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Mental Health

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

Clinical Trials, Mental Health, Research, Stanford News

Examining an app’s effectiveness at helping those with PTSD

Examining an app's effectiveness at helping those with PTSD

Can a mobile app help people manage the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder? As some local readers may have heard on KCBS today (or may remember from a previous Scope entry), this is a question that a group of researchers here are studying.

I explain more about the app in a recent release:

The study involves the use of a Veterans Affairs-developed app designed to provide immediate help for patients’ symptoms. The app contains four sections: “learn,” which provides basic information about PTSD; “find support,” which helps users find professional care; “self-assessment,” which allows users to fill out a survey that measures PTSD symptoms; and “manage symptoms,” which provides tools to address acute symptoms such as insomnia and anger.

The VA-funded trial follows earlier research showing that the decrease in PTSD symptoms for those study participants who used the app for one month was significant when compared to participants in the control group who didn’t use the app. For this study, participants will use the app for three months and fill out online surveys at the start of the study and at the three-month follow-up.

The researchers are looking for 30 participants experiencing symptoms of PTSD; they must not be currently receiving care for the disorder and they must have either an iPhone or Android smartphone on which they can download the app being tested. Those interested in participating or learning more should contact study coordinator Nitya Kanuri at

Previously: The remarkable impact of yoga breathing for trauma, Relieving stress, anxiety and PTSD with emerging technologies, Using a mobile-based app to help manage PTSD and Stanford and other medical schools to increase training and research for PTSD, combat injuries

Medicine and Society, Mental Health

Examining House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, “a textbook case of antisocial personality disorder”

Examining House of Cards' Frank Underwood, "a textbook case of antisocial personality disorder"

Shaili Jain, MD, is a Stanford/Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System psychiatrist and a fan of the television show “House of Cards.” These two worlds come together in a recent blog entry she wrote on Kevin Spacey’s sociopathic character and the psychiatric diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. Jain, an affiliated faculty member of Stanford’s Program on Arts, Humanities, and Medicine commented to me that the show represents a compelling example of the intersection of entertainment and medicine.

Noting in her Mind the Brain blog post that she always likes to “explain misunderstood psychiatric concepts or diagnoses, and to clarify when a psychiatric term is used incorrectly or prone to misinterpretation,” Jain writes:

While enjoying the second season of House of Cards, I could not help but notice how Kevin Spacey’s character, Frank Underwood, meets a textbook definition of Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). Inspired by Spacey’s tremendous performance, I thought I would venture forth and use this example of a central character in a drama to illustrate this misunderstood and, often, underestimated psychiatric disorder. Individuals with antisocial personality disorder (or sociopaths) are difficult and dangerous; they deny, lie, and contribute to all manner of mayhem in our communities and societies. They know full well what is going on around them and know the difference between right and wrong (and hence are fully responsible for their own behaviors) yet are simply unconcerned about such moral dilemmas.

When Frank wants something or needs to manipulate someone, he is able to “switch on” the charm in an instant.  He conveys to others that he cares deeply about them by flashing an infectious smile and being gracious and attentive.

And, as season 2 showed, there were many who fell prey to his deceit…not least of all the President of the free world. Perhaps nowhere is his charisma more evident that in the perverse loyalty of those in his inner circle; all turn a blind eye to what he is capable of and appear to be utterly captivated by his personality and presence.

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

Mental Health, Research

Study finds happy employees are 12 percent more productive

Google_officePast research has shown that work stress compromises your personal health and is a contributing factor to rising health-care costs. Now a new study shows that increased happiness can boost worker productivity without sacrificing quality.

Researchers at the University of Warwick performed four different experiments with more than 700 participants. During the study, some individuals were shown a clip of a comedic film or were provided with free chocolate, drinks and fruit. Other groups were asked about recent family tragedies, such as bereavement. Futurity reports:

In the laboratory, they found happiness made people about 12 percent more productive.

“The driving force seems to be that happier workers use the time they have more effectively, increasing the pace at which they can work without sacrificing quality,” [says Daniel Sgroi, DPhil.]

Noting how employee perks at Google helped the company increase worker productivity, the authors say the findings offer compelling evidence that companies should “strive to make their workplaces emotionally healthy for their workforce.”

On a related note, this Stanford Graduate School of Business video explores the profound impact laughter can have on our brains, bodies and behavior. In the talk, MBA candidate Eric Tsytsylin discusses why individuals and organizations should embrace humor and laughter as a way of boosting happiness, creativity and productivity.

Previously: Are you happy now? Stanford Roundtable spotlights the science of happiness and wellbeing, For a truly happy New Year, cultivate sustainable happiness, Study suggests specific gene may influence happiness among women and TED Talk with Laura Carstensen shows older adults have an edge on happiness
Photo by Scott Beale

Behavioral Science, Medicine and Society, Mental Health, Nutrition

Learning tools for mindful eating

Learning tools for mindful eating

applecakeWhat’s the ideal diet for you? Ask your body. Practicing mindful eating involves subtle work that may be easier said than done. In a BeWell Q&A, wellness advisor Patty McLucas describes a class she teaches on the topic, leading students to quiet social cues and impulses that drive a person to eat for reasons other than hunger.

From the piece:

So many factors are at play in our culture here in Silicon Valley — and in the Western world — that result in a disconnect between the body’s natural sensation of hunger and the response to feed ourselves well. In other words, food has become disconnected from its primary function, which is to fuel our bodies.

How can we reconnect our eating with our hunger?

Ultimately, the only method that works over the long term is re-sensitizing our instrument — that is, our bodies — to perceive true hunger and fullness. And we do this through learning the practice of mindfulness. 

We all know that babies cry when hungry and absolutely refuse food when full. If no longer hungry, a baby won’t eat even one extra mouthful — not even one bite of Aunt Hildegard’s prizewinning apple cake! So the good news is that we are all born with this capacity; however, it gets obscured by our upbringing and other conditioned habits. Mindfulness of the body helps us see that.

Previously: Mindful eating tips for the desk-boundSix mindfulness tips to combat holiday stress and How mindfulness-based therapies can improve attention and health
Photo by joyosity

Health and Fitness, Mental Health, Technology

A bike helmet that doubles as a stress-o-meter

A bike helmet that doubles as a stress-o-meter

bike_riderMany of those who ride their bike to work do so because of the health, financial and psychological benefits. While it’s clear that commuting on two wheels can help you stay fit and save money, a new high-tech helmet that measures brain activity shows bicycling may not be as stress-free as you believe.

The helmet, developed by the MIT MediaLab, is equipped with an LED display that lights up  green when you are calm, yellow when you are slightly irritated, and red when you are sleepy or anxious. If your stress level turns to panic, the lights flash red. The display is powered by built-in sensors and an electrode that translates electroencephalogram (EEG) feedback.

Dubbed MindRider, the latest version of the helmet maps your stress level to your route. Fast Company reports:

The first prototypes of the helmet just had colored lights, but the GPS adds new potential. “Now that it is a connected device, we definitely see its power in yielding insights over time,” [Arlene Ducao, a master's candidate at MIT's MediaLab] explains. “Urban and transportation planners can look at the data of many people and use that for transportation planning–things like bike lanes or bike-share programs.”

As a large group of people start to use the device, it can also be used for navigation. “You can access the data of others to help navigate you in a way that’s potentially less stressful, potentially more relaxing and more safe,” she says.

Previously: Now that’s using your head: Bike-helmet monitor alerts emergency contacts after a crash, University leaders raise awareness about the importance of bike helmets and Modest increases in bike ridership could yield major economic, health benefits
Photo by Roland Tanglao

Mental Health, Pediatrics, Research, Stanford News

Excessive homework for high-performing high schoolers could be harmful, study finds

Excessive homework for high-performing high schoolers could be harmful, study finds

homeworkToo much homework. (How do you feel after just reading those words?) Researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Lewis and Clark College and Villanova University conducted a study in high schoolers living in high-income, high-achieving communities and found that spending too much time on homework could have negative effects on students’ health and well-being.

The researchers engaged with 4,317 participants in 10 California high schools through surveys and interviews. Students had an average of 3.1 hours of homework each night. As Stanford News reports, the study cites earlier work that found 90 minutes to two-and-a-half hours of nightly homework to be optimal for high schoolers.

From the Stanford News article:

Their study found that too much homework is associated with:

• Greater stress: 56 percent of the students considered homework a primary source of stress, according to the survey data. Forty-three percent viewed tests as a primary stressor, while 33 percent put the pressure to get good grades in that category. Less than 1 percent of the students said homework was not a stressor.

• Reductions in health: In their open-ended answers, many students said their homework load led to sleep deprivation and other health problems. The researchers asked students whether they experienced health issues such as headaches, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, weight loss and stomach problems.

• Less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits: Both the survey data and student responses indicate that spending too much time on homework meant that students were “not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills,” according to the researchers. Students were more likely to drop activities, not see friends or family, and not pursue hobbies they enjoy.

Co-author Denise Pope, PhD, wrote, “The findings address how current homework practices in privileged, high-performing schools sustain students’ advantage in competitive climates yet hinder learning, full engagement and well-being.”

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Education.

Previously: Stanford researchers use yoga to help underserved youth manage stress and gain focusA prescription for reducing medical student stress and Can sleep help prevent sports injuries in teens?
Photo by openpad

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

Stanford researchers use yoga to help underserved youth manage stress and gain focus

Stanford researchers use yoga to help underserved youth manage stress and gain focus

A segment on PBS NewsHour yesterday explored how Stanford researchers have brought yoga and mindfulness practices to students who experience post-traumatic stress disorder owing to difficult life circumstances. At Cesar Chavez Academy in East Palo Alto, Calif. – a low-income, high-crime area – a group of seventh-graders worked with Stanford’s Victor Carrion, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and his team during a 10-week program introducing breathing and movement practices to help students manage their emotions and improve their concentration in school.

The researchers used imaging techniques to understand how children respond to daily stress. “With functional imaging, we actually can see what the brain is doing,” Carrion told PBS. “There is a deficit in the area of the middle frontal cortex in kids that have PTSD,” which, he noted, may discourage learning.

In the piece, seventh-grader Brayan Solorio describes how rolling out his yoga mat at home helps him keep his cool.

Previously: Med students awarded Schweitzer Fellowships lead health-care programs for underserved youthThe remarkable impact of yoga breathing for trauma, The promise of yoga-based treatments to help veterans with PTSD and Stanford and other medical schools to increase training and research for PTSD, combat injuries

Behavioral Science, Mental Health, Stanford News

Practicing forgiveness to sustain healthy relationships

Practicing forgiveness to sustain healthy relationships

forgiveA recent piece from Stanford’s BeWell program focuses on an aspect of health you don’t address at the gym, cafeteria or doctor’s office, but instead with loved ones. In a Q&A, Fred Luskin, PhD, the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, explains why he believes practicing forgiveness from the start of a partnership is key to finding success in it for the long term.

From the Q&A:

What do we all need to better understand as we strive to improve our relationships?

Whether you are at the beginning of your relationship, the middle, or struggling at the end, you will need to realize that your partner is a flawed human being with difficult traits, and, if you want to be successful in love you need to learn how to forgive those flaws. Practicing forgiveness as early as possible will give you and your partner the best chance to make your relationship a lasting and healthy one.

According to surprising research, couples who do not acknowledge each others’ flaws at the very beginning of their relationship have a hard time staying together. We’ve all met the new couples who constantly gush about how perfect their partner is, and how lucky they are to have found each other. The positive and loving feelings are healthy and good, as long as you are aware and accept that your partner will have traits that can drive you crazy (when the endorphin high starts to wear off, that is). Couples who are able to see each other clearly and realistically from the beginning end up with a stronger love that stands the test of time.

Luskin teaches workshops through Stanford’s BeWell and HIP programs.

Previously: A conversation with Stanford psychologist Fred Luskin on forgiveness and its health benefitsTeaching children the importance of forgivenessStanford psychologist Fred Luskin taking questions on the health benefits of forgiving and Stanford class teaches students how to live a happier, healthier life
Photo by Tela Chhe

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