Tag Archives: mental health

Teenagers’ mental health is deteriorating — and social media might have something to do with it

Credit: Pixabay.

Concerns are growing over teenagers’ mental health, particularly regarding social media’s potentially negative impact. In academia and in the media, increased attention is being paid to the issue.

Mental health, across ages and generations, should be understood as a public health issue; public health is about promoting healthy lifestyles as much as it is about preventing and responding to diseases. Because mental health issues affect people’s physical and emotional well-being, managing mental health issues is central to public health goals. 

Untreated or unrecognized mental health problems may affect all aspects of an individual’s health, not least their emotional well-being and social development. Teenagers, in particular,  may be left feeling socially isolated and unable to make vocational, social, or interpersonal contributions to society; in short, it’s a public health threat.

In recent news, the correlation between social media and mental health issues has gradually garnered more attention. In fact, a recent study by ExpressVPN found that 86% of teens reported changes to their happiness due to social media. This could be interpreted in a number of ways, but one question we need to ask ourselves, is how much of a role does social media play in mental health, and what are the most occuring issues?

The most common teen mental health issues

According to established research, around 70 percent of mental health disorders were present in individuals before they reached 25, meaning that the adolescent years are a critical period for promoting mental wellness. It should be noted that teenagers, during this time, can be affected by mental health disorders of all kinds, including those more commonly associated with adulthood. However, several distinct aspects of mental health may be more affected during adolescence, and several conditions are more prevalent across adolescence:

Emotional disorders 

Emotional disorders are psychological disorders that are predominantly characterized by  “maladjustive emotional reactions that are inappropriate or disproportionate to their cause”, according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology. These emotional disorders are common in teenagers. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that 3.6 percent of 10 to 14 year-olds and 4.6 percent of 15 to 19 year-olds experience anxiety disorders.

Eating disorders

Societal pressures may make teenagers, who are particularly prone to be influenced by dominant ideals, more likely to develop eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia. Eating disorders occur across the gender spectrum and are characterized by abnormal eating behaviors and a preoccupation with food; most often, this is linked to concerns about body size and weight. 

Behavioral disorders

More likely to be diagnosed in younger adolescents than in older adolescents, behavioral disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder (CD), are among the most common teen mental health issues. Behavioral disorders are characterized by a pattern of disruptive and destructive behaviors that last for six or more months.

According to the WHO, an estimated one in seven 10 to 19 year-olds (14 percent) “experience mental health conditions, yet these remain largely unrecognized and untreated.”

How social media may exacerbate teen mental health issues

It’s no secret that teenagers and social media go hand-in-hand. A plethora of information and research shows that while social media platforms may help adolescents form the peer relationships that are crucial to the formative brain and personality, there are a number of troubling downsides. 

For one, social media has been shown to be addictive; likes and other interactions activate certain areas of the brain, the same reward areas that are activated when we see people we love or win prizes. Dopamine release proves to be a powerful motivator and is likely a factor in social media addiction. 

The study on Gen Z’s social media habits show that 61 percent are concerned about social media addiction. Respondents to the international survey also noted that other aspects of their emotional well-being were impacted by social media, including their levels of anxiety and self-esteem.

Teens who are predisposed to eating disorders may find that social media provides ample influence. 

Solving these challenges is a matter of greater awareness followed by public health measures and messaging that aim to remove some of the power social media has over teenagers and young adults. There is no straightforward solution to these issues, but as the body of evidence grows showing the impact on teenage mental health, it’s becoming more pressing.

Physical exercise is a reliable and accessible way to manage anxiety disorders

Moderate and intense physical exercise can significantly dampen anxiety, even in cases where it is caused by a chronic disorder, according to new research.

Image via Pixabay.

Exercise has been receiving a lot of attention from researchers interested in mental health. The positive effect physical exercise can have on those grappling with depression is well-known. However, the way it links with anxiety disorders is far less understood.

New research from the University of Gothenburg comes to improve our understanding of the interplay between these two factors. According to the findings, moderate and demanding physical exercise can alleviate the symptoms of anxiety even in the case of chronic disorders. These results give cause for hope for patients struggling with anxiety disorders around the world, offering an accessible (and healthy) option for them to self-manage what can quickly become a debilitating burden. It also reminds those who are not struggling with such disorders of the importance of keeping physically active not just for our bodies, but our minds as well.

Mens sana in corpore sano

“There was a significant intensity trend for improvement — that is, the more intensely [the participants] exercised, the more their anxiety symptoms improved,” states Malin Henriksson, doctoral student at Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg and the study’s first author.

The team worked with 286 persons with anxiety syndrome who were recruited from primary care services in Gothenburg and Halland County, Sweden. Their average age was 39, and 70% were women. Half of these participants had been diagnosed with anxiety syndrome for at least 10 years.

They were randomly assigned to group exercise sessions for 12 weeks, consisting of either moderate or strenuous activity. A control group was also used, and its members received advice on physical activity adhering to public health recommendations but were not placed in any of the exercise programs.

Exercise regimes consisted of one-hour training sessions three times per week with supervision from a physical therapist. They included both cardio and strength training. Each session included a warmup followed by a 45-minute training interval and a cooldown period. Intense training was defined as the participants reaching 75% of maximum heart rate during the sessions. Light and moderate exercise was defined as the participants reaching 60% of their maximum heart rate. These were confirmed using heart rate monitors.

Following the 12 week period, their anxiety symptoms were re-assessed. This revealed that their symptoms were lessened across the board, even in cases of chronic anxiety conditions. Most of the participants in the exercise groups went down from a baseline level of “high anxiety” to a “low anxiety” level following the study. Those who followed relatively low-intensity exercise regimes were 3.6 times more likely to see an improvement in their symptoms compared to controls. Those who exercised at a higher intensity were almost 5 times more likely to see improvements compared to controls.

The findings are important as this is one of the largest studies on the topic to date. They provide reliable evidence that physical exercise can be used alongside today’s standard treatments for anxiety — cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychotropic drugs — to help patients manage their symptoms. Some of the key advantages of this approach include it being accessible to the vast majority of patients and the lack of side effects, which are common with psychotropic drugs.

“Doctors in primary care need treatments that are individualized, have few side effects, and are easy to prescribe. The model involving 12 weeks of physical training, regardless of intensity, represents an effective treatment that should be made available in primary health care more often for people with anxiety issues,” says Maria Åberg, associate professor at the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Academy and corresponding author of the study.

The paper “Effects of exercise on symptoms of anxiety in primary care patients: A randomized controlled trial” has been published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

People who sat down more during the pandemic were more likely to become depressed

Spending more time sitting is associated with more signs of depression, according to a new study.

Image credits Cheryl Holt.

With the pandemic and the lockdowns it caused, more people than ever have been working their jobs from home, while self-isolating. Due to this shift many parts of our day that used to involve physical movement, such as our commutes or hours spent in the gym, have turned into sedentary hours. While unfortunate, this gave a team of researchers at Iowa State University a unique opportunity to study the effects of widespread, sustained sedentarism on public and personal health.

According to the findings, people who maintained a higher proportion of sitting time in their daily lives between April and June 2020 were more likely to have symptoms of depression compared to those who engaged in a more dynamic lifestyle. While the study can’t establish a direct causal link between sitting and depression, it does uncover a link that’s worth a deeper examination in the future.

Sitting down, feeling down

“Sitting is a sneaky behavior. It’s something we do all the time without thinking about it,” said Jacob Meyer, assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University and lead author of the paper.

“In March 2020, we knew COVID was going to affect our behavior and what we could do in lots of weird, funky ways that we couldn’t predict,” he adds.

Meyer and his colleagues at the Wellbeing and Exercise Laboratory at ISU, Trinity College Dublin, University of Dublin, and the University of Limerick examined how physical activity and sedentary behaviors impact mental health. They were also interested in quantifying how changes in these behaviors can influence the way our minds work, our emotional states, and our perceptions of the world around us.

For the study, they surveyed a sample of over 3,000 participants from all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. As part of these surveys, the participants self-reported how much time they spent daily on certain activities including sitting, looking at screens, and exercising. They were also asked to detail how the time spent engaged with each activity and their general behavior revolving around them changed after the onset of the pandemic. Standard clinical scales were included in the surveys through which the participants could indicate changes they observed in their mental wellbeing since the onset of the pandemic.

These activities and the particular mental health markers used in this survey were chosen based on previous research regarding factors affecting mental health.

“We know when people’s physical activity and screen time changes, that’s related to their mental health in general, but we haven’t really seen large population data like this in response to an abrupt change before,” Meyer said.

According to the results, participants who met the criteria set out in the U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines before the pandemic, which call for 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week, decreased their levels of physical activity by 32% on average after lockdown measures came into effect. These participants further reported feeling more depressed, anxious, and lonely following the change.

A follow-up study from the same team tracked how the participants’ behaviors and mental health changed over time by asking them to fill out the same survey once per week between April and June. This study uncovered that people who continued to spend a large part of their time sitting maintained a higher level of depressive symptoms on average compared to everyone else.

“In the second study, we found that on average, people saw their mental health improve over the eight-week period,” Meyer said. “People adjusted to life in the pandemic. But for people whose sitting times stayed high, their depressive symptoms, on average, didn’t recover in the same way as everyone else’s.”

Still, the authors underline that an “association” between sitting and depressive symptoms is not the same as saying that one causes the other. It’s possible that people who were more depressed simply sat down for longer periods of time, or the people who sat more became depressed from other causes. There could be other factors at play here that the surveys can’t account for, as well. But the results warrant further research into the topic, says Meyer.

Changing our habits is very difficult even when we want to do it, the team explains. However, they hope that the current papers will help bring awareness to just how important it is to move, even a little, every day. If you’re stuck at home, you can try forming a habit of taking a short walk before and after your workday, for example. This will help alleviate the negative effects of sedetarism and help impart some structure to your day, both of which will be beneficial for your mental health.

The paper “High Sitting Time Is a Behavioral Risk Factor for Blunted Improvement in Depression Across 8 Weeks of the COVID-19 Pandemic in April–May 2020” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.

Toxic workplaces make depression three times more likely — and that’s just the start

It’s no secret that working in a toxic environment can affect our mental health. Having an impossible boss, working long hours, and not taking a proper vacation, among many other things, not only affects our performance but can also make us depressed. To what extent? That’s what a group of Australian researchers set to find out. 

Image credit: The researchers

Depression is one of the most common mental illness worldwide. An estimated 300 million people are affected by major depression, which has become a pervasive global burden across cultures. It’s a recurrent problem and it can lead to functional impairment, elevated morbidity, and destructive social consequences. 

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 22% of the global working population, or 614 million workers, are working long hours — more than 48 hours per week. This has become an especially severe problem amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with a growing number of people working extra hours as they don’t go to the office. 

“Evidence shows that companies who fail to reward or acknowledge their employees for hard work, impose unreasonable demands on workers, and do not give them autonomy, are placing their staff at a much greater risk of depression,” Amy Zadow, lead author and member of the Psychosocial Safety Climate Observatory, said in a statement

Zadow and a team of researchers from the University of South Australia carried out a year-long study among full-time workers in Australia. Their premise was simple: follow a group of workers to see who among them is diagnosed with serious depression and then check to see what factors from the workplace can be correlated with that. 

After they crunched the numbers, the results were clear. The workers employed by organizations that don’t prioritize their employees’ mental health have a threefold increased risk of being diagnosed with depression. And while working long hours was a key factor of depression, poor management practices represented an even greater risk. 

Mental health challenges

The researchers randomly selected employees from the Australian population, who were contacted through a computer-assisted telephone interviewing system. They were also sent a letter providing details of the study. Data were collected only from workers over the age of 18 from South Wales, South Australia, and Western Australia. 

The sample size was 1,000 people, only including full-time workers. The researchers defined toxicity by how well companies communicate to their employees about mental health issues and how to treat them, as well as how actively companies encouraged workers to be nice to each other and look out for each other’s mental health. 

They used a standard scale that asked workers to agree or disagree with a set of statements, including “senior management considers employee psychological health to be as important as productivity” and “senior management acts decisively when a concern of an employee’s psychological status is raised”. This helped to get an idea on mental health issues around the workplace. 

The findings showed that a toxic work environment was associated with a 300% increase in major depressive symptoms. This means that in jobs where there’s a lack of consideration, knowledge, and community empathy around mental health issues, the employees are not just getting sadder — but they’re three times more likely to develop significant depressive symptoms. 

“Overly engaged workers might tend to become workaholics ignoring early signals of depressed mood, continue working and develop major depressive disorders,” the researchers wrote in the study. “These findings suggest that policymakers and clinicians should focus the efforts on improving the climate for psychological health.”

While the study is relatively small, it still makes an important point. Even before the pandemic, the world had a problem with toxic workplaces, but after it, with all the uncertainty around offices and working in general, things are unlikely to get better. Unfortunately, mental health is still not often considered a priority for many employers.

The study was published in the British Medical Journal. 

Afternoon naps could help keep your mind limber and stave off dementia

A nap a day keeps mental degradation at bay, a new paper suggests. The findings showcase that individuals who took regular afternoon naps showed better mental capacity over time.

Image credits Jim Black.

As we age, the tissues making up our bodies physically wear down. Given the longer life expectancies of today (compared to our natural baseline), this creates many more opportunities for neurodegenerative conditions, such as dementia. While napping won’t keep us perfectly safe from such issues, it does seem to promote mental agility and stave off mental decline over time.

The good sleep

The findings suggest that taking regular naps is associated with locational awareness, verbal fluency, and working memory.

Sleeping patterns change as we age, the team explains, and most people take afternoon naps more frequently as they get older. However, we didn’t know for sure whether this change could prevent cognitive decline and the risk of developing conditions such as dementia, or if it was a symptom of such cognitive decline.

Around 1 in 10 people over the age of 65 in the developed world will develop dementia, the authors note, so research such as this can help keep a lot of people mentally healthy.

The study worked with 2214 “ostensibly healthy” participants aged 60 and up, all of them residents in several large Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai, and Xian. Out of these, 1534 regularly took an afternoon nap, while 680 didn’t. Both groups slept on average 6.5 hours per night, and all participants underwent a series of health checks and cognitive assessments beforehand to check for dementia. The test for dementia (Mini Mental State Exam, MMSE) included 30 items that measured several aspects of cognitive ability and higher functions such as visual and spatial skills, attention span, working memory, and verbal fluency.

Afternoon naps were defined as any period of at least five minutes but no more than 2 hours of uninterrupted sleep taken after lunch. Each participant was asked how often they napped during the week, ranging from once a week to every day. Nappers in the study showed significantly higher scores on the cognitive test than those who didn’t nap. The most pronounced differences were in locational awareness, verbal fluency, and memory.

This was an observational study, so the findings aren’t the be-all and end-all on the matter. Elements such as nap duration or timing were not taken into account, for example, and they could be very meaningful for the overall effect. At the same time, napping may not be the cause of the cognitive differences between participants. All we know so far is that they happened together in this group; more research is needed to understand what we’re seeing.

However, the team does have some hypotheses it wants to test moving forward. One is that inflammatory chemicals, which play an important part in sleep disorders, are the link between poor health outcomes and mid-day naps. Sleep helps regulate our immune system and could be an evolved response to inflammation, as seen in patients with higher levels of inflammation.

The paper “Relationship between afternoon napping and cognitive function in the ageing Chinese population” has been published in the journal General Psychiatry.

Higher levels of air pollution could damage mental health, at least in China

Higher levels of air pollution seem to be damaging to our mental health, reports a new study from the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH).

Image via Pixabay.

The findings are based on six years’ worth of mental health outpatient visit data from two major hospitals in Nanjing, China. Nanjing is notorious for its high levels of air pollution, even for China (which has quite a lot of air pollution in general). After comparing the number of visits with records of particulate matter in suspension in the air every day, the authors report that visits were more numerous when air quality was especially poor.

Bad air, bad mindspace

“Here, we show that particulate matter is having these more general effects, not just on symptoms but also on service use,” says Assistant Professor Sarah Lowe, Ph.D., first author of the study.

The findings, says the team, showcase why we need further investments in mental services, especially as air pollution levels around the world are getting worse. More research is needed to understand how and why air quality influences mental health, they add, but now we know that it can influence how much use specialized services see.

Air pollution is the product of many components ranging from carbon monoxide in car exhaust to sulfur dioxide particles from industrial processes. This study focused on particulate matter (PM), tiny pieces of organic materials such as liquids or soil, which are known to pose a threat to human health. The main danger they pose comes down to their size, which allows PM to enter deep into the lungs. Once there, they can cause quite a lot of damage by ripping through lung tissue and entering the bloodstream.

The team believes that these particles can influence mental health after entering the bloodstream and reaching the brain.

“These tiny particles not only have effects on the lungs, the heart and the brain,” said YSPH Assistant Professor Kai Chen, Ph.D., senior author of the paper, “but they also have effects on other organs of your body.”

Levels of PM in Nanjing exceed the safety levels specified in China’s air-quality standards for around one in five days of the year, the team notes. As such, they expected the effect it has on psychological disorders would be reflected in an uptick of mental health visits to the city’s two hospitals.

They did see such an uptick, especially prevalent among men and older residents. This unequal distribution may come down to social and behavioral differences among people in Chinese society, but that’s just a hypothesis at this time; more data is needed to tell for sure.

What they were able to say for sure, however, is that days with worse air pollution saw more demand for outpatient mental health services. Whether one causes the other is still murky. For example, days with high levels of air pollution could limit people’s choices of activities (such as outdoor sporting events becoming unbearable or being postponed), leaving people free to come to their appointments. Alternatively, more air pollution could lead to more physical symptoms such as difficulty breathing, which would coax people into seeking mental health services in order to cope.

“There could be other reasons that we simply couldn’t explore with the data we had,” Lowe explained. “We don’t know that level of detail, and I think that would be a really interesting direction for future research,” she said.

The paper “Particulate matter pollution and risk of outpatient visits for psychological diseases in Nanjing, China” has been published in the journal Environmental Research.

Rap music lyrics referencing suicide and depression double since 1998

Emerging from the dark corners of the Internet’s underground rap scene, Long Island rapper Lil Peep quickly garnered a cult following thanks to his blend of rock and hip-hop, but also due to his lyrics about depression and other mental health struggles. Lil Peep died on 15 November 2017 from a drug overdose.

Hip hop culture is often considered as a mirror of current negative issues faced by society, whether it’s poverty, abuse, or corruption. As such, contemporary rap lyrics may provide a unique glimpse not only into the personal lives of the artists but also into today’s most pressing social issues.

In a new study, researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill analyzed the lyrics of top rap songs released from 1998 to 2018, finding that the proportion of songs that referenced mental health more than doubled in the two decades.

“These artists are considered the ‘coolest’ people on earth right now,” said Alex Kresovich, a doctoral student studying health communication at UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. “The fact that they are talking about mental health could have huge implications for how young people perceive mental health or how they look at themselves if they struggle with mental health, which we know millions and millions of young people do.”

Kresovich analyzed the lyrics of the 25 most popular rap songs released in the United States in 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013, and 2018. The researchers found that the lead artists, most of whom were black, referenced anxiety in nearly one-third of their songs, whereas depression and suicide were mentioned in 22% and 6%, respectively, of their songs.

According to Kresovich, who has a background as a music producer, rap artists generally use music as an outlet to reflect the distress felt by themselves but also those around them. The most common mental health stressors were love and life issues, the authors wrote in their study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Of course, rappers have always reflected on the difficulties of their lives from the very beginnings of hip-hop. For instance, some might remember the 1982 classic The Message, in which Grandmaster Flash says: “Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head/ It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under”.

However, lyrics describing mental health problems have ballooned in recent years. Sometimes depression and anxiety are laid bare and explicitly referenced, but most of the time metaphors are preferred.

“Using metaphors may be a safe way to avoid being judged,” Kresovich says. “For men, especially men of color, mental health is still stigmatized.

“Artists are treading lightly and aren’t going to say, ‘I’m depressed.’ But what they will do is describe feelings in a way that others with depression can understand and relate to,” he says, adding. “It also just may be really hard to rhyme the word ‘depression’ in a song.”

On one hand, the increasing number of references to mental health problems in rap music suggests that artists are more open to sharing their emotional struggles. On the other hand, the lyrics may also reflect a pattern of growing cases of mental illness and emotional distress among the American population, particularly among those 18 to 25 years old and the black youth, who also represent one of the most significant groups of listeners.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the total number of teenagers who recently experienced depression increased 59% between 2007 and 2017.

This generation-wide angst may have fueled a new genre of hip-hop music, known as ‘SoundCloud rap’ or ’emo rap’, whose themes lean heavily towards suicide, depression, anxiety, and prescription drugs. Lil Peep, 21, and Mac Miller, 26, two of the scene’s biggest stars, both died of accidental overdoses in 2017 and 2018.

For now, hip-hop seems to be going through a very sad moment. But that’s only because art imitates life and life imitates art — and life right now seems to be really depressing for Americans.

Mental health in the pandemic: older adults show better resilience

When it comes to the ongoing pandemic, we’re taking more than just a one-two punch. As if it weren’t sufficiently bad with the people that get killed by the virus and those that suffer long-lasting damage, our economy is also bruised and battered. The cherry on top of this entire mess is our mental health: last on the priority list, as we are forced to deal with all these problems while social distancing.

At first glance, the mental challenges seem obvious. Faced with adversity and uncertainty, strongly pushed towards social isolation, mental health problems are expected to surge.

However, at least some of those problems might be exaggerated, a new study suggests.

“Our findings provide new evidence that older adults are emotionally resilient despite public discourse often portraying their vulnerability. We also found that younger adults are at greater risk for loneliness and psychological distress during the pandemic,” says Patrick Klaiber, the study’s lead author and a graduate student in the UBC department of psychology.

Klaiber and colleagues analyzed data from 776 participants from Canada and the US, ages 18-91. The participants complete daily surveys about their level of stress and emotional well-being during the first weeks of the pandemic. This period was chosen as it was believed to be the period of largest disruption and uncertainty — the whole situation was new, and local and national authorities began issuing restrictions.

The difference in stress levels varied inversely with age. Younger age predicted more concerns about the threat of COVID-19, while older adults showed better emotional well-being and less reactivity to stressors, despite being exposed to similar stressors.

The reason may very well be practical: younger adults might have more on their plate family- and work-wise.

“Younger and middle-aged adults are faced with family- and work-related challenges, such as working from home, homeschooling children and unemployment,” Klaiber adds. “They are also more likely to experience different types of ongoing non-pandemic stressors than older adults, such as interpersonal conflicts.”

In this sense, it is perhaps understandable — but then again older adults are also faced with the extra pressure of higher rates of disease contraction and more severe impacts. Klaiber believes that they also possess more coping skills and life experience that serves to balance the extra risks.

Remarkably, older adults have adapted to the situation remarkably well, experiencing more daily positive events (such as remote social interactions) in 75% of the daily surveys, which helped keep their mood up.

“While positive events led to increases in positive emotions for all three age groups, younger adults had the least positive events but also benefited the most from them,” says Klaiber. “This is a good reminder for younger adults to create more opportunities for physically-distanced or remote positive experiences as a way of mitigating distress during the pandemic.”

The study has been published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B.

How To Take Care Of Your Mental Health During Quarantine

Now is the time more than ever to practice self-care.
Credit: Pixabay.

Over the past few months, physical health has been at the forefront of our consciousness as everything seems to have been revolving around the pandemic. As time has passed, we have seen clearly that putting other concerns at the forefront – whether economic, social, or psychological – only exacerbates the extent of the crisis.

The problem is that with all the focus on physical health, mental health has had to be put on the backburner. Many people suffering from mental illness have to avoid therapy in order to keep themselves safe from the virus. Unfortunately, mental health emergencies do not cease to exist just because physical health is at risk, and people have been forced to think outside the box to get help.

Ideally, we should try to keep our mental health stable during this time so that we do not find ourselves in urgent distress. Since this crisis may go on for quite a while, it is imperative we all take measures to stay mentally healthy.

Here are some ideas to consider for taking care of your mental health in quarantine.

Boundaries are crucial

Because our normal lives are on hold, the boundaries that give us a sense of stability have blurred. We don’t need to get up for work at a specific time. We don’t need to get dressed or eat meals at regular hours. The weekend can feel just like weekdays. The living room becomes the office at some moments and an ad hoc bedroom at others.

Our boundaries take even more of a hit when we are in quarantine with others. The concept of personal space is paramount in this context. If personal space isn’t respect, this can lead to more than just frustration — you can begin to feel a disconnection from your sense of self.

Implementing boundaries is crucial during this time. They don’t need to be strict boundaries, but they need to be explicitly put in place. Tell your partner, roommate, or family that you need space at certain hours. Make a schedule for yourself to follow, even if you don’t have work to do. Keep the kitchen off-limits except at meal and snack times.

These boundaries will help you keep your sense of self-stable and provide you with stability and a sense of safety. It is one of the most important steps for taking care of your mental health during this time — not just in the pandemic, but also in general.

Find something easy but productive to do

Birding or nature spotting in general is a great hobby to pick up. Image credits: Diane Helentjaris.

I get really annoyed by online influencers calling people lazy for not doing that project they never have time for. We are going through a global crisis. It is not easy to motivate yourself to commit to the project of your dreams.

Nonetheless, having nothing to do can lead anyone to spiral into an existential crisis. If you have been let go from your job or are simply on indefinite leave, finding something productive to do will help you keep your mental health in check.

While this should be something productive, it should also be relatively easy and enjoyable. Start a blog if you enjoy writing. It does not need to be perfect, but it will give you an outlet to express yourself.

If you do start a blog, get the technical stuff out of the way first. You can find out what you need from good web hosting in these Cloudways reviews. Use WordPress or Wix to set up your blog in an hour or two.

Alternatively, commit to learning something you have always wanted to do. But make sure you set easy and specific goals. For example, learn to play a few chords rather than trying to learn to play guitar.

Use online resources

Online therapy is more helpful than ever during these times. A therapy session can help you get everything off your chest, whether fear about the virus and work or frustration with your partner. This is one case where boundaries become particularly important. Knowing you have the space for a therapy session is crucial to being able to share.

Other online resources include mindfulness websites and apps, CBT apps, and meditation videos. If you need important information but are scared to go to a psychiatrist’s office, you can also try contacting them online.

Mental health is incredibly important during this crisis, but it is hard to get treatment. Try and keep your mind as healthy as possible, and be sure to get treatment when necessary.

Researchers hone in on potential antibodies against OCD, maybe other mental disorders too

Researchers at the Queen Mary University of London and the University of Roehampton, London report finding a potential antibody treatment against obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) — in mice.

Image via Pixabay.

The team reports that human patients suffering from OCD show increased levels of a protein called Immuno-moodulin (Imood) in lymphocytes, a type of immune cell. Mice whose lymphocytes were modified to show the same high levels of Imood showed behaviors that are characteristic of anxiety and stress, such as digging and excessive grooming, which are related to OCD.

However, the team also showed that an antibody can be used to neutralize the protein, which reduced the animals’ apparent anxiety levels in lab tests. The findings might help us develop a similar treatment for humans.

There’s a pill for that

“There is mounting evidence that the immune system plays an important role in mental disorders,” said Professor Fulvio D’Acquisto, a professor of immunology at the University of Roehampton and honorary professor of Immunopharmacology at Queen Mary University of London, who led the research. “And in fact people with auto-immune diseases are known to have higher than average rates of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and OCD.”

“Our findings overturn a lot of the conventional thinking about mental health disorders being solely caused by the central nervous system.”

Professor D’Acquisto first identified Imood by chance while studying a different protein (Annexin-A1) and the role it plays in autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and lupus. As part of the study, he engineered lab mice to overexpress this protein in their immune cells in the hopes of inducing autoimmune diseases in the animals and found that the mice were more anxious than normal. Upon closer inspection, the team found that one protein was especially active and likely protected the animals from such diseases.

Curious about its effects, the team administered an antibody treatment to the mice that would block the Imood gene — and their behavior returned to normal within a couple of days. This led the team to christen the gene encoding it “Immuno-moodulin”.

Later on, the team tested the immune cells of 23 patients with OCD and 20 healthy volunteers to check if they showed any differences in Imood levels. OCD patients had around six times higher expression of these genes than the controls. Together with previous findings, the team is confident that this showcases the role this protein has in mental health disorders such as OCD or ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder).

The team believes that the gene encoding the protein doesn’t directly influence brain functions, but that its activity is tied to that of other genes in brain cells that are linked to disorders like OCD.

“This is work we still have to do to understand the role of Imood,” says Professor D’Acquisto. “We also want to do more work with larger samples of patients to see if we can replicate what we saw in the small number we looked at in our study.”

“It is early still, but the discovery of antibodies — instead of the classical chemical drugs — for the treatment of mental disorders could radically change the life of these patients as we foresee a reduced chance of side effects,” he adds.

The team is collaborating with the biopharmaceutical company UCB to develop antibodies against Imood that can be used in humans and to understand how this could be used to treat patients with mental disorders. Professor D’Acquisto estimates it could take up to five years before a treatment is ready for clinical trials.

The paper “Immuno-moodulin: A new anxiogenic factor produced by Annexin-A1 transgenic autoimmune-prone T cells” has been published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

How to talk to your kids about COVID-19

The pandemic situation is stressful and hard to understand for everyone — it’s safe to say that no one really knows what will happen. It’s a stressful period full of uncertainty. But talking to kids can make a big difference in helping them cope with the situation.

Talk to children

As adults, we’re struggling to make sense of this new normal. But we have to remember that for kids and teenagers, it’s even weirder. They’re also experiencing the worries and anxieties related to COVID-19, and they need all the support they can get.

“I think first and foremost, parents and caregivers need to talk to their children and their teens. Don’t wait for them to bring it up. Even preschool children have heard of coronavirus,” says Robin Gurwitch, Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University.

Parents often tend to overlook just how much children can understand and how they tend to absorb information. It’s easy to think that it’s safer to shield them as much as possible, but that’s not a healthy approach.

“If you haven’t already done so, our advice is to take a breath and start the conversation. Words could be as simple as, ‘There’s been a lot of talk about coronavirus or COVID-19, tell me what you know about it.’ For teens, you may use that opening or you may even say something like, ‘Tell me what your friends have been saying about it.’ By listening, you will hear their understanding, and you will be able to gently correct any misinformation and misperceptions that they may have about the disease.”

Talking about COVID-19 can help reduce their anxiety

Of course, talking about a pandemic is not exactly the most comfortable thing a parent can do. But it can do good, researchers stress.

“Research after the Boston Marathon bombing found that stress reactions in children whose parents tried to shield them from that event had more stress reactions, more distress than parents who openly talked to their young children about the event,” adds Gurwitch.

Of course, when talking to a child, it’s important to consider what information they need to know and understand. Try to adapt the information for their level of awareness. For instance, children’s ability to understand information about COVID-19 will be low in very young children (i.e., less than age 3) and will become more sophisticated with age. You can discuss the basic symptoms and basic prevention methods, and explain why some of the preventive measures are taken.

Even if it’s just acknowledging the problem, it’s an important step forward.

Stress in children can manifest in multiple ways

It’s also a time where we need to be a bit more understanding with children. The changing situation and the uncertainty that they too must face can manifest in several ways, Gurwitch explains.

“What we often see is that they may be more irritable and whiny, even sometimes more defiant than usual, which is challenging, because as adults, we’re a little bit more short-tempered and a little bit less patient. So we have to make sure we take a breath and recognize that their irritability and defiance may be a problem of distress.”

Try to be more supportive than usual, Gurwtich suggests. It’s important to acknowledge children and try to help them feel better about themselves.

“I can’t underscore [enough] the importance of positive praise for children of all ages, but particularly young children so that they see that you recognize that they are being a help and they’re doing something well. You will increase the chances that they’ll feel better about themselves and repeat that behavior too.”

Encourage them to be responsible and practice good hygiene

However, if ever there was a time to encourage children to be more responsible and practice better hygiene, the time is now. This is almost certainly the most important moment in modern history to practice good hygiene, and the outbreak can be used as leverage to get your message across.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says we should channel our concern into good hygiene — and it’s an excellent opportunity to make something good out of what is a pretty unfortunate situation.

Encourage your children to wash their hands with soap and water frequently (particularly after going to the toilet, coming from a public place, and before and after eating). Children can be taught to sneeze in their elbow or in a tissue that they immediately throw away.

Are You Sabotaging your Mental Health?

Credit: Pixabay.

One in five adults in the U.S will experience some sort of mental health problem in their lives; this equates to a massive 47.6 million people. Even more worryingly, one in 25 Americans will suffer from a serious mental health illness during their lifetime.

Therefore, it is vital that you know how to recognize the signs of poor mental health as well as knowing what habits you could unwittingly be carrying out that could have a detrimental effect on your mental wellbeing.

You may be shocked to see what features on the below list of self-sabotaging habits from excessive exercising to obsessing about your diet. Keep reading to find out more.

You are letting yourself be bullied

You may think that bullying only occurs in the school playground. However, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 35% of American employees have experienced workplace bullying which equates to a massive 54 million workers.

From being belittled to being treated differently from other employees, there are many signs to look out for that could indicate that you have become a victim of workplace bullying.

Of course, any act of bullying can lead to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Therefore, it is vital that if feel like you are being targeted that you speak to your doctor, document all bullying incidents and approach your employer.

It can also be helpful to identify what situations trigger your stress levels when you are at work so that you can look into ways to avoiding these, as well as working out what work situations make you feel happy. According to Hiscox, millennials feel more stressed at work than other generations, with more than 28% stating that stress was expected in their job

You are consuming too much caffeine

Although studies have shown that a moderate amount of caffeine per day can be beneficial to your health, overdoing it with this addictive stimulant can cause your anxiety levels to go through the roof.

This is because caffeine stimulates the ‘fight or flight’ response in your body which can lead to an increase in anxiety and even result in panic attacks. Therefore, if you want your mental health to be in tip-top shape, lay off the morning coffee and definitely avoid all energy drinks.

You are working out too hard

Hard to believe, especially as all health experts sing the praise of regular exercise, but pushing your body too far can be bad for your mental health.

If you often push yourself past what your body can handle or force yourself to go to the gym each and every evening, regardless of how mentally fit you feel on any particular day, you could be doing more harm than good.

Excessive exercise can cause your stress hormones, including cortisol, epinephrine, and glucagon to surge resulting in unstable moods.

Try and stick to a consistent and regular exercise routine, but do not beat yourself up if you miss one day or don’t feel up to a workout session. The key is moderation.

Your lifestyle is too sedentary

According to a recent report, one in four American adults sit for more than eight hours per day; this is a habit that can have a seriously bad effect on your mental health.

In fact, there is a direct correlation between a sedentary lifestyle and levels of anxiety with studies showing that the amount of time people spend sitting each day can help predict their overall mental health.

Of course, if you work in an office, it can be difficult to stay active throughout the day, but there are ways that you can try and sit less such as getting up to talk to a colleague rather than sending an email or asking your boss for a standing desk.

You are obsessing over your diet

Obviously, it is important that you eat a healthy diet that is rich in vitamins and minerals, but if you are starting to become obsessed by fads such as ‘clean eating’ or a particularly extreme way of eating such as becoming a ‘fruitarian’, you could be putting your mental health at risk.

How? Apart from the obvious increase in anxiety that comes with any obsession, a low-calorie diet can lead to an increase in your cortisol levels which, in turn, could lead to depression.

Always try to remember that your mental health is equally as important as your physical wellbeing and that there is no shame in admitting that you are struggling; if you do feel that your mental health is at risk, make an appointment with a healthcare professional asap.

How to prevent dementia, according to new WHO guidelines

Dementia refers to the decline in mental ability that is severe enough to impair a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. It affects memory, thinking, orientation, comprehension, calculation, learning capacity, language, and judgement. Around 50 million people worldwide have dementia with Alzheimer’s disease as the most common type. And every year brings 10 million new cases, says the report recently released by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“In the next 30 years, the number of people with dementia is expected to triple,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “We need to do everything we can to reduce our risk of dementia. The scientific evidence gathered for these guidelines confirms what we have suspected for some time, that what is good for our heart, is also good for our brain.”

Age is a risk factor so the older you are, the more likely you are to develop dementia. Certain genetic factors are involved with some more unusual forms of dementia — for the most part, dementia develops as a combination of genetic and “environmental” factors (i.e. smoking, lack of regular exercise). Although age is the top risk factor, “dementia is not a natural or inevitable consequence of aging,” the report says.

The report outlined what in WHO’s expert opinion think will and won’t help reduce the risk of dementia. So, if you want to save your brain, here are the do’s and don’ts from the new WHO guidelines for preventing dementia.

The DO’s

Exercise. The role of exercise is especially important. A physically active lifestyle is linked to brain health. A recent study of more than 1,600 people over age 65 found that those who spent more time sitting had the same risk of developing dementia as people who carry a genetic mutation that puts them at higher risk of Alzheimer’s. Weight loss could indirectly reduce the risk of dementia by improving a variety of metabolic factors linked with cognitive impairment and dementia (i.e. glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, oxidative stress, and inflammation).

Continue Learning. You’ve heard the saying: “use it or lose it.” Studies show that those who utilize their brains more by learning a new language or musical instrument, or furthering their education tend to have lower rates of dementia and problems with their thinking later in life.

Eat well. A healthy diet contains fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. In particular, committing to a Mediterranean diet (plant-based cooking, little meat and a heavy emphasis on olive oil) could help. The Mediterranean diet is the most extensively studied dietary approach, in general as well as in relation to cognitive function. Several systematic reviews of observational studies have concluded that high adherence to this diet is associated with decreased risk of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s Disease, but modest adherence is not.

Socialize. Socialization is important for all of us. Engaging with other people in social situations help patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia and may even slow the progress of these conditions. The Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention, and Care identified social engagement as an intervention that could be used to prevent dementia

Lower Blood Pressure. Lowering blood pressure may help protect memory and thinking skills later in life. A large blood pressure study, called Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial, or SPRINT, looked at over 9,000 people over the age of 50 years old and found that those who lowered their blood pressure to 120 (systolic blood pressure) were 19 percent less likely to develop cognitive impairment. Results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The DON’TS

Don’t Smoke. There is strong evidence that smoking is associated with an increased risk of dementia. The toxins in cigarette smoke increase oxidative stress and inflammation, which have both been linked to developing of Alzheimer’s disease. Tobacco cessation is associated with reduced depression, anxiety and stress, and improved mood and quality of life compared with continuing to smoke.

Don’t drink too much. Excessive alcohol consumption leads to numerous health problems such as liver damage, stomach issues, impaired cognitive function, and more. If alcoholic beverages are consumed in large quantities over a relatively short period of times, most health problems can be cured relatively easily using special treatment and by quitting drinking. However, if one abuses alcohol throughout many years, this doesn’t only lead to liver cirrhosis, but also a condition called alcoholic dementia. There is extensive evidence on excessive alcohol as a risk factor for dementia and cognitive decline.

Don’t waste money on supplements. There is currently no evidence to show that taking supplements (i.e. B vitamins, antioxidants, omega-3 ginkgo) reduces the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. In fact, scientific evidence shows that in high doses these supplements may be harmful.

These potentially modifiable risk factors mean that prevention of dementia is possible through a public health approach, including key interventions that delay or slow cognitive decline or dementia. Much of the WHO’s advice is common sense and aligns with what the US National Institute on Aging advises.

Screen time has little impact on teen wellbeing — even right before bedtime

A study of 17,000 teenagers analyzed the commonly-held notion that time spent in front of screens (whether it’s smartphones, TVs, or computers) is detrimental to a person’s mental health.

The results will certainly be pleasing to all teens.

Screens everywhere! Image in public domain.

Screen time

Whether we like it or not, screens have firmly entered our lives in the past few years, and for the foreseeable future, they are here to stay. Ever since personal computers became a thing, so too have concerns regarding these screens. They could be bad for your eyes, bad for your posture, bad for your mental health. Parents, in particular, have been worried about the effects on their children.

But at least in the last regard, there’s not much reason to worry. Screen time does not seem to correlate with mental wellbeing.

“Implementing best practice statistical and methodological techniques we found little evidence for substantial negative associations between digital-screen engagement and adolescent wellbeing,” said Amy Orben, a Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and College Lecturer the Queen’s College, University of Oxford.

Regardless of when and where teens were in front of screens, it had little impact on their mental health. It didn’t make a difference if it was on weekends orweekdays, or even if it was just 30 minutes before bedtime — something which has long been considered as detrimental. Even wearing glasses had a more negative association with adolescent wellbeing than ‘screen time’.

So how come this study found such unexpected results?

A rigorous methodology

Unlike other studies, this research used data from Ireland, the US and the UK, implementing a more rigorous methodology to gather how much time an adolescent spends on screens per day, including both self-reported measures and time-use diaries. This is particularly important as many studies are based solely on self-reported stats, which is notoriously unreliable. The team also implemented another notable technique: preregistration. In this approach, scientific rigor is ensured by requiring researchers to provide details of how they will analyze the data before it is gathered. This ensures that the data is handled properly and that it is not in a way that would favor a post-results hypothesis.

Simply put, it’s quite possibly the most rigorous study in the field, and found that screen time does little to harm teenagers’ mental health.

“Because technologies are embedded in our social and professional lives, research concerning digital-screen use and its effects on adolescent wellbeing is under increasing scrutiny,” said Orben. “To retain influence and trust, robust and transparent research practices will need to become the norm—not the exception. We hope our approach will set a new baseline for new research on the psychological study of technology,” added Przybylski.

However, this shouldn’t be treated as a green light for all-day screen-watching. It is just a call to re-evaluate something which, in many communities, is held a as a fact.

The study has been published in Nature Human Behavior.

Want your kids to be calmer and have improved mental health? Connect them to nature, scientists say

Having a stronger bond with nature can alleviate a number of mental health issues for children, a new study reports. The more connected to nature they are, the less likely they are to suffer from hyperactivity, distress, and behavioral problems.

Many parents feel that an overly urban lifestyle is severely detrimental to the development of children, and a new study suggests that they are, at least partly, correct. Increasingly, physicians and psychologists have started to pay more and more attention to this phenomenon, and many environmental programs around the world hope to (re)connect children with nature.

For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) summarized scientific evidence highlighting the benefits of green spaces for children. The WHO recommends that all children have green spaces within 300 meters (1,000 feet) of their home for recreation and play. But in some cases, even when these green spaces aren’t available, they are not being used.

“We noticed a tendency where parents are avoiding nature. They perceive it as dirty and dangerous, and their children unfortunately pick up these attitudes. In addition, the green areas are often unwelcoming with signs like “Keep off the grass”, said Dr. Tanja Sobko from the School of Biological Sciences of the University of Hong Kong and author of the new study.

Sobko and colleagues developed a 16-item parent questionnaire to measure “connectedness to nature’ in very young children. The test focuses on four aspects: enjoyment of nature, empathy for nature, responsibility towards nature, and awareness of nature.

They carried out the questionnaire with 493 families with children aged between 2 and 5, in conjunction with the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire — a well-established measurement of psychological well-being and children’s behavior problems. The scientists found that children with a stronger connection to nature had less distress and hyperactivity, as well as fewer behavioural and emotional difficulties and improved pro-social behaviour.

Remarkably, children who took greater responsibility towards nature also had fewer difficulties connecting and relating with their peers.

Mental health problems affect about 1 in 10 children and young people worldwide, but the percentage can vary significantly by geography. In China, for instance, up to 22% of preschoolers show signs of mental health problems. Having green spaces can be a surprisingly effective way of alleviating these issues, making for happier and more peaceful children.

This isn’t the only project of this type Sobko has worked on. She is also involved in a Hong Kong research-based project called Play&Grow — the first in Hong Kong to promote healthy eating and active playtime with preschool children by connecting them to nature.

The study “Measuring connectedness to nature in preschool children in an urban setting and its relation to psychological functioning” has been published in PLoS.

Alarming number of children and teens suffer from mental health issues, British survey concludes

About 1 in 8 of 5- to 19-year-olds suffer from some form of mental disorder, a new survey conducted in the UK concludes. The situation is particularly concerning for young girls.

Credits: NHS.

The survey was carried out on 9,000 young people by the National Health Service (NHS) — the public health services in the United Kingdom. Similar surveys were carried out in 1999, 2004, and 2017, with slight age group variations.

Unlike most surveys of the type, which rely on simple questionnaires or shallow assessments, this survey used a detailed and thorough methodology, involving clinically-trained physicians who followed the International Classification of Disease (ICD-10) diagnostic criteria.

The mental disorders were split into our broad categories: emotional, behavioral, hyperactivity and other less common disorders. Emotional disorders were by far the most common type of disorder, but there are significant variations with age. There was also a major variation by gender — at the youngest age groups (5-10 age group), boys were twice as likely to suffer from some disorder, whereas in the 17-19 age group, a whopping 22% of girls suffered from a disorder, compared to just over 10% for boys. This type of information can help introduce preventive policy at the most vulnerable groups, officials say.

Credits: NHS.

Rates of mental disorders increased with age: 5.5% of 2 to 4-year-old children experienced a mental disorder, compared to 16.9% of 17 to 19-year-olds. However, since the data acquisition methodology was also different between age groups, the different age groups should probably be treated separately.

Credits: NHS.

However, all age groups experienced a significant increase over time. The prevalence of mental disorders in the 5-15-year-old group (which was analyzed in all surveys in this series) rose from 9.7% in 1999 to 10.1% in 2004, to 11.2% in 2017. The reasons for this growth are not clear, but as always, the social and family context is probably the most important factor.

The rate of children with a mental disorder in a healthy, functional family is much lower than that of kids in a dysfunctional family. Tamsin Ford, one of the report co-authors, said that “a variety of family adversities” can be a part of the explanation, though many factors outside the family life can also be important.

Credits: NHS.

Aside from the usual suspects (drinking alcohol and smoking in teenagers, or the autistic spectrum, for instance), social media is a topic of growing interest — and growing concern.

For instance, the survey revealed that 29.4% of kids aged 11 to 19 with a mental disorder spent more than four hours a day on social media — compared to just 12% of those displaying no symptoms. However, it’s not clear if there is a cause-effect relationship or even a significant association there.

We need to better understand the causes and effects of the disorders, researchers urge. Over 1 in 4 teens aged 11-16 reported self-harm or a suicide attempt, and the long-term effects are presumably even more insidious and dangerous.

Credit: Pixabay.

A 15-minute jog is better for the mind than a brief period of calm relaxation

What’s better to sharpen your mind: a brief jog or a relaxing session where you unwind for a while? New research suggests you’re better off with the former if you’re looking for a boost in mental clarity and functioning.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

There’s now a sizable body of evidence illustrating the positive mental health benefits of exercising. Studies have shown, for instance, that just 30 minutes of exercising significantly improves neuroplasticity —  the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Thanks to the release of endorphins, exercise also makes us happier and keeps the brain young, having been associated with increased volume of hippocampal areas in the brain. Conversely, poor fitness can negatively affect brain health, perhaps making people more vulnerable to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Writing in the journal Acta PsychologicaFrench researchers, led by Fabian Legrand from the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne, have reported a new benefit of brief exercising: an improved subjective sense of more energy.

The researchers asked the study’s participants to complete two standard cognitive tests, some of which involved drawing lines between numbers and letters as fast and as accurately as possible. Afterward, half of the volunteers had to do a 15-minute group jog around the campus while the other students participated in equally long group relaxation exercises. Two minutes after the session, the students were asked to complete the same tests they had done earlier and had to answer questions that gauged their feelings of energy.

The participants who went for a jog showed improvements in tests that measured mental speed and attentional control, but not in those that measured memory and cognitive switching. They also reported feelings of energy and vigour, suggesting that the brief exercise session had effects on their subjective sense of available energy. In contrast, the relaxation group did not report cognitive improvements and even felt less energetic than before they started the experiment.  As a caveat, the relaxation session took place indoors, while jog was outside. Exposure to more sunlight and fresh air in and of themselves can improve people’s moods. Nevertheless, these are good hints that something as simple as light running for a quarter of an hour can have significant positive effects on mental acuity and wellbeing.  

“Taken together, our data suggest that a brief bout of moderate intensity exercise can improve the efficiency of certain cognitive processes through increases in feelings of energy, but further research is required to evaluate the duration of benefits and to determine whether these apply to other populations,” the authors concluded in their study’s abstract.

Feeling bad about feeling bad makes you feel even worse

‘Stop feeling down’ or ‘put that frown upside down’ might be highly counterproductive, a new study reports. Feeling pressure about negative feelings makes people feel even worse.

Image via Pixabay.

It’s OK to feel bad

A study that was conducted at UC Berkeley and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology analyzed the link between emotional acceptance and mental health in over 1,300 adults. The results suggest that people who don’t want to accept their dark emotions feel more emotional stress, which in turn degrades their mental health.

“We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health,” said study senior author Iris Mauss, an associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.

The opposite also stands true: people who acknowledged their bleak feelings, disappointment, and resentment, reported fewer mood disorder symptoms. This seems to indicate what has been suggested in previous studies: that acceptance is linked to greater mental and emotional health — even when it is acceptance of negative things.

“It turns out that how we approach our own negative emotional reactions is really important for our overall well-being,” said study lead author Brett Ford, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. “People who accept these emotions without judging or trying to change them are able to cope with their stress more successfully.”

To reach these conclusions, three separate studies were carried out. The studies compensated for age, gender, socio-economic status and other demographic variables. After all, accepting your negative feelings is much easier when you lead a luxurious life, and researchers wanted to take that out of the equation.

In the first study, 1,000 participants filled out surveys rating how much they agree with statements such as “I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way that I’m feeling.” As a general rule, the study showed that those who didn’t feel bad about feeling bad showed higher levels of well-being. It makes so much simple sense that it’s hard to even consider otherwise. If you add an extra thing that makes you feel bad, you’ll feel worse — and sometimes, you’re feeling bad about feeling bad. It’s like a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle from which it can be very difficult to escape. In the second study, 150 participants had to deliver a three-minute recorded speech, as part of a mock job application. The ones who felt negatively about their feelings reported more distress. Lastly, more than 200 people journaled about their most taxing experiences over a two-week period. A similar trend emerged: the more people hate their negative emotions, the more unpleasant experiences they have.

Researchers didn’t try to directly explain why this happens, though it’s quite easy to speculate. Giving a lot of extra attention to negative emotions instead of simply waving them by can’t help, and having an additional reason to feel bad about yourself makes things worse.

The way to go seems to be acknowledging your bleak inner emotions, but not spending too much time on them. Of course, some people naturally deal with these ups and downs better than others. However, education and culture likely play a huge role in how people deal with their emotions and their mental health, and teaching acceptance from an early age might make all the difference.

“By asking parents about their attitudes about their children’s emotions, we may be able to predict how their children feel about their emotions, and how that might affect their children’s mental health,” Mauss said.

Journal Reference: Ford BQ, Lam P, John OP, Mauss IB — The Psychological Health Benefits of Accepting Negative Emotions and Thoughts: Laboratory, Diary, and Longitudinal Evidencedoi: 10.1037/pspp0000157

 

 

Credit: Pixabay,

How to beat anxiety — according to science

Credit: Pixabay,

Credit: Pixabay,

Do you have anxiety? Have you tried just about everything to get over it, but it just keeps coming back? Perhaps you thought you had got over it, only for the symptoms to return with a vengeance? Whatever your circumstances, science can help you to beat anxiety for good.

Anxiety can present as fear, restlessness, an inability to focus at work or school, finding it hard to fall or stay asleep at night, or getting easily irritated. In social situations, it can make it hard to talk to others; you might feel like you’re constantly being judged, or have symptoms such as stuttering, sweating, blushing or an upset stomach.

It can appear out of the blue as a panic attack, when sudden spikes of anxiety make you feel like you’re about to have a heart attack, go mad or lose control. Or it can be present all the time, as in generalised anxiety disorder, when diffuse and pervasive worry consumes you and you look to the future with dread.

Most people experience it at some point, but if anxiety starts interfering with your life, sleep, ability to form relationships, or productivity at work or school, you might have an anxiety disorder. Research shows that if it’s left untreated, anxiety can lead to depression, early death and suicide. And while it can indeed lead to such serious health consequences, the medication that is prescribed to treat anxiety doesn’t often work in the long-term. Symptoms often return and you’re back where you started.

How science can help

The way you cope or handle things in life has a direct impact on how much anxiety you experience – tweak the way you’re coping, therefore, and you can lower your anxiety levels. Here are some of the top coping skills that have emerged from our study at the University of Cambridge, which will be presented at the 30th European Congress of Neuropsychopharmacology in Paris, and other scientific research.

Do you feel like your life is out of control? Do you find it hard to make decisions – or get things started? Well, one way to overcome indecision or get going on that new project is to “do it badly”.

This may sound strange, but the writer and poet GK Chesterton said that: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” And he had a point. The reason this works so well is that it speeds up your decision-making process and catapults you straight into action. Otherwise, you could spend hours deciding how you should do something or what you should do, which can be very time-consuming and stressful.

People often want to do something “perfectly” or to wait for the “perfect time” before starting. But this can lead to procrastination, long delays or even prevent us from doing it at all. And that causes stress – and anxiety.

Instead, why not just start by “doing it badly” and without worrying about how it’s going to turn out. This will not only make it much easier to begin, but you’ll also find that you’re completing tasks much more quickly than before. More often than not, you’ll also discover that you’re not doing it that badly after all – even if you are, you can always fine tune it later.

Using “do it badly” as a motto gives you the courage to try new things, adds a little fun to everything, and stops you worrying too much about the outcome. It’s about doing it badly today and improving as you go. Ultimately, it’s about liberation.

Just jump right in …
The National Guard via flickr, CC BY

Forgive yourself and ‘wait to worry’

Are you particularly critical of yourself and the blunders you make? Well, imagine if you had a friend who constantly pointed out everything that was wrong with you and your life. You’d probably want to get rid of them right away.

But people with anxiety often do this to themselves so frequently that they don’t even realise it anymore. They’re just not kind to themselves.

So perhaps it’s time to change and start forgiving ourselves for the mistakes we make. If you feel like you’ve embarrassed yourself in a situation, don’t criticise yourself – simply realise that you have this impulse to blame yourself, then drop the negative thought and redirect your attention back to the task at hand or whatever you were doing.

Another effective strategy is to “wait to worry”. If something went wrong and you feel compelled to worry (because you think you screwed up), don’t do this immediately. Instead, postpone your worry – set aside 10 minutes each day during which you can worry about anything.

If you do this, you’ll find that you won’t perceive the situation which triggered the initial anxiety to be as bothersome or worrisome when you come back to it later. And our thoughts actually decay very quickly if we don’t feed them with energy.

Find purpose in life by helping others

It’s also worth considering how much of your day is spent with someone else in mind? If it’s very little or none at all, then you’re at a high risk of poor mental health. Regardless of how much we work or the amount of money we make, we can’t be truly happy until we know that someone else needs us and depends on our productivity or love.

This doesn’t mean that we need people’s praise, but doing something with someone else in mind takes the spotlight off of us (and our anxieties and worries) and places it onto others – and how we can make a difference to them.

Being connected to people has regularly been shown to be one of the most potent buffers against poor mental health. The neurologist Viktor Frankl wrote:

For people who think there’s nothing to live for, nothing more to expect from life … the question is getting these people to realise that life is still expecting something from them.

Knowing that someone else needs you makes it easier to endure the toughest times. You’ll know the “why” for your existence and will be able to bear almost any “how”.

So how can you make yourself important in someone else’s life? It could be as simple as taking care of a child or elderly parent, volunteering, or finishing work that might benefit future generations. Even if these people never realise what you’ve done for them, it doesn’t matter because you will know. And this will make you realise the uniqueness and importance of your life.

Olivia Remes, PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Pets should be considered a main source of support for people with long-term mental health conditions

Image credits: Andy McLemore.

Most pet owners realize just how therapeutic our animal friends can be, but scientific evidence still remains scarce for this. Now, a new study published in BioMed Central claims that pets can play a key role in the lives of people with mental conditions.

“This study aimed to explore the role of pets in the support and management activities in the personal networks of people with long-term mental health problems,” the study begins.

Most pet owners would consider their pet to be one of their closest friends, and this becomes even more evident in people suffering from mental conditions. When social relationships become much harder to maintain, and patients often report feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness –  this is exactly where pets can make a difference. They provide a form of encouragement for activity, a distraction from symptoms and can greatly ease the sense of loneliness. According to the study, this happens in almost all cases, and pets are of enhanced salience where relationships with other friends or family were limited or difficult.

The study recruited 53 participants, 25 of which had a pet in their social network. Out of these 25, 60% placed their pet in the central most important circle. For these people, pets played not only a very important, but also a unique role, impossible to cover by anyone else. For instance, one patient read:

“So with my pets I suppose although my Mum and Dad are very significant figures they’ve also got their own lives and lots of other things going on so I’m only one aspect of that life and I feel that the pets I suppose they depend on me and also I have daily contact with them and they also give me a sense of wellbeing which I don’t get from any [one else] because most of these interactions with my Mum, Dad, [friend], are all by telephone rather than physical contact and that’s the big difference is the empathetic physical presence.”

Patients also reported the various and nuanced interactions they have with pets, but also reported that pets also help them interact with other people.

“That surprised me, you know, the amount of people that stop and talk to him, and that, yeah, it cheers me up with him. I haven’t got much in my life, but he’s quite good, yeah,” another patient added.

In a very small minority of cases, pets were considered a burden rather than an aid – one patient stated his intent to travel, and said caring for his pets, in this case, is problematic – but overall, pets provided much-needed support in a unique way.

“Pets should be considered a main rather than a marginal source of support in the management of long-term mental health problems, and this has implications for the planning and delivery of mental health services, researchers continue,” researchers conclude.