you place it in your mouth, notice the taste of each bite, the texture. Contemplate the many people it took to bring this food to you (from the farmers to people delivering it to stores to you). You will open your eyes renewed, calmer and more focused.

3. During Conversation

Listen mindfully. Every interaction we have, whether it is at work or at home is an opportunity for mindfulness. Usually we are bursting with the impulse to talk about ourselves, to interrupt, or, oftentimes our mind is wandering – i.e. we are not really listening. See if, even for 5 minutes, you can fully dedicate your attention and awareness to the people who are speaking to you. Not only will you feel more peaceful and calm, but you will notice that you can understand them better and they will in turn feel deeply grateful and valued as they notice your full attention on them. As Simone Weil writes, “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

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