Posts Tagged ‘Depression’

The Cost of Emotional Illiteracy

March 23, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” To get a sense of the cost of emotional illiteracy just watch the news or read the newspaper, and ask yourself, how many incidents were the result of a lack of emotional intelligence?

We have been, and we still are suffering from an emotional malaise. Consider children. Too many children are plagued by the following problems:

*Withdrawal or social problems: preferring to be alone; being secretive; sulking a lot; lacking energy; feeling unhappy; being overly dependent.

*Anxious and depressed: being lonely; having many fears and worries; needing to be perfect; feeling unloved; feeling nervous or sad and depressed.

*Attention or thinking problems: unable to pay attention or still daydreaming; acting without thinking; being too nervous to concentrate; doing poorly on schoolwork; unable to get mind off thoughts. Perhaps it is ironic that the new technology has contributed to thinking problems. Plugged in children are checking to see if they’re liked. They’re flitting from topic to topic; superficially processing and rarely engaging in detailed thinking.

*Delinquent or aggressive: hanging around kids who get in trouble; lying and cheating; arguing a lot; being mean to other people; demanding attention; destroying other people’s things; disobeying at home and at school; being stubborn and moody; talking too much; teasing a lot; having a hot temper.

Goleman writes, While any of these problems in isolation raises no eyebrows, taken as a group they are barometers of a sea change, a new kind of toxicity seeping into and poisoning the very experience of childhood, signifying sweeping deficits in emotion competencies. The emotional malaise seems to be a universal price of modern life for children.

Urie Bronfenbfrenner, the eminent Cornell University developmental psychologist who did an international comparison of children’s well being said: “In the absence of good support systems, external stresses have become so great that even strong families are falling apart. The hecticness, instability, and inconsistency of daily family life are rampant in all segments of our society, including the well-educated and well-to-do. What is at stake is nothing less than the next generation, particularly males, who in growing up are especially vulnerable to such disruptive forces as the devastating effects of divorce poverty and unemployment.

Bullying is a recognized problem. Moreover, technology has provided yet another means of bullying. This bullying has resulted in suicides of the bullied parties. Not all angry children are bullies; some are social outcasts who overreact to being teased or to what they perceive as slights or unfairness. The one perceptual flaw that unites such children is that they perceive slights where none were intended, imagining their peers to be more hostile toward them than they really are.

Depression should not just be treated, but prevented in children. Even mild episodes of depression in children augur more severe episodes later in life. Of course, every child gets sad from time to time; childhood and adolescence are like adulthood, time of occasional disappointments and losses large and small with attendant grief. The need for prevention is not for these times, but for those children for whom sadness spirals downward into a gloom that leave them despairing, irritable, and withdrawn—a far more severe melancholy.

The cost to children goes beyond the suffering caused by depression itself Kids learn social skills in their peer relations such as what to do if you want something and aren’t getting it, seeing how other children handle the situation and then trying it yourself. But depressed kinds are likely to be among the neglected children in a school, the ones other kids don’t play with much.

Depression can be short -circuited by stopping depressionogenric ways of thought. Just as with adults, pessimistic ways of interpreting life’s defeats seem to feed the sense of helplessness and hopelessness at the heart of children’s depression. Research has found that children are more prone to melancholy toward this pessimistic outlook before they become depressed. This provides a window of opportunity for inoculating them against depression before it strikes.

There was a study of low-level depression, which is depression not severe enough to say it was beyond ordinary unhappiness, at a high school in Oregon. Seventy-five of the mildly depressed students learned to challenge the thinking patters associated with depression, to become more adept at making friends, to get along better with their parents, and to engage in more social activities they found pleasant. By the end of the eight-week program, 55% of the students had recovered from their mild depression, while only about a quarter of equally depressed students not in the program had begun to pull out of their depression. A year later a quarter of those in the comparison group had gone on to fall into a major depression as opposed to only 14% of students in the depression-prevention program. The eight session program seemed to have cut the risk of depression in half.

Steven Asher, a University of Illinois psychologist has designed a series of “friendship coaching” sessions for unpopular children. He identified third and fourth graders who were least liked in their classes. Asher gave them six sessions in how to “make playing games more fun” through being friendly, fun, and nice.” To avoid stigma, the children were told that they were acting as “consultants” to the coach, who was trying to learn what kinds of things make it more enjoyable to play games. This mini course in getting along had a remarkable effect: a year later the children who’re coached—all of whom were selected because they were the least liked in class—were now solidly in the middle of classroom popularity.

Problems such as eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse need to have special programs.

Goleman argues for no more wars on such problems. Rather a final common preventive pathway to prevention is needed. In a five-year project sponsored by the W.T. Grant Foundation, a consortium of researchers studied the research and distilled the active ingredients that seemed crucial to successful programs. The emotional skills include self-awareness, identifying, expressing, and managing feelings; impulse control and delaying gratification; and handling stress and anxiety. A key ability in impulse control is knowing the difference between feelings and actions, and learning to make better emotional decisions by first controlling the impulse to act, then identifying alternative actions and their consequences before acting. Many competencies are interpersonal: reading social and emotional cues, listening, being able to resist negative influences, taking others’ perspectives, and understanding what behavior is acceptable in a situation.

The next post will provide an answer to the question, “What would an education in emotions look like?”

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Mind and Medicine

March 19, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” There are two extreme views regarding the mind and medicine. One view, and it is unfortunate that there are physicians who hold this view, is that there is no relationship between the mind and medicine. The other extreme is that the mind controls all and medicine is unnecessary. Actually, this extreme view is the view adopted by some religions such as Christian Scientists, that prayer and meditation, not the mind, provides the basis for treating all illnesses. As the reader will see, the truth lies somewhere in between.

The truth is that there are links between the immune system and the central nervous system, and the field that studies this, psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is a leading-edge medical science. It’s name acknowledges the links: psycho, or mind; neuro, for the neuroendocrine system (which subsumes the nervous system and hormone systems); and immunology, for the immune system.

Some surgeons will cancel scheduled surgeries for people who are panicked by the prospect of surgery. Every surgeon knows that people who are extremely scared do terribly in surgery. They bleed too much, they have more infections and complications, and they have a harder time recovering. Patients do much better if they are calm.

A study of anger in heart patients was done at Stanford University Medical School. All the patients in the study had suffered a first heart attack, and the question was whether anger might have a significant impact of some kind on their heart function. While the patients recounted incidents that made them mad, the pumping efficiency of their hearts dropped by 5 percentage points. Some patients showed a drop in pumping efficiency of 7% or greater. This is a range that cardiologists regard as a sign of myocardial ischemia, a dangerous drop in blood to the heart itself.

Another study by Dr. Redford Williams of Duke University found that those physicians who had had the highest scores on a test of hostility while still in medical school were seven times as likely to have died by the age of fifty as were those with low hostility scores. This is a stronger predictor of dying your than were other risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

Anxiety, the distress evoked by life’s pressures, is perhaps the emotion with the greatest weight of scientific evidence connecting it to the onset of sickness and course of recovery. Yale psychologist Bruce McEwen noted a broad spectrum of effects: compromising immune functions to the point that it can speed the metastasis of cancer; increasing vulnerability to viral infections; exacerbating plaque formation leading to atherosclerosis and blood clotting leading to myocardial infarction; accelerating the onset of Type 1 diabetes and the course of Type II diabetes; and worsening or triggering an asthma attack. Stress can also lead to ulceration of the gastrointestinal tract, triggering symptoms in ulcerative colitis and in inflammatory bowel disease. The brain itself is susceptible to the long-term effects of sustained stress, including damage to the hippocampus, and so to memory.

There are also medical costs of depression. In patients with chronic kidney failures who were receiving dialysis, those who were diagnosed with major depression were most likely to die within the following two years; depression was a stronger predictor of death than any medical sign.

Heart disease is also exacerbated by depression. A study of 2832 middle-aged men and women tracked for twelve years, those who felt a sense of nagging despair and hopelessness had a heightened rate of death from heart disease. For the 3% who were most severely depressed, the death rate from heart disease compared to those with no feelings of depression was four times greater.

As there are medical costs to pessimism, there are medical advantages to optimism. For example, 122 men who had their first heart attack were evaluated on their degree of optimism or pessimism. Eight years later, of the 25 most pessimistic men, 21 had died; of the 25 most optimistic, just 6 had died.

There is medical value from relationships. Two decades of research involving more than 37,000 people show that social isolation, the sense that you have nobody with whom you can share your private feelings or have close contact—doubles the chance of sickness or death. A 1987 report in “Science” concluded that isolation is as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and and lack of physical exercise. Goleman takes care to note that solitude is not the same as isolation; many people who live on their own or see few friends are content and healthy. Rather, it is the subjective sense of being cut of from people and having no one to turn to that is a medical risk.

Goleman argues that for medicine to enlarge its vision to embrace the impact of emotions, two large implications of the scientific findings must be taken to heart:

HELPING PEOPLE BETTER MANAGE THEIR UPSETTING FEELINGS—ANGER, ANXIETY, DEPRESSION, PESSIMISM, AND LONELINESS IS A FORM OF DISEASE PREVENTION. The data show that the toxicity of these emotions, when chronic, is on a par with smoking cigarettes, helping people handle them better could potentially have a medical payoff as great as getting heavy smokers to quit. One way to do this that could have broad public-health effects would be to impart most basic emotional intelligence skills to children, so that they become lifelong habits. Another high-payoff preventive strategy would be to teach emotion management to people reaching retirement age, since emotional well-being is one factor that determines whether an older person declines rapidly or thrives. A third target group might be so-called at-risk populations—the very poor, single working mothers, residents of high-crime neighborhoods, and the like—who live under extraordinary pressure day in and day out, and so might do better medically with help in handing the emotional toll of these stresses.
MANY PATIENTS CAN BENEFIT MEASURABLY WHEN THEIR PSYCHOLOGICAL NEEDS ARE ATTENDED TO ALONG WITH THEIR PURELY MEDICAL ONES. While it is a step toward more humane care when a physician or nurse offers a distressed patient comfort and consolation, more can be done. But emotional care is an opportunity too often out of the way medicine is practiced today; it is a blind spot for medicine. Despite mounting data on the medical usefulness of attending to emotional needs, as well as supporting evidence for connecting between the brain’s emotional center and the immune system, many physicians remain skeptical that their patients’ emotions matter clinically, dismissing the evidence of this as trivial and anecdotal, as “fringe, or worse as the exaggerations of a self-promoting few.

Passion’s Slaves

March 13, 2018

Passion’s Slaves is the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” Since the time of Plato a sense of self-mastery, of being able to withstand the emotional storms that the buffeting of Fortune brings rather than being “passion’s slave,” has been praised as a virtue. The ancient Greek word for it was “sophrosyne.” Page DuBois, a Greek scholar translates it as “care and intelligence in conducting one’s life; a tempered balance and wisdom.” The Romans and the early Christian church called it “temperantia”, temperance, the restraining of emotional excess. The goal is balance, not emotional suppression. Aristotle observed, what is wanted is appropriate emotion, feeling proportionate to circumstance. The passions discussed in this post are anger and rage, worry and anxiety, and depression and melancholy.

Anger and Rage

The design of the brain means that we very often have little or no control over when we are swept by emotion, nor over what emotion it will be. However, we can have some say on how long an emotion will last. Consider the anatomy of rage. Say you are cut off in traffic by a driver. You think, “He could have hit me! That bastard—I can’t let him get away with that!” Your knuckles whiten as you tighten your hold on the steering wheel, which you regard as a surrogate for strangling his throat. You body mobilizes to fight not run—leaving you trembling, beads of sweat on your forehead, your heart pounding, the muscles in your face locked in a scowl.”

Compare that sequence of building rage with a more charitable line of thought toward the driver who cut you off. “Maybe he didn’t see me, or maybe he had some good reason for driving so carelessly, such as a medical emergency.” Such thoughts tempers anger with mercy or at least an open mind, short-circuiting the buildup of rage. Aristotle’s challenge is to have only appropriate anger reminds us, is that more often than not, our anger surges out of control. Benjamin Franklin put it well: “Anger is never without a reason, but seldom a good one.” There are different kinds of anger. The amygdala is a main source of the sudden spark of rage we feel at the driver whose carelessness endangers us. On the other end of emotional circuitry, the neocortex, most likely foments more calculated angers, such as cool-headed revenge or outrange at unfairness or injustice.

Rage seems to be the most intransigent of al the moods. Researcher Diana Tice found that anger is the mood people are worst at controlling. Anger is the most seductive of the negative emotions; the self-righteous inner monologue that propels it along fills the mind with the most convincing arguments for venting range. Unlike sadness, anger is energizing, even exhilarating. Anger’s persuasive power might explain why some views about it are so common: that anger is uncontrollable, or that it should not be controlled, and venting anger in “catharsis” is to the good. A contrasting view holds that anger can be prevented entirely. However, a careful reading of research findings suggests that all these common attitudes toward anger are misguided if not outright myths.

The train of angry thoughts that stokes anger is also potentially the key to one of the most powerful ways to defuse anger: undermining the convictions that are fueling the anger in the first case. The longer we ruminate about what has made us angry, the more “good reasons” and self-justification for being angry we can event. Brooding just fuels anger’s flames. Seeing things differently douses those flames. Tice found that reframing a situation more positively was one of the most potent ways to put anger to rest. Timing matters. The earlier in the anger cycle, the more effective. Anger can be completely short-circuited if the mitigating information comes before the anger is acted on.

The second way of de-escalating anger is cooling off physiologically by waiting out the adrenal surge in a setting where there are not likely to be further triggers for rage. This is a common way of dealing with anger according to Tice’s research. One such fairly effective strategy is going off to be alone while cooling down. People go for a drive or a walk. Of these two, the second is preferable. Exercise also works. Relaxation methods such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation, perhaps because they change the body’s physiology from the high arousal of anger to a low-arousal state, and perhaps too because they distract from whatever triggered the anger. [enter “Relaxation Response” into the search block of the healthy memory blog to find relevant posts].

However, a cooling-down period will not work if that time is used to pursue the train of anger-inducing thought, since each such though will trigger more cascades of anger.

Distractions like TV, movies, reading and the like work, but not shopping or eating.

Ventilation does not work. In fact there is a ventilation fallacy. Ventilation may feel satisfying, but it is counterproductive. Tice found that ventilating anger is one of the worst ways to cool down: outbursts of rage typically pump up the emotional brain’s arousal, leaving people feeling more angry not less.

Worry and Anxiety

Worrying is at the heart of all anxiety. The reaction that underlies worry is the vigilance for potential for potential danger that has, no doubt been essential for survival over the course of evolution. When fear triggers the emotional brain, part of the resulting anxiety fixates attention on the threat at hand, thus forcing the mind to obsess about how to handle it and ignore anything else. Worry is a rehearsal of what might go wrong and how to deal with it. The purpose of worrying is to come up with positive solutions for life’s perils by anticipating dangers before they arise.

Worrying becomes a problem with chronic repetitive worries that go on and on never getting nearer to a positive solution. Goleman writes that a “close analysis of chronic worry suggests that it has all the attributes of a low-grade emotional hijacking. Worries that seem to come from nowhere and are uncontrollable generate a study hum of anxiety, are impervious to reason and lock the worrier into a single, inflexible view of the topic of worry. When this cycle of worry intensifies and persists, it crosses over the line into a full-blown neural hijacking, the anxiety disorders: phobias, obsessions and compulsions, panic attacks.

For each disorder worry fixates in a distinct fashion: phobic anxieties rivet on the feared situation; obsessive disorders fixate on preventing some feared calamity; panic attacks can focus on fear of dying or on the prospect of having the anxiety attack itself.

Researchers have observed that anxiety comes in two forms: cognitive, or worrisome thoughts, and somatic, the physiological symptoms of anxiety, like sweating, a racing heart, or muscle tension. Insomniacs are suffering from anxiety attacks. Their main problem preventing them from sleeping were intrusive thoughts. No matter how sleepy they were, they could not stop worrying. The one technique that worked in helping them get to sleep was getting their minds off their worries, focusing instead on the sensations produced by a relaxation method. In summary, the worries could be stopped by shifting attention away.

Unfortunately, most worriers seem unable to do this. These worriers get a partial payoff from worrying that reinforces the habit. It seems that there is something positive in worries: worries are ways to deal with potential threats. When the work of worrying succeeds, it is to rehearse what those dangers are, and to reflect on ways to deal with them. But Goleman writes that worry doesn’t work that well. “New solutions and fresh ways of seeing a problem do not typically come from worrying, especially chronic worry. Instead of coming up with solutions to these potential problems, worriers typically simply ruminate on the danger itself, immersing themselves in a low-key way in the dread associated with it while staying in the same run of thought. Chronic worriers worry about a wide range of things, most of which have almost no chance of happening; they read dangers into life’s journey that others never notice.”

Still chronic worriers report that worrying helps them, and that their worries are self-perpetuating. So why should worry become what seems to amount to a mental addiction? Borkovec notes that the worry habit is reinforcing in the same sense that superstitions are. Since people worry about many things that have a very low probability of actually occurring, to the primitive limbic brain there appears to be something magical about it. “Like an amulet that wards off some anticipated evil, the worry psychologically gets the credit for preventing the danger it obsesses about.”

Borkovic discovered simple steps the can help even the most chronic worrier control the habit.

The first step is self-awareness, catching the worrisome episodes as near their beginning as possible. Borkovec trains people in this approach by first teaching them to monitor cues for anxiety, especially learning to identify situations that trigger worry, or the fleeting thoughts and images that initiate the worry, as well as the accompanying sensation of anxiety in the body. With practice people can identify the worries at an earlier and earlier point in the anxiety spiral. People also learn relaxation methods that they can apply at the moment they recognize the worry beginning, and practice the relaxation method daily so they will be able to use it on the spot. [Much has been written about relaxation in the healthy memory blog. Enter ‘relaxation’ into search block of the healthy memory blog.]

Goleman offers the following precaution: “for people with worries so severe they have flowered into phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or paid disorder, it may be prudent—indeed a sign of self-awareness—to turn to medication to interrupt the cycle A retraining of the emotional circuitry through therapy is still called for, however, in order to lessen the likelihood that anxiety disorders will recur when medication is stopped.

Melancholy and Depression

The single mood people put most effort into shaking is sadness: Tice found that people are most inventive when it comes to trying to escape the blues. Melancholy like every other mood has its benefits. The sadness that a loss brings has certain effects: it closes down our interest in divisions and pleasures, focuses attention on what’s been lost, and saps our energy for starting new endeavors, hopefully for the time being. It causes a reflective retreat from life’s pursuits, and leaves us in a state to mourn the loss, mull over its meaning, and make the psychological adjustments and new plans to continue with out lives.

Although bereavement is useful, a full-blown depression is not. In a major depression, love is paralyzed: no new beginnings emerge. The very symptoms of severe depression place a life on hold. For most people psychotherapy can help as can medication.

The far more common sadness that at its upper limits becomes a “subclinical depression” is sometimes referred to as melancholy. This is a range of despondency that people can handle on their own, if they have the internal resources. Unfortunately, some of the strategies most often resorted to can backfire, leaving people feeling worse than before. One such strategy is staying alone. However, more often than not this only adds a sense of loneliness and isolation to the sadness.

Tice found the most popular tactic for battling depression is socializing. Going out to eat, to a ball game or movie. Doing something with friends or family. This works well if the effect is to get the person’s mind off his sadness.

One of the main determinants of whether a depressed mood will persist or lift is the degree to which people ruminate. Worrying about what’s depressing us seems to make the depression all the more intense and prolonged. In depression, worry takes several forms, all focusing on some aspect of the depression itself, such as how tired we feel, how little energy or motivation we have, or how little work we’re getting done. Typically this reflection is not accompanied by any concrete course of action that might alleviate the problem.

Cognitive therapy aimed at changing these thought patterns has been found in some studies to be on a pair with medication for treating mild clinical depression, and superior to medication in preventing the return of mild depression. Two strategies are particularly effective. One is to learn to challenge the thoughts at the center of rumination. The other is to purposely schedule pleasant, distracting events.

Tice found that aerobic exercise is one of the more effective tactics for lifting mild depression, as well as other bad moods. A caveat here is that the mood-lifting benefits of exercise work best for the lazy, those who don’t work out very much. For those with a daily exercise routine there is a reverse effect on mood: they start to feel bad on those days when they skip their workout. Exercise seems to work well because it changes the physiological state the mood evolves: depression is a low-arousal state, and aerobics pitches the body into high arousal. Relaxation techniques, which put the body into a low-arousal state work for anxiety, a high-arousal state, but not so well for depression.

Tice reports that a more constructive approach to mood-lifting is engineering a small triumph or easy success: tackling some long-delayed chore around the house of getting to some other duty they’ve been wanting to clear up. Lifts to self-image were also cheering, even if only in the form of getting dressed up or putting makeup.

One of the most potent antidotes is cognitive reframing. For example, stepping back and thinking about the ways a relationship wasn’t so great, and ways you and your partner were mismatched, seeing the loss in a more positive light is an antidote to sadness.

This post offers some tips for dealing with emotional problems. Should problems persist and become chronic, please see professional help. Should you ever fear that you are a danger to yourself or others, SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP IMMEDIATELY. If necessary, go to an emergency room.

Smartphones and Teen Suicides

December 27, 2017

This post is based on an article written by Jean Twenge titled “As smartphones spread among teens, so did suicide,” in the Health Section of the 21 November 2017 issue of the Washington Post. The article summarizes the research she and her colleagues published in Clinical Psychological Science. The research found that the generation of teens called “iGen”, those born after 1995, is much more likely to experience mental-health issues than their millennial predecessors. Increases in depression, suicide attempts and suicide appeared among teens from every background: more privileged and less privileged, across all races and ethnicities, and in every region of the country.

According to the Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership crossed the 50% threshold in late 2012, right when teen depression and suicide began to increase. By 2015, 73% of teens had access to a smartphone. The research found the teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71% more likely than those who spent only one hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.

Two studies followed how people spend time. Both studies found that spending more time on social media led to unhappiness, while unhappiness did not lead to more study. An experiment randomly assigned participants to give up Facebook for week, vs. continuing their usual use. The group that avoided Facebook reported feeling less depressed at the end of the week.

The finding is that iGen folks spend much less time interacting with their friends in person. Interacting with people face to face is one of the deepest sources of human happiness. Teens who spent more time on average online and less time than average with friends in person were the most likely to be depressed. Since 2012 teens have spent less time on activities known to benefit mental health (in person social interaction) and more time on activities that may harm it (time online).

Teens are also sleeping less, and teens who spend more time on their phones are more likely than others to not get enough sleep. Insufficient sleep is a major risk factor for depression. So if smartphones are causing less sleep, that alone could explain why depression and suicide increased so suddenly.

Clearly restricting screen time, to two hours a day or less, is needed.
Twenge is professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

Meditation as Psychotherapy

December 5, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of Chapter 10 of a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson. The subtitle is “Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. Meditation was not originally intended to treat psychological problems. However, in modern times it has shown promise in the treatment of some disorders, particularly depression and anxiety disorders. A meta-analysis of forty-seven studies on the application of meditation methods to treat patients with mental health problems found that meditation can lead to decreases in depression (especially severe depression), anxiety, and pain. They were about as effective as medications, but had no side effects. To a lesser degree, meditation can reduce the toll of psychological stress. Loving-kindness meditation may be especially beneficial to patients suffering from trauma, especially those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Mindfulness as been melded with cognitive therapy to produce Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). MBCT has become the most empirically well-validated psychological treatment with a meditation basis. This integration is having a wide impact in the clinical world. Empirical tests of applications to an ever larger range of psychological disorders are underway. Although there have been occasional reports of the negative effects of meditation, the findings to date point to the potential promise of meditation-based strategies. The enormous increase in scientific research in these areas makes for an optimistic future.

Conclusions for Suggestible You

March 29, 2017

There have been a dozen posts on Erik Vance’s “Suggestible You:  The Curious Science of your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal” because there is so much interesting material that is relevant to a healthy memory.  Nevertheless, these posts just scratch the surface.  Readers are encouraged to read the original book.

The power of our minds is enormous.  Our brains are an extremely valuable gift.  We need to use them to best advantage and to help them grow.  It is hoped that these dozen or so “Suggestible You” posts have accomplished  that.

Not much has been written about meditation, not because meditation was not covered in the book.  It was covered, but HM thought that the importance of meditation had been covered fairly well in other healthy memory blog posts.  And there will be many more posts on mindfulness and meditation in the future.

Suggestibility can have an enormous effect on many medical conditions, but not all of them.  Although Parkinson’s responds well to placebos, Alzheimer’s does not.  This makes sense, because suggestibility  involves the brain and Alzheimer’s destroys the brain.  The healthy memory blog has many posts on how to build a cognitive reserve.  There are many people who died with the defining amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles of Alzheimer’s, have never shown any of the cognitive or behavioral symptoms.  It is said that a cognitive reserve precluded the cognitive and behavioral symptoms.

Anxiety responds to placebos, as does depression.  The pharmaceutical companies are spending a fortune trying to beat placebo effects.   But obsessive-compulsive disorders traditionally do not respond well to placebos.  Although the pain and nausea of cancer can be eased with placebos, tumors cannot.  Vance writes that the spontaneous regression—the sudden retreat of a tumor for no obvious reason is more common than you might think, but is not a product of suggestion (at least not that we know of).

And don’t forget to be suggestible to yourself.  When sad, remember that you can cheer yourself up, and that it is your mind and the chemicals in your body that affect your mood.  And you do have an ability to control your emotions due to your own suggestibility.  Meditation and mindfulness can also help here.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggestible You 11

March 27, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform and Heal.  This is the eleventh post on this book. This post deals with depression.

Vance describes depression as like being chemically sedated into someone you don’t recognize.  He writes that given the choice, he might prefer excruciating chronic pain to depression, then goes on to note many people suffer from both.  He notes that about 7%  of Americans will experience clinical depression this year, losing the United States more than $200 billion.

It is clear that placebos are effective against depression.  Remember that to be declared effective the drug is compared against a placebo.  But when antidepressant drug tests are examined about 75% to 80% of their efficacy can be attributed to placebo effects.  Moreover, there was no real difference between high and low doses, which is odd.  Differences are expected with truly effective drugs.

Moreover, over the past few decals, scientists have noticed a distinct uptick in the power of the placebo effect on pain and depression trials.  Some experts even say that if Prozac had to compete against the placebo effect today, it would not have been cleared by the FDA.  Once a drug clears the Phase III, placebo-controlled trial, it is certified regardless of how it performs in later experiments.

For drug manufacturers trying to get new drugs approved, this is a problem.  But it should not be a problem for depression sufferers.  Remember the reason of including placebos in these tests is that placebo effects are real.  Placebos are much less expensive than the drugs, and carry no side effects.  HM wonders, as long as they are 75% to 80% effective, why take the drug.  Physicians should also be asking the same question.  Now it is clear why drug companies continue to try to develop new anti-depressants.  But after some many decades of research, with all the antidepressants already approved, and with placebos being largely effective without any adverse effect why bother.? At some point the difficulty in exceeding the effect of the placebo might prove so expensive that drug companies might abandon the effort.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy

July 16, 2016

This post is an attempt to address the question raised in the immediately preceding post, “If Antidepressants Don’t Work Well, Why Are They So Popular?”  The current post is based upon an article titled “Is Mindfulness the Future of Therapy?” by Barry Boyce in the August 2016 issue of Mindful magazine.

Before proceeding further, here are some facts.  16 million adults are affected by depression.  In 2014, nearly 16 million adults aged 18 or older in the US had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.  According to the World health Organization depression is the leading cause of disability for women of all ages.

There have been previous posts on mindfulness and on cognitive behavioral therapy,  MIndfulnesss-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is a combination of the two.. The therapy provides insight as well as skills to use this insight.  An overly simplistic view is that people are taught how to think their way out of depression.  To learn more about MBCT  go to mbct.com.  The goal is to have effective online therapies

Currently, there is a shortage of trained MBCT therapists, but resources are available and many of the resources can be found at mbct.com.  Psychologists suffer from the western bias in education.  In previous posts I’ve discussed problems stemming from the western bias in education, which ignores wisdom from in east.  When I was a graduate student, a big research question was whether we could control our own autonomic nervous systems (heart rate, for example).  When I pointed out that there were Buddhists who could do this par excellence, I was told that they were using some sort of trick.  Well the trick was  meditation, and the powerful effects of meditation have only been appreciated recently, largely as a result of interaction with the Dalai Lama.

So, unfortunately, in spite of its popular press, there are many psychologists who do not appreciate its possibilities.  And even among those psychologists who do appreciate its possibilities, many do not practice mindfulness themselves.  The situation is a bit analogous to when it was officially recognized that smoking contributes to lung cancer.   Doctors, who were smoking, had to tell their patients to stop.

HM is fairly confident that psychologists will increasingly come on board to the mindfulness wagon and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy will become more widespread.

So the answer to the question “If Antidepressants Don’t Work Well, Why Are They So Popular?”  is that there is a current shortage of resources to provide MBCT.  However, even if these resources become plentiful, there will still be people resorting to antidepressants because a pill, even if it is ineffective, provides a quick answer.  The situation is a tad analogous to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (enter this into the healthy memory search blog to find the post), which continues to be used in spite of its ineffectiveness.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

If Antidepressants Don’t Work Well, Why are They so Popular?

July 15, 2016

The title of this blog post is identical to the title of a piece of the Insight  section in the June 18 20016 Issue of the New Scientist.  Several previous healthy memory blog posts have questioned  the value of antidepressants (enter “antidepressants” into the search block of the healthy memory blog).  The New Scientist piece begins, “Another week, another study casting doubt on antidepressants.  This one says that for children and for teenagers with major depression, 13 or the 14 drugs analyzed don’t work.”  The article also notes that previous research for adults using the Prozac class of antidepressants , which involve selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors is no better than a placebo, at least for people with mild or moderate depression.  The article does not that some other research finds that these drugs do word for adults with major depression.

Although antidepressants can be life-savers for those with severe depression, they are being dished out too easily for people with everyday sadness.  Although UK guidelines say that talking therapies should be the first option for people with mild depression, it can take over a year to get seen.  So family doctors not being aware of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, take the easy option and prescribe antidepressants.

Many patients do feel that their antidepressants are helpful, but it is likely the result of a strong placebo effect.

The article also mentions the chemical imbalance myth, which is promoted by the manufacturers.  They argue for the feel good effects of serotonin.  Although the drugs do boost serotonin, there is no proof  that low levels cause depression.  Although there are many theories, what triggers depression is unknown.

Unfortunately, antidepressants do have downsides that include withdrawal symptoms, loss of sex drive and weight gain.  What is worse is that they trigger violent or suicidal thoughts in some people.

The article neglects to discuss meditation and mindfulness, techniques that can readily be taught with no side effects.  Moreover, they can be highly effective.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mental Activity Changes the Brain

June 11, 2016

The sixth chapter of “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain” reviews how mental activity changes the brain.  The notion that the mind can act downward on the brain is a concept alien to most scientists.  The first esteemed scientist to argue that the mind cn act down on the brain was Nobel Prize—winning neuroscientist Roger Sperry who developed scientifically rigorous themes  of the position that the mind can act on the brain, which he called mentalism or emergent mentalism.  He theorized that there is a “downward control by mental events over the lower neuronal events.”  He suggested that mental states can act directly on cerebral states even effect electrochemical activity in neurons.  Healthy memory blog readers should realize that this is the position of healthy memory.  However, in the 1990s this was a radical concept. one which is still refuted by mainstream scientists in spite of ample evidence that it is correct.

Neuropsychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz is a practicing Buddhist who became intrigued with the therapeutic potential of mindfulness meditation.  Mindfulness, or mindful awareness, is the practice of observing one’s own inner experience in a way that is fully aware  but nonjudgmental.  One stands outside one’s own mind, observing the spontaneous thoughts and feeling that the brain throws up, observing all this as if it were happening to someone else.  Dr. Schwartz was treating patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  OCD sufferers are troubled by obsessions and compulsions that become all-consuming.  In most cases the intrusive thoughts and fixations  feel as if they are arising from a part of he mind that is not the real self.

According to brain imaging studies OCD is characterized by hyperactivity in two regions:  the orbital frontal cortex and the striatum.  The main job of the orbital frontal cortex seems to be to notice when something is amiss.  It is the brain’s error detector, its neurological spell checker.  In OCD patients it fires repeatedly, bombarding the rest of the brain with the crushing feeling that something is wrong.  The second overactive structure, the striatum, receives inputs from other regions, including the orbital frontal cortex  and the amygdalae that are the seat of dread.  Together, the circuit linking the orbital frontal cortex and the striatum has been dubbed “the worry circuit” or “the OCD circuit.

In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy patients learn to think about their thoughts differently.  So when an obsessive thought popped up, the patient would think, “My brain is generating another obsessive thought.  Don’t I  know it is not real but just some garbage thrown up by a faulty circuit.  This is not really an urge to do something, but rather a brain-wiring problem.”

Dr. Schwartz used the brain-imaging technique positron-emission tomography (PET).  He would show patients their PET scans emphasizing that their symptoms arose from a faulty neurological circuit.  One patient responded immediately, “It’s not me, it’s my OCD”.  Other patients responded similarly.  The week after patients started relabeling their symptoms as manifestation of pathological brain process, they reported that the disease was no longer controlling them, and they felt that they could do something about it.

In a formal research study they performed PET scans on eighteen OCD patients before and after two weeks of mindfulness-based therapy.  None of the patients took medications for their OCD, and all had moderate to severe symptoms.  Twelve patients improved significantly.  PET scans in these patients showed that activity in the orbital frontal cortex had fallen dramatically.

Dr. Schwartz concluded, “This was the first study to show that cognitive-behavioral  therapy has the power to systematically change faulty brain chemistry in a well-defined brain circuit.”  He continued that the ensuing brain changes “offered strong evidence that willful, mindful effort can alter the brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes—neuroplasticity are a genuine reality.  The mind can change the brain.”

Mindfulness-based therapy is also more effective treating depression and produces longer lasting effects that do pharmaceutical products.  In 2002, Helen Mayberg discovered that anti-depressants and inert pills—placebos have identical effects on the brains of depressed people.

Toronto scientists used PET imaging to measure activity in the brains of depressed patients.  They had fourteen depressed adults undergo fifteen to twenty sessions of cognitive-behavior (mindfulness) training. Thirteen other patients received parozetime, the generic name for an antidepressant.  Depressed patients responded differently to the two kinds of treatment.  With cognitive-behavior therapy activity in the frontal cortex was turned down, activity in the hippocampus was turned up, which was the opposite pattern of  antidepressants.  Cognitive therapy targets the core, the thinking brain reshaping how your process information and change your thinking pattern, which are key activities to defeating depression.  Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, working from the top down, keeps the depression circuit from being completed.

Yet another study involved having piano students practice playing a simple piece in their heads.  The result was that the region of the cortex that controls piano-playing fingers expanded in the brains of volunteers who merely imagined playing the piece just as it did in the brains of those who actually played it.

Even though neuroscientists do not know exactly how the mind influences the brain, neuoscientis have evidence that it somehow involves paying attention.  All participants in this research focused intently.  The chapter concludes by noting that an enormous amount of information bombards the brain, but unless that information is attended to, there is a high probability that it will be lost.

Neuroplasticity and Neurogenesis

June 8, 2016

Chapters 2 and 3 of Sharon Begley’s “Train Your MInd, Change Your Brain” cover neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.  Prior to discussing neuroplasticity, how learning takes place needs to be discussed.  To explain how learning takes place psychologist Donald Hebb conceived of cell assemblies.  He proposed that learning and memory were based on the strengthening of synapses.
Somehow either the neuron that fires first in the chain (the presynaptic neuron) or the neuron that fires next (the postsynaptic neuron), or both, change in such a way that the firing of the first is more likely to cause the firing of the second.  Learning and memory involve the firing of large assemblies of these cells.  Hence Hebb’s theory is called cell assembly theory.  Hebb’s maxim is that cells that fire together wire together.

Virtually all the research on neuroplasticity involved animals.  This is because surgery was almost always required. Sensory  or motor connections might be severed, and then observations would be made regarding the effects of these operations.  Sometimes connections were rewired so that animals would see sound or hear light. The late nineteenth psychologist William James had wondered , were scientists were able to alter neuron’s paths so that exciting the ear activates the visual cortex and exciting the eye the auditory cortex, we would be able to  “hear the lightning and see the thunder.”  So James was correct.  And all this research invalidated the longstanding dogma that the nervous system could not be rewired or rewire itself underscoring the reality that the nervous system can and does rewire itself.

The longstanding dogma that new neurons  could not be created, neurogenesis, was more difficult to disprove.   Before cells divide, they make a copy of their DNA.  As cells can’t conjure the double helix out of thin air, biochemicals snag the requisite ingredients from within the cell and assemble them.  One element of DNA, thymidine, lets a radioactive  molecules glom on to it.  When the thymidine becomes incorporated into the brand-new DNA, the DNA has a spot of radioactivity, which can be detected experimentally.  Old DNA does not have this glow.

Joseph Altman, a new neuroscientist at MIT, decided to try the new trick on brains.  By scanning neurons for tell tale glows he figured he would be able to detect newborn DNA, and newborn cells.  He found neurons of adult rats, cats,  and guinea pigs with thymidine—indicating that they had been born after Altman had injected them with the tracer.  He published these finding in three prestigious scientific journals in 1965, 1967, and 1970, yet his claims were ignored,   Altman was denied tenure at MIT and joined the faculty of Purdue University.

Research was done using nonhuman  animals with rich environments.  That is animals who lived in enriched environments with exercise wheels and novel features were compared to animals living in impoverished environments.  The formation and survival  of new neurons increased 15% in a part of the hippocampus called the dentate gyros, which is involved in learning and memory.

To this point humans had not been involved in the research, the reason being that noninvasive brain imaging could not address this issue.  Brains needed to be taken from   dead research participants.  Oncologists injected BrdU into cancer patients because is marks every newborn cell.  This allowed them to assess how many new cancer cells were developing.  The researchers were able to enlist the cooperation of oncologists and their patients.  After these patients succumbed to cancer, their brains could be examined to see if any new  noncancerous cells had been generated.  Thanks to these patients and their oncologists, new neurons, indicating neurogenesis, were found in the hippocampus.

An interesting find was that forced exercise does not promote neurogenesis.  The neuroscientist Gage explained to the Dalai Lama, “Running voluntarily increases neurogenesis and increases learning even in very, very old animals.  It seems like the effects of running on neurogenesis and on learning are dependent on volition.  It has to be a voluntary act.  It is not just the physical activity.

When the neuroscientist Fred Gage sat down with the Dalai Lama it was clear that new neurons arise from neural stem cells in the adult human brain, which persist and support ongoing neurogenesis.  This discovery expanded the possibilities for neuroplasticity.  The neural electrician is not restricted to working with existing wiring, he can run whole new cables through the brain.

In humans new neurons might do more than help with learning.  The hippocampus plays an important role in depression.  In many people suffering from depression, the dentate gyrus oaf the hippocampus  has drastically shrunk.  There is a question of cause and effect, whether another factor caused the hippocampus to shrink leading to depression, or whether depression caused the shrinkage.

New research suggests that people who are suffering from depression are unable to recognize novelty.  Gage said this to the Dalai Lama, “You hear this a lot with depressed people.  Things just look the same.  There is nothing exciting in life.”  “There is also evidence,” Gage said, “that if you can get someone with depression to exercise, his depression lifts.”  So neurogenesis might be the ultimate anti-depressant.  When it is impaired for any reason, the joy of seeing life with new eyes and finding surprises and novelty in the world vanishes.  But when it is restored the world is seen anew.

It is clear that chronic stress impairs neurogenesis, at least in mice.  Gage’s colleague, Peter Ericsson suspects that holds lessons for humans also.  “In lab animals, chronic stress dramatically decreases neurogenesis as well as spatial memory..  When people under stress experience severe memory problems—forgetting their way to work, going into the kitchen and then no remembering why they went in—it is likely that what they’re experiencing is the very negative of stress on the function of the hippocampus due to decreased neurogenesis.”

How Placebos Could Change Research and Practice

March 29, 2015

The title was on the cover of the April 2015 Monitor on Psychology of the American Psychological Association.  Inside the issue was an article by Stacy Lu, “Great expectations:  New research is leading to an understanding of how placebos work—findings that may lead to more effective treatments and better drug research.  Our understanding and attitudes towards placebos is advancing.

In one study neuroscience researcher Shaffer and his colleagues asked participants to apply a “powerful analgesic” on their hands and arms.  Then the researchers administered small bursts of heat where the cream had been applied.  The cream was actually petroleum jelly, but participants reported that the s-called powerful cream protected them from feeling as much of a burn  as a control cream.  Even after the researchers showed them that the active cream was just petroleum jelly, it made little difference.  The participants still reported less pain from the heat when they were re-tested versus the control cream (The Journal of Pain, 2015).

Today scientists are studying  placebos as a psychobiological  phenomenon and the placebo response as a potentially important part of the success of many medical treatments.  Psychological assessments, brain scans, and genotyping are used  to understand better how placebo responses work and to identify who may be most likely to respond to them.  Placebos are similar to cognitive therapies in that they tap into people’s beliefs that there’s hope and that they will get better.

A meta-analysis of 25 neuroimaging studies of pain and placebos conducted by Wager and Atlas of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) found that people who took placebos and expected have reduced pain had less activity in brain regions associated with pain processing, including the dorsal anterior cingulate, thamalus, and insula (Handbook of Experimental Pharmacology, 2014).

Research suggests that placebos have the greater effect in neural systems involved with processing reward seeking, motivation, and emotion.  Placebos seem to work especially well in patients with depression, Parkinson’s disease, and pain.  All three conditions involve the neurotransmitter dopamine.  These are also areas where people can consciously monitor their own treatment results.

In a study of patients with Parkinson’s disease Wager and colleagues found that simply expecting medication altered brain activity in the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex in brain areas associated with reward learning in ways similar to actual dopaminergic medication (Nature Neuroscience, 2014).

In another study of people with migraines, placebos elicited a response without any verbal cue to effectiveness,   Slavenka Kam-Hansen and colleagues openly labeled placebo pills for some patients who reported as much pain relief as those who also got a placebo but had been told that they’d received real medication. (Science Translational Medicine, 2014).

Genetics research has found that participants with a specific genotype related to having more dopamine in the prefrontal cortex reported having a larger effect from a placebo  treatment  than participants with a genotype that produces less dopamine in the prefrontal cortex (PLOS ONE, 2012).

Children seem to respond especially well to placebos.  In one study their placebo response was 5.6 that of adults (The Journal of Pain, 2014).

Patients are interested and enthusiastic about placebo  treatments.  They are pleased to discover that they can contribute to their own healing.

Unhealthy Memory

October 31, 2012

Depression is the most common form of mental illness. It can lead to suicide. It will affect from ten to twenty percent of us some time in our lives. Electroconvulsive Shock can work in extreme cases, but sometimes at a cost of memory loss. Antidepressants can work for some victims, but all drugs have side effects. Cognitive therapy can also work, but it takes time.

Research has provided insights that have led to a new approach to therapy.1 The psychologist Mark Williams read out a cue work to patients such as “happy” or “clumsy.” It was not surprising to find that depressed or suicidal people were quicker to respond with negative experiences instead of positive ones. However, what was interesting was that people who weren’t depressed tended to focus on specific events, whereas depressed patients were noticeably vaguer. For example, one depressed patient responded to the word “happy” with “the first years of marriage.” Another depressed patient responded to the word “safe” with “when I’m in bed.” Even when they were encouraged to be more specific they were less likely to recall a single incident such as a particular film or an insult that had upset them. It appeared that depressed patients were skimming the chapter titles of their autobiographies and ignoring the text that followed. Williams’ findings have been replicated by a host of studies emphasizing how important our memories are to our well-being.

The notion is that our memories provide a kind of ballast that support us during a time of stress. Our memories can suggest ways to solve problems and offer comfort when we are feeling wounded. However, when people find it difficult to recall specific events, this support is absent and they can feel overwhelmed by life’s challenges, which slowly pushes them into depression. This phenomenon is known as “over-general memory.” Over-general memory has been found to be present before the low mood developed. This supports the idea that it is the memory problem that led to the depression rather than the other way around. One study involved 74 women who had undergone in vitro fertilization and failed to get pregnant. Those who had the least specific recall before the treatment were most likely to develop symptoms of depression after the disappointment. Another study found that teenagers judged to have over-general memory were more likely to develop depression in the 12 months after they were tested. Research has also found that those with over-general memory were more likely to suffer from PTSD after a traumatic event.

Research is being conducted to see if a type of memory training can be used to improve the specificity of people’s recall and reduce their symptoms of depression. Tim DalGlesh at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK has investigated a technique called Memory Specificity Training (MeST). People practice delving into their memories over and over again recalling detailed specific incidents for different cue words. Fortunately, these events need not have anything to do with the person’s current anxieties. MeST can be taught in groups. Early results indicate that people might need only five weekly sessions to show improvement.

A former colleague of Dalgesh, Hamid Neshat-Doost at the University of Isfahan did a study with 23 depressed Afghani refugees living in a community with little access to any type of therapy. The 11 people who received the five group sessions of MeST improved significantly whereas the untreated did not show improvement. Moreover, those with the most improvement in their ability to recall specifics reported the greatest improvements in their moods.

1Robson, D. (2012). Fade to Black. New Scientist, 6 October, p. 38-40.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Focusing on Your Breathing

November 20, 2011

A short article1 in Scientific American Mind reported a couple of studies that demonstrated the benefits of focusing on your breathing. One study reported in the May issue of the International Journal of Psychophysiology and conducted at the Toho University School of Medicine in Japan taught research participants to breathe deeply into their abdomen and to focus on their breathing. They did this for 20 minutes. They reported fewer negative feelings. More of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin was found in their blood. The prefrontal cortex, an area associated with attention and high-level cognitive processing, exhibited more oxygenated hemoglobin.

Another study reported in the April issue of Cognitive Therapy and Research conducted at Ruhr University in Germany examined the effect focusing on breathing had on depression symptoms. The research participants were asked to stay in mindful contact with their breathing and to try to maintain continual awareness without letting their minds wander. During 18 minute trials the researchers asked the participants whether they were successful in doing so. Those who were successful reported less negative thinking, less rumination and fewer other symptoms of depression.

You can do this. You can sit up comfortably and breathe naturally (or deeply, if you prefer). Focus your attention on your breath and feel it in detail, in your nasal cavity, in your chest, and in your abdomen. Don’t be critical if your mind wanders, just try to refocus. With practice, you should improve your ability to stay focused. Try to build up to 20 minutes. Once you become skillful, even a few minutes of this mindful breathing can help you become more calm and collected.

See the Healthymemory Blog Post “The Benefits of Meditation,” for more information. It does not appear that you need to be a Buddhist monk to benefit from meditation. It is thought that even very short periods of meditation can be beneficial.

1Rodriguex, T. (2011). Therapy in the Air. Scientific American Mind, November/December, p. 16.