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Events, Mental Health, Stanford News

A campus-wide call to pause and reflect

A campus-wide call to pause and reflect

contemplation by designA friend once said to me in her warm Virginia drawl, “You know Jacqueline, there is a whole other world  on the other side of STOP.” I found out how correct she was when a severe back injury forced me to stop my hectic, stress-filled schedule. It was a tough way to learn a valuable lesson, but I wouldn’t change those pain-filled days given what they taught me about the importance of getting off the merry-go-round of activities that I thought I had to do.

On Friday, those in the Stanford community will be given a glimpse of that world on the other side of STOP without injury, by participating in the Carillon Concert and Quiet Contemplation. Everyone on campus is invited to gather at 11:30 AM for a Carillion Bell concert, a chance to relax, do some tai chai, win some raffle prizes, and most of all STOP and contemplate. Attendees are encouraged to bring a mat and a desire to “take a chill pill” as my children would say.

And for our far-away readers: You, too, are encouraged to, in the words of the event organizers, “pause, reflect and take time to unwind.”

Jacqueline Genovese is assistant director of the Arts, Humanities, and Medicine Program within the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.

Complementary Medicine, Health and Fitness, In the News, Mental Health

Research brings meditation’s health benefits into focus

Research brings meditation's health benefits into focus

Allyson meditationThe effects of meditation aren’t all in your head; they influence your body and spirit, too. That’s according to a Huffington Post piece and infographic summarizing results from a range of studies showing how the practice of the mind can have far-reaching effects in a person. Being in the moment offers not only the potential to reduce sensitivity to pain, ease stress and increase focus, the piece notes, but also to lower blood pressure, boost the immune system and invite restorative sleep.

As discussed here previously, meditation may play a role in shaping other aspects of life. Laura Schocker writes:

Cultivates willpower. Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. told Stanford Medicine’s SCOPE blog in 2011 that both physical exercise and meditation can help train the brain for willpower:

Meditation training improves a wide range of willpower skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control and self-awareness. It changes both the function and structure of the brain to support self-control. For example, regular meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. And it doesn’t take a lifetime of practice — brain changes have been observed after eight weeks of brief daily meditation training.

Now, go find a blank wall. See you in 20 minutes.

Previously: Using meditation to train the brainHow meditation can influence gene activityAsk Stanford Med: Answers to your questions about willpower and tools to reach our goals and The science of willpower
Photo of Allyson Pfeifer by Ashley Turner

In the News, Mental Health, Stanford News

Why stress might not be so bad

Why stress might not be so bad

elfStress: good or bad for you? It depends. A feature in STANFORD magazine discusses immediate versus chronic stress and the effects of each on health over the long term.

From the piece:

Much of what we know about the physical and mental toll of chronic stress stems from seminal work by Robert Sapolsky beginning in the late 1970s. [Sapolsky, PhD,] a neuroendocrinologist, was among the first to make the connection that the hormones released during the fight-or-flight response—the ones that helped our ancestors avoid becoming dinner—have deleterious effects when the stress is severe and sustained. Especially insidious, chronic exposure to one of these hormones, cortisol, causes brain changes that make it increasingly difficult to shut the stress response down.

But take heart: Recent research paints a different portrait of stress, one in which it indeed has a positive side. “There’s good stress, there’s tolerable stress, and there’s toxic stress,” says [Bruce McEwen,PhD] of Rockefeller University, an expert on stress and the brain who trained both Sapolsky and [Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD].

The article goes on to describe some of the physiological effects of stress:

Dhabhar likens the body’s immune cells to soldiers. Because their levels in the blood plummet during acute stress, “people used to say: ‘See, stress is bad for you; your immune system’s depressed,’” he says. “But most immune battles are not going to be fought in the blood.” He suspected that the immune cells were instead traveling to the body’s “battlefields”—sites most likely to be wounded in an attack, like the skin, gut and lungs. In studies where rats were briefly confined (a short-term stressor), he showed that after an initial surge of immune cells into the bloodstream, they quickly exited the blood and took up positions precisely where he predicted they would.

“His work was a pioneering demonstration of how important the difference is between acute and chronic stress,” says Sapolsky, a professor of biology, neurology, and neurological sciences and neurosurgery. “Overwhelmingly, the bad health effects of stress are those of chronic stress.”

Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, also comments in the piece that a person’s view of stress plays a significant role in how stress affects him or her.

Previously: Examining the helpful and harmful effects of stressDoes more authority translate into a reduction in stress and anxiety? and Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky talks stress and the brain
Photo by Dylan Tweney

Complementary Medicine, Mental Health, Parenting, Pregnancy, Research, Women's Health

Ah…OM: Study shows prenatal yoga may relieve anxiety in pregnant women

Ah...OM: Study shows prenatal yoga may relieve anxiety in pregnant women

Desi_smallDuring a pre- and postnatal yoga module of my yoga teacher training, I was enchanted by instructor Desi Bartlett‘s reference to “pregnant goddesses” – our future students – as we learned how yoga could help them prepare for delivery day. (Think deep squats.) Methods to empower goddesses throughout and beyond pregnancy included modifications to traditional poses to stay fit while providing a safe “house” for the fetus, breathing and meditation to steady a busy mind, group activities to build community with other new parents and restorative poses to find calm during a period of change.

Now, a study (subscription required) has investigated how yoga can help relieve pregnancy-specific anxiety in mothers-to-be. Researchers at the University of Manchester and Newcastle University in the U.K. followed 59 women, each pregnant with her first child and receiving normal prenatal treatment during the late second to third trimester, and asked them to self-report their emotional states. A randomized group attended eight weekly prenatal Hatha yoga sessions, and researchers measured those participants’ saliva cortisol levels before and after the first and last classes of the intervention.

From a release:

A single session of yoga was found to reduce self-reported anxiety by one third and stress hormone levels by 14%. Encouragingly, similar findings were made at both the first and final session of the 8 week intervention.

“The results confirm what many who take part in yoga have suspected for a long time,” John Aplin, PhD, one of the senior investigators in Manchester and a yoga teacher, said in the release. “There is also evidence yoga can reduce the need for pain relief during birth and the likelihood for delivery by emergency caesarean section.”

The study was published in the Journal of Depression and Anxiety.

Previously: Toilets of the future, and the art of squattingA reminder that prenatal care is key to a healthy pregnancyPregnant and on the move: The importance of exercise for moms-to-be and Ask Stanford Med: Pain expert responds to questions on integrative medicine
Photo of Desi Bartlett by Natiya Guin

Mental Health, Stanford News, Videos

How the stress of our “always on” culture can impact performance, health and happiness

How the stress of our "always on" culture can impact performance, health and happiness

A 2013 report shows that 83 percent of adults in the United States are stressed out at work. Similarly, data from a separate survey shows that high stress is causing Americans to perpetuate unhealthy lifestyle habits, including overeating and skipping daily physical activity.

During a recent Café Scientifique event, Palo Alto-based organizational psychologist Jay Azarow, PhD, discussed how our “always on” culture can negatively impact your performance, health and happiness. In the video above, he provides an overview of science-based yet practical approaches to reducing and managing stress, increasing energy and enhancing focus and productivity.

As Azarow notes in the talk, how you view stress (as an opportunity rather than a threat) may alter your physiological response. A story published in the latest issue of Stanford Magazine explores this concept further, and offers an in-depth look at recent research showing that not all stress is harmful.

Previously: Study finds happy employees are 12 percent more productive, Examining the helpful and harmful effects of stress and Workplace stress and how it influences health

Aging, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News, Stem Cells

The rechargeable brain: Blood plasma from young mice improves old mice’s memory and learning

The rechargeable brain: Blood plasma from young mice improves old mice's memory and learning

brain battery“Maybe Ponce de Leon should have considered becoming a vampire,” I noted here a few years ago. In a related Stanford Medicine article, I elaborated on that point (i.e. Dracula may have been on to something):

Count Dracula may have been bloodthirsty, but nobody ever called him stupid. If that practitioner of what you could call “the Transylvanian transfusion” knew then what we know now, it’s a good bet he was keeping his wits as sharp as his teeth by restricting his treats to victims under the age of 30.

I was referring then to an amazing discovery by Stanford brain-degeneration expert Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, and his then-graduate student Saul Villeda, PhD, who now has his own lab at the University of California-San Francisco. They’d found that something in an old mouse’s blood could somehow exert an aging effect on the capabilities of a young mouse’s brain, and you know that ain’t good. They’d even pinpointed one specific substance (eotaxin) behind this effect, implying that inhibiting this naturally produced and sometimes very useful chemical’s nefarious action – or, if you’re a vampire, laying off the old juice and  getting your kicks from preteens when available – might be beneficial to aging brains.

But I was premature. While the dynamic duo had shown that old blood is bad for young brains and had also demonstrated that old mice’s brains produce more new nerve cells (presumably a good thing) once they’ve had continuous exposure to young mice’s blood, the researchers hadn’t yet definitively proven that the latter translated into improved intellectual performance.

This time out they’ve gone and done just that, in a study (subscription required) published online yesterday in Nature Medicine. First they conducted tricky, sophisticated experiments to show that when the old mice were continuously getting blood from young mice, an all-important region in a mouse’s brain (and yours) called the hippocampus perks up biochemically, anatomically and physiologically: It looks and acts more like a younger mouse’s hippocampus. That’s big, because the hippocampus is not only absolutely essential to the formation of new memories but also the first brain region to go when the early stirrings of impending dementia such as Alzheimer’s start subtly eroding brain function, long before outwardly observable symptoms appear.

Critically, when Wyss-Coray, Villeda and their comrades then administered a mousey IQ test (a standard battery of experiments measuring mice’s ability to learn and remember) to old mice who’d been injected with plasma (the cell-free part of blood) from healthy young mice, the little codgers far outperformed their peers who got crummy old-mouse plasma instead.

Slam dunk.

“This could have been done 20 years ago,” Wyss-Coray told me when I was assembling my release on this study. “You don’t need to know anything about how the brain works. You just give an old mouse young blood and see if the animal is smarter than before. It’s just that nobody did it.”

Previously: When brain’s trash collectors fall down on the job, neurodegeneration risk picks up, Brain police: Stem cells’ fecund daughters also boss other cells around, Old blood + young brain = old brain and Might immune response to viral infections slow birth of new nerve cells in brain?
Photo by Takashi Hososhima

Mental Health, Research

Examining the scientific evidence behind experimental treatments for PTSD

Examining the scientific evidence behind experimental treatments for PTSD

In a recent post on the PLOS blog network’s Mind the Brain, Shaili Jain, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, discusses some of the recent innovations in treating post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She writes:

I approach PTSD treatment with a basic belief that we already have pretty good treatments, and the issues with getting better outcomes for PTSD lie more in how we implement those treatments, the limitations of the systems that provide care, massive issues of access to care (i.e. those who need care the most simply can’t access it for a myriad of reasons), and healthcare disparities (that an individual’s outcomes for PTSD are more likely linked to their zip code as opposed to their genes/neurotransmitters).

…I usually have a healthy skepticism toward the experimental or magic bullets type of treatments for PTSD, which often get a lot of media attention and can be very seductive to the brain of a researcher or clinician who spends their days trying to help individuals who live with PTSD.

Still, today I am curbing my skepticism and with much enthusiasm am writing about some of the hottest ideas for innovation in the treatment of PTSD.

She goes on to examine the scientific evidence behind seven experimental treatments, ranging from mind-body practices to the medication Memantine.

Previously: Examining an app’s effectiveness at helping those with PTSD, Examining House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, “a textbook case of antisocial personality disorder”, The promise of yoga-based treatments to help veterans with PTSD and Relieving stress, anxiety and PTSD with emerging technologies

In the News, Mental Health, Women's Health

When hormonal issues interfere with mental health

When hormonal issues interfere with mental health

In a recent Contra Costa Times piece, several women in the neighborhood of menopause share their experiences battling symptoms that have taken a toll on their health and quality of life. Researchers comment on the effectiveness of hormone therapy, when appropriate, to alleviate mood swings, disrupted sleep, anxiety, depression and other afflictions that may accompany this phase of life.

From the article:

By factoring in the hormonal component, health care providers are able to develop treatments that may be better tailored to each woman’s symptoms. The treatments often include old standbys — anti-depressants and hormone therapy — but in combinations or dosages that can be more effective and less likely to bring on adverse risks and side effects.

“Unfortunately, anxiety and depression often go hand in hand with perimenopause,” says [Leah Millheiser, MD,] a clinical associate professor in obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford’s School of Medicine. “There’s definitely no ‘one size fits all.’ “

Millheiser adds, “Hormone therapy, in the well-chosen patient, still plays an important role in improving the quality of life of peri- and post-menopausal women.”

Previously: Fortysomething and sleeplessYoga may help relieve insomnia in menopausal women, study findsAsk Stanford Med: Director of Female Sexual Medicine Program responds to questions on sexual health and Anxiety, poor sleep, and time can affect accuracy of women’s self-reports of menopause symptoms

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

Behavioral Science, Mental Health, Public Safety, Stanford News

Stanford’s Keith Humphreys on Golden Gate Bridge suicide prevention: Get the nets

GGBridgeOver on the Huffington Post, Keith Humphreys, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford, writes about a tragic phenomenon in the Bay Area: the popularity of suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. He makes a case to put public money toward installing nets and other suicide-prevention services there and in other suicide “hotspots.”

From the post:

Professor Richard Seiden [PhD] painstakingly tracked down death records for the 515 individuals who had been prevented by police from jumping off the bridge from 1937 to 1971. Remarkably, only 6 percent had committed suicide. Even if every individual who died in what was believed to be an accident were assumed to have intentionally caused their own deaths, the proportion of suicides rose only to 10 percent. In other words, 90 percent or more of people stopped from committing suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge lived out the full natural extent of their lives.

Previously: Full-length video available for Stanford’s Health Policy Forum on serious mental illnessLucile Packard Children’s Hospital partners with high schools on student mental health programs and ECT for depression – not so shocking
Photo by image_monger

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