Mindfulness and Emotional Control

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I remember being told to take deep breaths when I was stressed out or worried about something. Now, it’s something I tell myself in stressful situations, as I focus on taking long, deep breaths instead of shallow ones. Breathing, mindfulness and meditation are well established techniques for getting a grip on busy thoughts and lives, but why is this so? An article published in Psychiatry Research in January of 2011 offers insight into the science behind how meditation and mindfulness practice helps practitioners with general well being, extending beyond the period of time the individual is actively meditating for. A collaboration of scientists at Harvard Medical School, Bender Institute for Imaging in Germany and the University of Massachusetts Medical School investigated the effects of mindfulness training on individuals both before and after the training. Data showed that compared to controls, individuals who had undergone the training had noticeable changes to brain regions related to memory, emotion regulation and perspective taking.

18 right handed individuals were recruited for the study, 10 females and 8 males. They had to be healthy and not taking medications, in addition to not having any aversion to MRIs (such as metal implants or claustrophobia). 17 individuals were also recruited to serve as controls. The two groups didn’t differ in average age or education.

The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program was an eight week course consisting of weekly meetings, 2 hours each and a 6.5 hour day. Exercises included a body scan (awareness of the body and its position in space and relaxation of the body in sync with breath), mindful yoga and sitting meditation. Participants also received audio recordings of guided mindfulness exercises, 45 minutes long, that they were instructed to practice daily at home on their own. Finally, participants were also told to informally practice mindfulness during every day activities, in order to learn how to integrate it into daily life. Data from a questionnaire designed to assess five factors of mindfulness was collected from 14 participants from each group, and MRI scans were conducted 2 weeks before and after the training. Control participants were also scanned twice (in order to be consistent with both groups.)

Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire 

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Observing: attending to or noticing internal and external stimuli, such as sensations, emotions, cognitions, sights, sounds, and smells

Describing: noting or mentally labeling these stimuli with words

Acting with awareness: attending to one’s current actions, as opposed to behaving automatically or absentmindedly

Non-judging of inner experience: refraining from evaluation of one’s sensations, cognitions, and emotions

Non-reactivity to inner experience: allowing thoughts and feeling to come and go, without attention getting caught up in them

Scans were compared for each participant, pre to post data. Results of the analysis show that for three of the five facets on the mindfulness questionnaire (awareness, observing, non-judging), there was a significant increase in time spent engaging in these activities for individuals who took the mindfulness training class, compared to controls. Brain scans show an increase in gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus in the post scans, with no significant difference in pre scans compared to controls. This means that not only did the participants start out equal in terms of gray matter size in the hippocampus, but the MBSR training worked to increase gray matter in the hippocampus of individuals who took part in the training. There was also no significant change in gray matter in controls from pre to post scans.

left hippocampus

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Total brain scans also showed clusters of increased concentration in gray matter in the posterior cingulate cortex, tempero parietal junction and the cerebellum. All of these areas are involved in learning, memory, emotional regulation and control, emotional learning and awareness. This study effectively demonstrates that mindfulness training and meditation not only help individuals become more conscious of their inner experience, but the training may also contribute to physical changes occurring in the brain. It is important to note however that some of the changes may be related to things not specific to the program (such as group interaction and stress education), for example, general learning usually increases hippocampal volume, as it is an area of the brain related to learning and memory. Undoubtedly though, the changes observed as a result of the mindfulness training have a positive effect on the well being of participants, as observed by not only increased gray matter, but increased awareness, non-judging and observing, three facets of mindfulness.

 

sources:

Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research, 191(1), 36–43. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006

photo credits: https://cultureprobe.files.wordpress.com

 

 

Opinion: You Don’t Want to See Me HANGRY

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Of all the words and terms that have spawned as an unfortunate side effect of social media oversharing (like “selfie”. seriously? do we need more of a reason for people to think of this generation as self absorbed?), the word “hangry” seemingly makes the most sense. Biochemistry and physiology have a unique way of supporting the phenomenon. But how much of it is science and how much if is just an excuse to be a jerk and get away with it?

We already know that when we eat, blood sugar rises. When it’s been a while since our last meal, our blood sugar drops and the brain crucially needs glucose in order to function. Unlike other organs, the brain doesn’t have many fuel alternatives. After a certain level the brain starts to interpret low glucose as a life threatening situation. It’s harder to concentrate, your thoughts become muddled and “it becomes more difficult to behave within socially acceptable norms,” (I quote a post from iflscience…) which I assume just means it becomes way too much effort to not savage your friends for stupid things.

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Physiology also dictates that a drop in blood sugar then triggers the glucose counter-regulatory response. After a threshold level, the brain triggers several organs to make and release 4 main hormones that help increase blood sugar levels: growth hormone from the pituitary, glucagon from the pancreas, and cortisol and adrenaline from the adrenal glands. The last two are of the greatest importance mainly due to the fact that they are released during several types of stressful situations, especially during the fight or flight response. And we all know stress is usually closely related to short temper, and general ornery-ness.

glucose counter thing

But besides all that, apparently hunger and anger are controlled by similar genes?? One such gene is for neuropeptide Y, and its related receptor Y1. Neuropeptide Y is released from several parts of the brain into the bloodstream when you’re hungry, stimulating excessive feeding behaviors. This same neuropeptide and receptor are also involved in controlling anger and aggression.

Anger in and of itself is not a bad thing. Very clearly in the case of hunger and low blood sugar levels, since it acts as a warning. The real problem is how people choose to express their anger. I personally get very silent. Everyone is different which is fine, but I still fear that the emergence of this “hangry” may just give people another excuse to not keep their emotional maturity in check.

 

sources:

http://theconversation.com/health-check-the-science-of-hangry-or-why-some-people-get-grumpy-when-theyre-hungry-37229

photo credits:

http://theconversation.com/health-check-the-science-of-hangry-or-why-some-people-get-grumpy-when-theyre-hungry-37229

http://storage.cloversites.com/northwoodsunitedmethodistchurch/documents/05-04-2014%209am%20Sermon.pdf

 

 

 

 

Happiness through Gratitude – Thoughts from the Jaded

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How can feeling gratitude increase happiness? An author for the blog “mindbodygreen.com” discusses three ways feeling grateful for the things in your life can lead to long term happiness.

Trick Your Brain in Optimism 

Truth be told this is the second time I’m writing this post. Why? Because I don’t know how to work blogs and I somehow managed to delete my post. Because I don’t creative write. Because I’m not creative and don’t have anything I particularly feel the need to share with people through writing. So truth be told, this post is going to be a real TEST to what I’m preaching about on this website, in the name of a class assignment. And it will be very brief because lord knows I have biochem 405, the soul sucking class from hell that is far more pertinent to my mental stability (not to mention my GPA) than this , but I will try my very best not to sound as angry as I feel. So how can I trick my brain into optimism here? By thinking of all the things I’m grateful for. But as a pessimist, the things I’m grateful for are a real stretch. My first thought was “well…I guess I’m glad my laptop didn’t die and it’s ONLY 3 hours of writing that I toiled for that disappeared!!!!!” But I guess gratitude looks a lot like optimism in the brain, and brain scans should show that these gratuitous thoughts help calm and soothe the emotional part of my brain, the amygdala. It’s also lowering my cortisol levels, a hormone released during stress. And potentially also triggering signalling of the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest part of the autonomic nervous system. Do I actually feel any of this right now? Not really. However, in theory if I try a little bit harder I can trick my brain into not feeling like chucking my laptop.

Practice Makes Perfect

use it lose it

I had a great graphic here. With fancy words describing how repetition initiates a molecular process in the brain called “long term potentiation” that strengthens synapses and is the basis behind memory formation. Honestly, in my current mood I could not be bothered to explain what “long term potentiation” or “synapses” are. Do what I do. Look it up. In addition, when gratitude triggers the side effects of optimism (like feelings of general well being) these two become coupled in the brain. “Cells that fire together, wire together.” Or in this case neurons and their connections.

Finally, Make it a Lifestyle

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Lastly, I talked about how there are different types of long term memory: Explicit and Implicit. Implicit memories are non declarative, meaning they are things you “just know” how to do. Like riding a bike. They’re not facts or ideas you can retrieve from memory like a state capitol or your mom’s birthday. The idea with this suggestion was that if you turn gratitude into some sort of a lifestyle choice it will become ingrained into your regular thought process, such that you don’t consciously have to think about feeling thankful. In that way you reap the benefits of optimism without actively being optimistic. Another truth be told, I think optimism in and of itself is an enormous mistake anyway.

Whether you write all the things you’re thankful for in a journal or ponder them at length at night before bed, be thankful you didn’t lose the upper end of 3 and a half hours worth of words you didn’t even want to write.

YOU’RE WELCOME. *dramatic bow*

sources:

http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-22302/so-this-is-why-gratitude-makes-us-happier.html

photo credits: https://huntforhopewellness.com/2015/12/18/ten-tips-to-lighten-up-the-holiday-blues/

http://www.unlimitedminds.co.nz/how-we-achieve-results.html

http://goldeneaglescoaching.com/life/benefits-gratitude-infographic/

What is “Happiness”?

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Everyone has a different definition of the word happiness. According to Merriam-Webster, happiness is a state of well being and contentment. The first thing that came to my roommate’s mind was the word “peace”.

To me, the word is not a question of what but of how. How does one achieve happiness? I think happiness is achieved through contentment with oneself and others, the ability to forgive and be forgiven. I think it could mean a specific place or moment in time, like the  moment I made my first perfect pie crust, completely from scratch. I think it could mean a person or specific people, like west African peoples without the concept of time to worry them constantly, or the person who can see good in everyone. However, I possess no idea of how to go about being a voluntarily long term happy individual. I’m not being dark or depressing, simply stating a fact. And honestly I can’t say very many people know how to go about it either. I think we live in a world that moves by so quickly that happiness is almost not a choice but a side effect of life.

Positive psychology, a relatively new field of sociology, was pioneered by individuals who thought that people often tell themselves that they are not active participators in the occurrences of daily life, especially aversive ones. This theory of “learned helplessness”, a term coined by Martin Seligman, was first demonstrated by his experiments on dogs at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967. Later (more ethically sound) experiments showed that people who were aware that they had the option to avoid their situation, but didn’t, performed better on mental tasks than individuals who had no option to avoid their situation (in this case a distracting noise, which could be turned off by a switch in the first group but not in the second group). Simply knowing they had control over the situation improved their mental state.

So if people could learn to be helpless, could they learn to be the opposite: optimistic? Seligman seemed to think so and in 1988 made strides in shifting psychology’s focus to the elements in life that lead to human well-being and growth. The main idea of positive psychology is to acknowledge that there is light and dark in life and the human condition, and with this, individuals should focus on the positive aspects of these such as character strengths and positive emotions. It aims to create healthy, joyful and engaged people who are part of flourishing communities.

PERMA

There are many theories of happiness with some focusing on the societal level and others focusing on mental health or hedonistic pursuits. Seligman’s most recent theory of well-being and happiness constitutes 5 independently measurable elements: Positive emotion, Engagement or flow, Positive Relationships, Meaning and purpose, and Accomplishment. PERMA for short. While the field is still young the overarching goal of positive psychology is to work toward the greater good of humanity by promoting increased mental stability and resilience as well as increased health and greater quality of life.

On this blog I will be exploring certain aspects of positive psychology, as well as my thoughts on happiness, anger, and emotions in general and what neuroscience has to say about the benefits of being a more optimistic person. Personally, I tend to see the glass as half empty and don’t really have any problem with this stance or my other pessimistic tendencies. But maybe I should? I guess we’ll see.

 

sources: 

https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/faculty-profile/profile-dr-martin-seligman

http://www.mindful.org/what-is-happiness-anyway/

photo credits (in order of appearance): 

http://au.professionals.reachout.com/about-positive-psychology

http://maroelamedia.co.za/tag/cherie-hill/