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Behavioral Science, Health and Fitness, Mental Health, Research

Exercise and relaxation techniques may help ease social anxiety, study finds

Exercise and relaxation techniques may help ease social anxiety, study finds

TrishWardMeditationPicPhysical exercise and relaxation techniques are common forms of stress-relief. Now, a new study has found that both may help people with social anxiety perceive their surroundings as less threatening environments.

Researchers from Queen’s University in the U.K. conducted two experiments measuring anxiety in participants. In both experiments, the participants were shown point-of-light displays describing a human but not indicating which way the stick figure was facing or whether it appeared to be approaching or receding. Facing-the-viewer bias, a possible biological protective mechanism, may lead people to assume the figure is approaching and posing a threat. And, according to the study, people who are more anxious may place their attention on more threatening stimuli, thereby increasing anxiety.

The researchers tested two means of altering participants’ perception of threat when looking at the stick-figure displays. From a release:

“We wanted to examine whether people would perceive their environment as less threatening after engaging in physical exercise or after doing a relaxation technique that is similar to the breathing exercises in yoga (called progressive muscle relaxation),” researcher [Adam Heenan, a PhD candidate,] said in a statement. “We found that people who either walked or jogged on a treadmill for 10 minutes perceived these ambiguous figures as facing towards them (the observer) less often than those who simply stood on the treadmill. The same was true when people performed progressive muscle relaxation.”

“This is a big development because it helps to explain why exercising and relaxation techniques have been successful in treating and mood and anxiety disorders in the past,” Heenan said.

The research was published in PLOS ONE.

Previously: Research brings meditation’s health benefits into focusAh…OM: Study shows prenatal yoga may relieve anxiety in pregnant womenStudy reveals initial findings on health of most extreme runners and The remarkable impact of yoga breathing for trauma
Photo courtesy of Trish Ward-Torres

Behavioral Science, Medicine and Literature, Stanford News

Does the sight of blood make you queasy? You’re not alone

Does the sight of blood make you queasy? You're not alone

drop of blood2

After writing about my blood phobia — and what I did to tame it — in the spring 2013 issue of Stanford Medicine, I was surprised to get a lot of e-mail from readers suffering from the same condition or similar ones, or both. (In the world of mental health, blood phobia is categorized together with injection phobia and injury phobia, and known collectively as BII phobia.) Their responses gave me a welcome sense of solidarity.

Some sought guidance. A reader in the Philadelphia area wrote:

I now realize I have this phobia. And I had no idea there was a treatment for it.

I pass out with needles, blood and sometimes when someone just talks about blood! Your article actually made me queasy reading it. It took me a while to get through it. But I’m glad I did.

So you know of any treatment centers in Philadelphia who specialize in this?

A reader in the Boston area explained:

From a very young age, I have experienced BII anxiety and vasovagal responses to various medical stimuli.  I used to not be able to talk about injections without feeling uncomfortable or faint, and now I am able to get them without being anxious or needing any medical aides (I used to take Valium).

I am getting closer to my clinical rotations in PA [physician assistant] school and am worried about my irrational fears of blood, surgery, etc.

I was wondering if you had any further suggestions for the student going into health care with these types of BII vasovagal responses.  I am certain I want to be a physician assistant, I am just so concerned that I will not be physically able to carry out my surgical rotations!

Others, like this Bay Area reader,  just wanted to share their experiences:

I first fainted when I was 12 watching a vet surgery! I had no idea what happened or the reaction I had, but I knew it didn’t feel good. I’ve had a few episodes thereafter, usually at doctor’s offices drawing blood. In fact, last year I almost fainted getting my finger pricked at an office health thing! I think the fasting didn’t help… I am so excited to read something like this. To know I’m not the only one, but that there is something you can do, a real exercise to practice that helps!

Thank you for writing this. I truly enjoyed it and feel better already.

Previously: Longreads pick: Blood, sweat and fears
Photo by Alden Chadwick

Behavioral Science, Health and Fitness, Obesity, Research, Stanford News

The behavioral consequences of overindulgence

The behavioral consequences of overindulgence

sundae_070714In today’s world of Big Gulps and supersized portions, one giant question looms: How does overindulgence affect our pleasure of food?

To provide an answer, Baba Shiv, MBA, PhD, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and colleagues performed a series of experiments investigating how your feeling of satiety impacts the likelihood that you’ll soon eat the same food again. Their findings offer insights for both individuals that have trouble eating and drinking in moderation and those who are picky eaters.

During the first study, students tried three different flavors of crackers, selected their favorite and then were instructed to eat a specific number. They rated their enjoyment after eating each one. According to a business school release:

The students who ate the larger portion (15 crackers) reported significantly lower enjoyment than those who ate the smaller portion (3 crackers).

These findings replicate previous ones on “sensory-specific satiety”: Each bit of the same food is less pleasant than the one before it. Thus, the bigger the portion, the less enjoyment you get out of the last few bites.

More importantly, participants’ enjoyment of the last cracker (manipulated by portion size) seemed to influence how soon the students wanted to eat the crackers again: Participants who ate a small portion typically opted to receive a giveaway box of [crackers] sooner than did participants who ate the larger portion.

In another study exploring behaviors of finicky eaters, study authors gave one group of participants sips of juice and two crackers to eat. A second group was also given the juice and crackers, but had the added distractor task of counting “e’s” in a series of passages before drinking more juice. Results showed that the crackers partially reset their satiety level, allowing students to find the second sip of juice as enjoyable as the first. Shiv notes in the release how these findings could be useful for parents trying to get their little ones to eat more veggies:

Parents of picky eaters could keep this lesson to heart, says Shiv. Rather than insisting that your child eat every last bite of broccoli, introduce another taste in the middle of the serving of broccoli, to reset levels of satiety. Next time there’s broccoli on the plate, your youngster may be more willing to eat it again.

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Behavioral Science, Mental Health, Stanford News

Using mindfulness-based programs to reduce stress and promote health

Using mindfulness-based programs to reduce stress and promote health

JamesLeeIn a Stanford BeWell Q&A, Mark Abramson, DDS, the founder and facilitator of Mindfulness-Meditation Based Stress Reduction programs at Stanford Hospital & Clinics and the Stanford School of Medicine, discusses the origins of such practices and how they can be applied in health settings and other areas such as business and education. Abramson leads an eight-week mindfulness meditation course through Stanford’s Health Improvement Program.

From the Q&A:

What is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction?

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction was originated by Jon Kabat-Zinn, [PhD,] who applied the traditional meditation practice of mindfulness (defined here as non-judgmental awareness) to medical centers. He created an eight-week treatment program for medical illnesses as well as general stress issues. In his program, he used a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga to assist people with pain and a range of conditions and life issues. MBSR is now a common part of the treatment regimen in many hospital settings.

Meditation looks easy, but can be quite difficult. What is the simplest way to get started?

There are two phenomena that make meditation difficult. The first is the expectation people have that they’re going to go into a mystical, magical place where the mind shuts off and they will be in a special state. This expectation has ruined people’s practice more than anything else. Mindfulness is really just observing yourself through your natural senses — such as your taste, hearing, smelling and feeling. Even the thoughts you have are observable experiences.

The second difficulty is the habitual tendency for our minds to go off on tangents. It is difficult to stay focused; we slip away and we come back. I try to see that as part of the practice.

Previously: Med students awarded Schweitzer Fellowships lead health-care programs for underserved youthA campus-wide call to pause and reflect, Learning tools for mindful eating and Stress, will-power top reasons why Americans fail to adopt healthy habits
Photo of James Lee by Emily Hite

Behavioral Science, Neuroscience, Stanford News

Real time view of changing minds

Real time view of changing minds

There at this morning’s meeting was a large box of donuts which I had absolutely no intention of eating. None. Until I changed my mind.

What happened this morning was probably a little more complex than the simple changes of mind that Stanford Neurosciences Institute director William Newsome studies, what with the delicious smell of chocolate and a quick realization that perhaps a lunchtime run could be squeezed into my day.

Newsome has focused on recording the activity of individual neurons in animals making simple decisions, like indicating which way a dot is moving on a screen. He and his team then statistically analyze the results of many such recordings of individual neurons. These studies have gone a long way toward revealing the activity of neurons in different parts of the brain but can miss some of the fine scale dynamics that take place during the decision-making process. Recently, new probes have been developed that allow scientists to record the activity of many neurons at the same time.

Using such a probe, Newsome and his team recorded groups of neurons in animals making simple decisions, and could track in real time the patterns of how the neurons fired as the animals made a decision and changed their minds. They published their results in Current Biology. A press release from New York University quotes co-first author on the paper Roozbeh Kiani (a former postdoctoral scholar in Newsome’s lab):

“Looking at one neuron at a time is ‘noisy’: results vary from trial to trial so you cannot get a clear picture of this complex activity. By recording multiple neurons at the same time, you can take out this noise and get a more robust picture of the underlying dynamics.”

The team was able to watch the neurons firing in real time, and detect a pattern indicating which decision the animal was going to make. They could also tell when the animal changed its mind, for example as a result of a stronger signal on the screen or to more time to make a decision. What I found interesting is that in most cases when the animals changed their minds it was to correct their initial decision.

What does all this suggest about my donut splurge? Maybe that given enough time I was able to correct my initial decision of self-control to the right one – of deliciousness.

Previously: Co-leader of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative to direct Stanford’s interdisciplinary neuroscience institute

Behavioral Science, Bioengineering, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News, Technology

Party animal: Scientists nail “social circuit” in rodent brain (and probably ours, too)

Party animal: Scientists nail "social circuit" in rodent brain (and probably ours, too)

party animalStimulating a single nerve-cell circuit among millions in the brain instantly increases a mouse’s appetite for getting to know a strange mouse, while inhibiting it shuts down the same mouse’s drive to socialize with the stranger.

Stanford brain scientist and technology whiz Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, is already renowned for his role in developing optogenetics, a technology that allows researchers to turn on and turn off nerve-cell activity deep within the brain of a living, freely roving animal so they can see the effects of that switching in real time. He also pioneered CLARITY, a method of rendering the brain – at least if it’s the size of of a mouse’s – both transparent and porous so its anatomy can be charted, even down to the molecular level, in ways previously deemed unimaginable.

Now, in another feat of methodological derring-do detailed in a new study in Cell, Deisseroth and his teammates incorporated a suite of advanced lab technologies, including optogenetics as well as a couple of new tricks, to pinpoint a particular assembly of nerve cells projecting from one part to another part of the mouse brain. We humans’ brains obviously differ in some ways from those of mice. But our brains have the same connections Deisseroth’s group implicated in mice’s tendency to seek or avoid social contact. So it’s a good bet this applies to us, too.

Yes, we’d all like to be able to flip a switch and turn on our own “party animal” social circuitry from time to time. But the potential long-term applications of advances like this one are far from frivolous. The new findings may throw light on psychiatric disorders marked by impaired social interaction such as autism, social anxiety, schizophrenia and depression.From my release on this study:

“Every behavior presumably arises from a pattern of activity in the brain, and every behavioral malfunction arises from malfunctioning circuitry,” said Deisseroth, who is also co-director of Stanford’s Cracking the Neural Code Program. “The ability, for the first time, to pinpoint a particular nerve-cell projection involved in the social behavior of a living, moving animal will greatly enhance our ability to understand how social behavior operates, and how it can go wrong.”

Previously: Lightning strikes twice: Optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth’s newest technique renders tissues transparent, yet structurally intact, Researchers induce social deficits associated with autism, schizophrenia in mice, Anti-anxiety circuit found in unlikelybrain region and Using light to get muscles moving
Photo by Gamerscore blog

Behavioral Science, Research

Beating randomness with strategy

Beating randomness with strategy

rock-paper-scissors

Think twice before sharing with potential opponents: A recent study has identified tips to win rock-paper-scissors. In a laboratory experiment, computer scientists at Zhejiang University in China observed cyclic motions during the traditionally random two-person game of gestures. The findings are summarized in four strategy recommendations outlined in a Vox article.

From the Vox piece:

Data shows that men disproportionately go with sturdy rock as their first move (heeding Bart Simpson’s timeless advice: “Good ol’ Rock, nothing beats that”). As RPS tournament competitor Graham Walker puts it, “rock is for rookies.”

You can take advantage of that by starting with paper (in Lisa’s words: ‘Poor predictable Bart; always takes Rock”).

Photo by Light Painting

Aging, Behavioral Science, Health and Fitness, Research

Spouses with sunnier dispositions may boost their partners’ well-being

husband_wife_bike_ridePast research has shown that a positive outlook on life could be a factor in both health and longevity. But findings recently published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research suggest that having an upbeat spouse can enhance a person’s overall health, even above and beyond an individual’s own level of optimism.

In the study, researchers examined data from the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal panel study that surveys a representative sample of more than 26,000 Americans over the age of 50 every two years. The University of Michigan investigators also tracked 1,970 heterosexual couples for four years and reported on their physical functioning, health and certain chronic illnesses. Results showed having an optimistic spouse predicted better mobility and fewer chronic illnesses over time.

According to a Futurity post, social support may partly explain the findings:

Optimists are more likely to seek social support when facing difficult situations and have a larger network of friends who provide that support.

In close relationships, optimism predicts enhanced satisfaction and better cooperative problem-solving.

“So practically speaking, I can imagine an optimistic spouse encouraging his or her partner to go to the gym or eat a healthier meal because the spouse genuinely believes the behavior will make a difference in health,” [Eric Kim, a doctoral student in the University of Michigan’s psychology department,] says.

Previously: The scientific importance of social connections for your health, Examining how your friends influence your health, Can good friends help you live longer? and How social networks might affect your health
Photo by Christopher

Behavioral Science, Research, Stanford News

To get your creative juices flowing, start moving

walkingThe choreographer Twyla Tharp wrote a self-help book, The Creative Habit, that offers tips on nurturing your creativity. A New York Times book review distills Tharp’s message that generating original work involves not only a fertile mind, but also a well-conditioned rest of the body:

Forget about inspiration, [Tharp] says. You won’t get anything done sitting around waiting for it to strike.

Tharp’s favorite remedy is physical, to ”do a verb.” She picks a verb and videotapes herself acting it out: darting, twirling, squirming, chafing. ”The chemistry of the body is inseparable from the chemistry of the brain,” she writes. Movement is not just for dancers.

Now, research from Stanford shows that an ordinary action – walking – is associated with an increased output of creativity. Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, the study, comprising four experiments, measured creative output in 176 adult participants who walked outdoors on a prescribed path or indoors on a treadmill, or sat facing a blank wall inside or in a wheelchair along the same outdoor path.

From a Stanford News piece:

…walking outdoors in the fresh air produced twice as many creative responses compared to a person sitting down, one of the experiments found.

“I thought walking outside would blow everything out of the water, but walking on a treadmill in a small, boring room still had strong results, which surprised me,” [co-author Marily Oppezzo, PhD, a Stanford doctoral graduate in educational psychology,] said.

Co-author Daniel Schwartz, PhD, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education, remarked, ”There’s work to be done to find out the causal mechanisms.” He continued, “And this is a very robust paradigm that will allow people to begin manipulations, so they can track down how the body is influencing the mind.”

Previously: Stanford’s explosive exercise in creativityThe importance of – and bias against – creativityPeering into the brains of freestyle rappers to better understand creativity and How the brain works during improvisation
Photo by Ian Sane

Addiction, Behavioral Science, In the News, Mental Health, Research

Knitting as ritual – with potential health benefits?

Knitting as ritual - with potential health benefits?

knittingDuring finals, one of my college roommates would ritualistically sit in silence and knit an entire hat before she could begin studying. The steady, repetitive action calmed her down and cleared her mind. (Before less stressful exams, she baked.)

I thought of her when coming across a recent post on The Checkup that points to evidence, including previous research in seniors with mild cognitive impairment, that the health benefits experienced by people who engage in activities such as knitting and crocheting might be more than anecdotal. More from the piece:

In one study, 38 women hospitalized for anorexia were given a questionnaire about their psychological state after being taught to knit.

After an average of one hour and 20 minutes of knitting a day for an average of three weeks, 74 percent of them reported less fear and preoccupation with their eating disorder, the same percentage reported that knitting had a calming effect, and just over half said knitting gave them a sense of pride, satisfaction and accomplishment.

The rhythmic movements of knitting offer many of the same kinds of benefits as meditation, says Carrie Barron, [MD,] an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York and co-author of the book “The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness With Your Own Two Hands.” In addition, she says, seeing a project take shape provides a deep sense of satisfaction.

That might have been why Pee-wee Herman found the unsolved mystery of his stolen bike so unnerving: “It’s like you’re unraveling a big cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting and knitting and knitting…” he said in the 1985 film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

Previously: Image of the Week: Personalized brain activity scarves, Image of the Week: aKNITomy, Study shows meditation may alter areas of the brain associated with psychiatric disorders and Ommmmm… Mindfulness therapy appears to help prevent depression relapse
Photo by Merete Veian

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