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Mental Health

Mental Health, Neuroscience, Stroke

Neurosciences get the limelight at Davos

Neurosciences get the limelight at Davos

IMG_0887Four faculty from the Stanford Neurosciences Institute have been in Davos for the past few days attending the World Economic Forum along with world leaders and economic illuminati. They were invited to form a panel about the recently announced Big Ideas in Neuroscience, which is a novel way of bringing faculty together around health challenges like stroke, neurodegenerative disease and mental health conditions. If this approach is successful it could help ease the crippling economic and emotional costs of those diseases.

Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, emailed me from the conference that attendees seem to be very excited and focused on the sessions, with lines out the door of people waiting for seating. The entire panel included Etkin, who co-leads a mental health team, Marion Buckwalter, MD, PhD, who leads a stroke collaboration, and Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, and Anne Brunet, PhD, who are both part of the neurodegenerative disease team.

Tomorrow at 6 a.m. Pacific Time both Etkin and Wyss-Coray will be webcast live in conversation with NPR correspondent Joe Palca. That webcast is available on the World Economic Forum website.

Previously: Neuroscientists dream big, come up with ideas for prosthetics, mental health, stroke and more, Stanford expert responds to questions about brain repair and the future of neuroscience

Complementary Medicine, In the News, Mental Health, Pediatrics, Research, Stanford News

Stanford researchers to study effectiveness of yoga-based wellness program at local schools

Stanford researchers to study effectiveness of yoga-based wellness program at local schools

kids_yogaManaging stress and making healthy choices is a daily struggle for many of us. But what if way back in elementary school we had learned resiliency skills and mind-body practices to cope with anxiety, reduce incidents of bulling and violence, and boost our cognitive ability? Would this training have helped us keep our flight-or-fight response in check and live healthier lives?

A four-year study conducted by researchers at Stanford aims to answer these questions. The project will evaluate a yoga-based health and wellness program involving 3,400 students at the Ravenswood City School District. The program, which has been funded for three years by the Sonima Foundation, includes exercise-based on yoga, basic fitness regimes, relaxation techniques, mindfulness practices and nutrition. As the San Jose Mercury News reports:

The plan is to employ a multi-method approach that involves biology, physiology and psychology — a complete bio-psychosocial assessment — to measure [students’] emotions and behavior, academic and cognitive strengths and weaknesses, brain activity and structure, stress-related hormone levels, and sleep patterns.

“We’re really looking forward to a year from now — when I tell you this is effective — for you not to only take it on my word, but for you to also have data,” said Dr. Victor Carrion, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at [Stanford].

Carrion is also the director of the Stanford Early Life Stress and Pediatric Anxiety Program at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.

In 2012, he launched a mindfulness program in the Ravenswood City School District to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in teens that was featured on a PBS NewsHour segment. Jones and his wife happened to catch the broadcast, and because Carrion has done pro bono work with students and parents in the community for years, the partnership between the district, Stanford and the Sonima Foundation was forged.

The four-year study is also in partnership with the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego.

“This is something that for years has been a gap in our educational system,” Carrion said. “There’s nothing… that teaches children to socialize and to be in touch with their emotions and to take care of their inner health.”

Previously: Stanford researchers use yoga to help underserved youth manage stress and gain focus, Yoga classes may boost high-school students’ mental well-being and Study shows meditation may lower teens’ risk of developing heart disease
Photo by Nicole Mark

Chronic Disease, Medicine and Society, Mental Health

Boldly Me: Bay Area non-profit helps build self esteem in those who feel different

Alanna headshot

Alanna Powell

Boldly Me is the dream-come-true of founder Alanna Powell, who was diagnosed with Alopecia Universalis as a toddler and consequently spent the majority of her life completely bald. Powell has built upon her own experience with shaky self-confidence and self-doubt to support and inspire those who “feel different.”

I recently had the chance to talk with Powell, who founded the Fremont, CA-based organization in 2009. Boldly Me programming, which aims to improve the psychological health and self-esteem of both kids and adults, takes place around the Bay Area: The Fremont Unified School District has widely adopted it, and Powell reports that Stanford physician Joyce Teng, PhD, MD, is advocating for it to reach Palo Alto schools.

Boldly Me offers a variety of classes and assembly presentations teaching self-compassion and communication, starting with one called “Me and my thoughts.” Programming also includes activities like hula dancing, baton twirling, and arts and crafts, and community events showcase the kids’ talents and celebrate individuality. The company bases its approach on cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapy, and it has volunteer psychologists and doctors on its advisory board.

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Kids dance hula at a Boldly Me event

While the core of the program is creating personal compassion and self esteem to enable internal resistance to external reactions, it also approaches the problem from the outside by educating peers and parents. However, Powell says that programming directed at parents is often met with defensiveness, so Boldly Me starts with the kids by teaching them how to communicate problems to parents. Once the parents receive this information, they are receptive to suggestions.

Powell’s personal story was initially a big part of the programming; participants found it inspiring. When I spoke with her, she shared how her parents, with the best of intentions, were overprotective and encouraged her to always wear a wig in company. Her self-consciousness limited her in school, and as a young woman she was afraid to get married and have kids because she worried that a bald woman was unlovable. Her now-husband inspired her by saying that if she was afraid of her wig falling off, she should just “go bald!” She began to do things she never thought she would, such as river rafting and roller coasters. But the process of self-confidence is gradual – she wore her wig during labor, nervous to meet her new baby. Now her kids – ages 13, 11, and 9 – talk about their “cool bald mom!”

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Medicine and Society, Mental Health, Stanford News

Helping those in academic medicine to both “work and live well”

Helping those in academic medicine to both "work and live well"

stethoscope with blue backgroundOne of the perks of working for a university is that I get, like a regular ol’ student, a nice long winter break. I was off work for more than two weeks in late December and early January, and I used the time wisely (if I do say so myself) – by working out a lot, playing lots of games and doing lots of crafts with my young daughters, cleaning out my ridiculously packed garage, and even settling down with a 278-page book I had found the time to check out from my local library. The title (a rather ironic one given that I felt, during those glorious days off, as if I had all the time in the world)? Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.

The book was penned by journalist Brigid Schulte and published last March, and I quite enjoyed reading Schulte’s take on, and the science behind, the work-life demands of hard-working professionals (especially ones with kids) and “our addiction to the daily grind.” And while many of her stories – like how she once stopped doing housework in favor of eating soup and watching the rain with her kids – resonated with me personally (ah, the importance of slowing down and savoring life’s little pleasures!), I was also happy to see a shout-out to my place of work.

In a section on workplaces that have been remade to help their employees both “work and live well,” Schulte described how Stanford’s medical school is:

seeking to ‘rewire’ [the beliefs that success in academic medicine only comes from working 24/7] by changing the narrative of success. They have ambitious plans to remake their culture, to provide career counseling and multiple paths to success at various speeds. And they’re starting by showcasing a different kind of role model, in prominent displays along corridors and on the university website, focusing on those who have achieved excellence at work and have a rich life outside of it.

Schulte briefly discussed the work of Hannah Valantine, MD, former senior associate dean for leadership and diversity and now the first chief officer for scientific workforce diversity at NIH, who alongside Stanford colleagues had been working to change the workplace culture in academic medicine. Valantine and pediatrician Christy Sandborg, MD, co-created a pilot program called Academic Biomedical Career Customization (ABCC) in an effort to help faculty achieve balance; the program, which ran from 2012-14 and is described in an excellent 2013 article from the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, encouraged “faculty to address work-life issues by varying their workloads and responsibilities over the course of their careers” and included “a ‘time banking’ system, where faculty earn credits they can cash in for help with certain tasks at work or at home.”

Schulte quoted Valantine as saying, “We decided to include the housework benefits, because when [molecular biologist] Carol Greider got the news that she’d won the Nobel Prize in Medicine, she was doing the laundry.”

While grant funding for the ABCC program ended last year, folks at the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity told me that Stanford is applying the lessons and successes of the program into new work-life and work-flexibility initiatives throughout the School of Medicine.

Previously: Program for residents reflects “massive change” in surgeon mentality, NIH selects Hannah Valantine as first chief officer for scientific workforce diversity, Amplifying the physician-mother voice and Hannah Valantine: Leading the way in diversifying medicine
Photo by Michael Tam

Chronic Disease, Mental Health

The art of healing

The art of healing

painting a heart

We’ve partnered with Inspire, a company that builds and manages online support communities for patients and caregivers, to launch a patient-focused series here on Scope. Once a month, patients affected by serious and often rare diseases share their unique stories; this month’s column comes from a patient advocate from Syracuse, New York.

“There’s no cure or additional treatment as all viable options are exhausted. This is your new normal.”

My gastroenterologist was stating the obvious, yet I stared at him with incredulity. I’d had my second pancreatectomy a year prior, and it failed to control my critical and idiopathic hypoglycemia and pain. I was now receiving my nutrition via IV since repeated surgeries had reduced my ability to digest and absorb food, creating erratic swings in blood sugar necessitating constant monitoring. I was stunned that this was how things would be from now on.

I cried after that appointment as images of my life prior to getting sick flashed before my eyes. Until three years earlier, I had been working as a registered dietitian and diabetic educator, I cared for two busy teens, and I lived a life rife with joyful spontaneity. After a few week of impenetrable sadness I raged at God for condemning me to this life of constant pain and uncertainty. Why me? How could I be so sick when I lived such a healthy and active lifestyle? I knew I needed help to cope with this transition. Chronic illness was a dark and unfamiliar place. At 50, my life as I knew it was over.

I had always been a bibliophile, and I used audio books when I was too ill to read. Music was inspiring and while I had countless songs on my iPod it didn’t fill my days. My counselor gently encouraged me to try something new, so I decided to visit my local art store and see if there was anything of interest. I’d taken classes over the years but didn’t consider myself an artist, so I walked through the door with trepidation. But I was immediately welcomed by a knowledgeable artist who took me in hand. We walked down the aisles and she spoke with ardent enthusiasm about the different mediums available to me. When I saw the rainbow of acrylic paints I made my decision: I was going to paint.

Immediately following my purchase, I had buyer’s remorse. What did I know about painting? I had been encouraged to pursue excellence, and this was akin to jumping off the proverbial cliff. It took two weeks before I prepared my first canvas and put brush to paper. And what transpired next surprised me.

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Behavioral Science, Mental Health, Stanford News

Resolution check-in with a Stanford psychologist, one week into the new year

Resolution check-in with a Stanford psychologist, one week into the new year

2015 image

Ever make a New Year’s resolution and, one week later, find that you’ve thrown it out the window? The experience is not uncommon. In a recent Stanford News interview, Stanford psychologist and “science-help” expert Kelly McGonigal, PhD, explains the psychology of resolution-making. Here’s a chance to take a look back over the past week, reevaluate your resolution style, and start afresh.

To work, a resolution has to be both meaningful and achievable. The trick to McGonigal’s approach is, essentially, to separate these goals. Think of a resolution that is significant, sweeping, and deeply connected with who you would like to be or how you see your ideal self; then, think of a tiny daily step that relates to that goal. McGonigal explains:

The best kind of resolution is one that has a “big why” – to create health, to reconnect with a personal passion, to strengthen an important relationship, to change your financial situation, to develop yourself in some way, or to contribute to others in some way. And then you pick a small action or change that reflects this big goal, to remind yourself of it and to help you take steps toward it.

If your “big why” is to become more healthy, for example, don’t try to quit smoking or wake up an hour earlier every day to exercise. Try to wait an extra ten minutes before smoking your first cigarette, or dance to two songs in the kitchen after finishing the dishes. Such small, doable steps have been shown to have a big impact when connected with purposeful intention.

Thinking of resolutions as existing on different scales like this can help sustain the huge psychological boost that comes from resolving to change. This boost can easily be lost when people are confronted by how difficult change actually is, after which they give up – what psychologists call “false hope syndrome.” To avoid this, it’s useful to distinguish between resolutions that are expressions of a hopeful mindset, and resolutions that are plans for action. More from McGonigal:

Research shows that when people resolve to change, they immediately feel more confident, in control and hopeful. They even feel stronger and taller, which is kind of ridiculous, but this just shows how uplifting resolving to change can be. If people want to make resolutions as a way to connect to a growth mindset – the belief that through effort and support, you can change and grow in meaningful ways – that’s fine. It’s not necessarily a tragedy if you fall short…

The worst thing to do is make a promise to yourself that you don’t really care about and don’t really plan to see through.

Whether you think of your resolution to change as more of a mindset or more as something for which you want to be accountable, both the abstract and the concrete levels are essential.

McGonigal suggests a few tools for resolution success: recruiting a buddy to you can text when you’ve done your small daily goal, taking time for pre-resolution reflection through a gratitude list, or tricking your brain into thinking you’ve already succeeded by “encoding prospective memories.” Best of luck in 2015!

Previously: How to keep New Year’s resolutions to eat healthy, Ask Stanford Med: Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal taking questions on willpower, Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal discusses how stress shapes us, and How to keep New Year’s resolutions to eat healthy
Photo by Sondem/Shutterstock

Mental Health, Nutrition

Eating healthy, managing stress, and staying well during the holidays: A round-up of experts’ tips

dog in Santa hat - smallOver the last five years, since Scope launched in 2009, we’ve published many holiday-themed posts. This year, we’re collecting the best of them in one place, and they include tips about eating well, exercising and managing stress during the holidays, as well as healthy ways to kick off your new year.

Eating healthy during the holidays

Managing holiday stress

Starting the new year off right

Other holiday themes

Photo by starsandspirals

Mental Health, Stanford News, Videos

Workaholics vs work engagement: The difference is play

Workaholics vs work engagement: The difference is play

In a culture that places high value on “hard work,” we often lionize the wrong kind of work. A new study from the Journal of Management explores the difference between “workaholics” and “work engagement” – the former has serious negative consequences for health and social relationships, just like any addiction, while the latter actually has overwhelmingly positive effects. And when people are healthier and happier, they’re also more productive at work. Malissa Clark, PhD, one of the study’s authors, was quoted in UGA Today:

We see that there are two very different constructs. One is feeling driven to work because of an internal compulsion, where there’s guilt if you’re not working—that’s workaholism. The other feeling is wanting to work because you feel joy in work and that’s why you go to work everyday, because you enjoy it. And I say that is work engagement.

Stanford alum Brendan Boyle, MS, knows how to enjoy work, and teaches his audience in this Stanford+Connects video. The secret is play.

Boyle, who teaches at the d.school (School of Design), is an expert on the interaction between play and design thinking. He asserts that the opposite of play is not work, but boredom. Play is not frivolity, but a certain set of behaviors that can be incorporated into a multitude of tasks, whether at work or at home. Play can be, in a sense, a way of interacting with the world.

Watch the video to learn more – it ends with laughter.

Mental Health, Research, Technology

Reducing your stress level could be as simple as checking email less frequently

Reducing your stress level could be as simple as checking email less frequently

4329363938_26522735d1_zAs the end of 2014 approaches, many of us are thinking about what changes we’re going to make come Jan. 1 to be healthier and happier. Those looking for ways to reduce their stress level in 2015 may want to consider adopting a New Year’s resolution to limit how often they check their email throughout the day.

A study (subscription required) recently published in Computers in Human Behavior suggests that there are psychological benefits to easing up on the number of times you click your inbox. For the experiment, researchers at the University of British Columbia instructed half the participants to read emails no more than three times a day for a week, while a second group was allowed to check their inbox as often as they wished. The groups’ instructions were then reversed the following week. New York Magazine reports:

Overall, “limiting the number of times people checked their email per day lessened tension during a particularly important activity and lowered overall day-to-day stress,” the researchers write, and was associated with various other positive measures of psychological well-being. Those who checked their email a lot also didn’t perceive themselves as any more productive than those who were on an email diet.

…This study, combined with a lot of prior research into things like the distractions imposed by task-switching, paint a pretty clear picture: Ceaselessly checking your email probably isn’t making you more productive, and it probably is making you more stressed.

Previously: What email does to your brain
Photo by Ian Lamont

Cancer, Mental Health, Research, Women's Health

Women with mental illness less likely to be screened for breast cancer

Women with mental illness less likely to be screened for breast cancer

Previous research has shown that women are up to 40 percent more likely to experience a mental-health condition than men. Now findings published in the British Journal of Psychiatry caution that women with depression, anxiety or other mood disorders are likely missing out on important breast-cancer screenings.

In the study, British researchers conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis and comparing rates of mammography screening between women with mental illness and those without. PsychCentral reports:

Researchers found that there were significantly reduced rates of mammography screening in women with mental illness, depression, and severe mental illness such as schizophrenia.

The effect was not present in women with distress alone, suggesting distress was not the explanation.

“In this study, we found that mental ill health was linked with 45,000 missed screens which potentially could account for 90 avoidable deaths per annum in the UK alone. Clearly patients with mental illness should receive care that is at least comparable with care given to the general population. Every effort should be made to educate and support women with mental illness called for screening,” [said Alex Mitchell, MD, who led the study.]

Previously: A new way of reaching women who need mammograms, Despite genetic advances, detection still key in breast cancer, Medicine X explores the relationship between mental and physical health: “I don’t usually talk about this”Examining link between bipolar disorder, early death and Examining the connection between mental and physical health

Stanford Medicine Resources: