Why We are Hard-wired to Worry, and What We can Do to Calm Down

James Carmody wrote . . . . . . . . .

A new year brings both hopes and anxieties. We want things to be better for ourselves and the people we love, but worry that they won’t be, and imagine some of the things that might stand in the way. More broadly, we might worry about who’s going to win the election, or even if our world will survive.

As it turns out, humans are wired to worry. Our brains are continually imagining futures that will meet our needs and things that could stand in the way of them. And sometimes any of those needs may be in conflict with each other.

Worry is when that vital planning gets the better of us and occupies our attention to no good effect. Tension, sleepless nights, preoccupation and distraction around those very people we care for, worry’s effects are endless. There are ways to tame it, however.

As a professor of medicine and population and quantitative health sciences, I’ve researched and taught mind-body principles to both physicians and patients. I’ve found that there are many methods of quieting the mind and that most of them draw on just a few straightforward principles. Understanding those can help in creatively practicing the techniques in your everyday life.

Our brains sabotage the happier present moment

We’ve all experienced moments of flow, times when our attention is just effortlessly absorbed in what we are doing. And studies carried out in real time confirm an increase in happiness when people can focus attention on what they are doing, rather than when their minds are wandering. It may seem odd then that we leave our minds to wander for something like half the day, despite the happiness cost.

The reason can be found in the activity of linked brain regions, such as the default mode network, that become active when our attention is not occupied with a task. These systems function in the background of consciousness, envisaging futures compatible with our needs and desires and planning how those might be brought about.

Human brains have evolved to do this automatically; planning for scarcity and other threats is important to ensure survival. But there’s a downside: anxiety. Studies have shown that some people prefer electric shocks to being left alone with their thoughts. Sound familiar?

Our background thinking is essential to operating in the world. It is sometimes the origin of our most creative images. We suffer from its unease when, unnoticed, it takes over the mental store.

Mindfulness, the practice of observing our mind’s activity, affords both real-time insight into this default feature of the mental operating system and a capacity to self-regulate it.

That is confirmed by studies showing increased attention regulation, working memory, and awareness of mind wandering that develop after only a couple of weeks of mindfulness training. Imaging studies, similarly, show that this kind of training reduces default mode activity and enriches neural connections that facilitate attentional and emotional self-regulation.

Evolution prioritizes survival over happiness

This default to planning is part of our evolutionary history. Its value is evident in the effortless persistence and universality with which it occurs. Mind-body programs like yoga and mindfulness are indicative of the yearning many people have to be in the happier present moment.

How we use our attention is central to our emotional well-being, and many mind-body programs are based on training our minds to be more skillful in this way.

Mindfulness training, for example, asks students to direct their attention to the sensations of breathing. And while that may seem easy, the mind resists, tenaciously. So, despite repeated resolve, a person finds that, within seconds, attention has effortlessly defaulted to planning daydreams.

Just recognizing this feature is progress.

In those moments when you do manage to notice these thoughts with some detachment, their dogged concern with past and future becomes clear. And planning’s semi-vigilant (“What could go wrong here?”) orientation also becomes clear.

We begin to notice that this hoping, comparing and regretting is often concerned with family and friends, job and money – themes of relationship, status and power that are central to the survival of tribal primates. All set against the background knowledge of our passing.

Our bodies take notice

Traditional meditation teachings attribute our everyday unease to the bodily tightening that naturally accompanies the possibility of loss, failure and unfulfilled dreams embedded within this narrative. It’s a tension that is often unnoticed in the midst of managing everyday demands, but its background discomfort sends us looking for relief in something more pleasant like a snack, a screen, a drink or a drug.

Mindfulness makes us more aware of these preoccupations and reorients attention to the senses. These, by their nature, are oriented to the present – hence the almost clichéd “being in the moment” idiom.

So, when you notice yourself tense and preoccupied with anxious thoughts, try shifting your attention to the sensations of your breathing, wherever you notice it in your body. Bodily tension naturally dissipates with the shift in focus, and a feeling of greater calm follows. Don’t expect attention to stay there; it won’t. Just notice that attention goes back to worries, and gently return it to breathing.

Try it for just a couple of minutes.

Other mind-body programs use similar principles

It would be nearly impossible to design studies comparing all the techniques that cultivate mindfulness. But my more than four decades experience as a practitioner, clinician and researcher of several popular mind-body programs suggests that most techniques use similar principles to recover the present moment.

Yoga and tai chi, for example, direct attention to the flow of sensations accompanying the sequence of movements. In contrast, systems such as cognitive therapy, self-compassion, prayer and visualization counter the ambient narrative’s unsettling tone with more reassuring thoughts and images.

Just a little practice makes this universal mental tendency, and your ability to shift it, more apparent in the midst of activities. The reduced arousal that results means that stress-related hormones dissipate, allowing feel-good ones like serotonin and dopamine to be restored in the brain as the happier here and now becomes woven into the fabric of everyday life.

Source : The Conversation

Study: Ooh là là! Music evokes at least 13 emotions

Yasmin Anwar wrote . . . . . . . . .

The “Star-Spangled Banner” stirs pride. Ed Sheeran’s “The Shape of You” sparks joy. And “ooh là là!” best sums up the seductive power of George Michael’s “Careless Whispers.”

UC Berkeley scientists have surveyed more than 2,500 people in the United States and China about their emotional responses to these and thousands of other songs from genres including rock, folk, jazz, classical, marching band, experimental and heavy metal.

The upshot? The subjective experience of music across cultures can be mapped within at least 13 overarching feelings: Amusement, joy, eroticism, beauty, relaxation, sadness, dreaminess, triumph, anxiety, scariness, annoyance, defiance, and feeling pumped up.

“Imagine organizing a massively eclectic music library by emotion and capturing the combination of feelings associated with each track. That’s essentially what our study has done,” said study lead author Alan Cowen, a UC Berkeley doctoral student in neuroscience.

The findings are set to appear this week in the online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We have rigorously documented the largest array of emotions that are universally felt through the language of music,” said study senior author Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology.

Cowen and fellow researchers have translated the data into an interactive audio map where visitors can move their cursors to listen to any of thousands of music snippets to find out, among other things, if their emotional reactions match how people from different cultures respond to the music.

Potential applications for these research findings range from informing psychological and psychiatric therapies designed to evoke certain feelings to helping music streaming services like Spotify adjust their algorithms to satisfy their customers’ audio cravings or set the mood.

While both U.S. and Chinese study participants identified similar emotions — such as feeling fear when hearing the “Jaws” movie score — they differed on whether those emotions made them feel good or bad.

“People from different cultures can agree that a song is angry, but can differ on whether that feeling is positive or negative,” said Cowen, noting that positive and negative values, known in psychology parlance as “valence,” are more culture-specific.

Across cultures, study participants mostly agreed on general emotional characterizations of musical sounds, such as anger, joy and annoyance. But their opinions varied on the level of “arousal,” which refers in the study to the degree of calmness or stimulation evoked by a piece of music.

How they conducted the study

For the study, more than 2,500 people in the United States and China were recruited via Amazon Mechanical Turk’s crowdsourcing platform.

First, volunteers scanned thousands of videos on YouTube for music evoking a variety of emotions. From those, the researchers built a collection of audio clips to use in their experiments.

Next, nearly 2,000 study participants in the United States and China each rated some 40 music samples based on 28 different categories of emotion, as well as on a scale of positivity and negativity, and for levels of arousal.

Using statistical analyses, the researchers arrived at 13 overall categories of experience that were preserved across cultures and found to correspond to specific feelings, such as “depressing” or “dreamy.”

To ensure the accuracy of these findings in a second experiment, nearly 1,000 people from the United States and China rated over 300 additional Western and traditional Chinese music samples that were specifically intended to evoke variations in valence and arousal. Their responses validated the 13 categories.

Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” made people feel energized. The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” pumped them up. Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” evoked sensuality and Israel (Iz) Kamakawiwoʻole’s “Somewhere over the Rainbow” elicited joy.

Meanwhile, heavy metal was widely viewed as defiant and, just as its composer intended, the shower scene score from the movie “Psycho” triggered fear.

Researchers acknowledge that some of these associations may be based on the context in which the study participants had previously heard a certain piece of music, such as in a movie or YouTube video. But this is less likely the case with traditional Chinese music, with which the findings were validated.

Cowen and Keltner previously conducted a study in which they identified 27 emotions in response to visually evocative YouTube video clips. For Cowen, who comes from a family of musicians, studying the emotional effects of music seemed like the next logical step.

“Music is a universal language, but we don’t always pay enough attention to what it’s saying and how it’s being understood,” Cowen said. “We wanted to take an important first step toward solving the mystery of how music can evoke so many nuanced emotions.”

Source: UC Berkerley

The Newest Way to Understand the Angry People in Your Life

Susan Krauss Whitbourne wrote . . . . . . . . .

Anyone can have trouble controlling their anger from time to time. You may be frustrated because you’ve just made a huge mistake in a big project and have to start again from scratch. Perhaps you’re stuck in a long commute and will be an hour late getting home. You might be angry at a relative who just won’t back off from demanding your time and attention. All of these are situations that can lead anyone to yell out in rage, if only at the fates.

How about people you know who chronically seem ready to explode with little or no provocation? What kinds of situations arouse them to higher and higher levels of fury, or are they always on the verge of exploding over nothing? And when they release their anger, what happens next? They’ve yelled at their partner over practically nothing, and now the partner walks out the door, annoyed and disgusted at being treated in such a rude and offensive manner. This rejection only inspires even more of their outrage.

Why might anger be such a problem for some people? According to psychologist Nienke de Bles and colleagues (2019), of Leiden University in the Netherlands, the source of both chronic anger and episodes of rage may lie in the psychological disorders of anxiety and depression. For example, the authors note that there is a surprisingly high 50% rate of irritability among people with major depressive disorder, with 26 to 49% experiencing attacks of anger. People with dysthymia, a chronic but less extreme form of depressive disorder, have a similarly high rate of anger attacks, estimated at 28 to 53%. Among people with an anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder, there are also high rates of hostility and anger.

As impressive as these statistics are, the Dutch authors believe that the data may be flawed. Research studies establishing these percentages used measures of anger that, the research team points out, were not sufficiently validated. In some cases, the statistics were based on very short tests of anger and irritability, ranging from a single item to perhaps four drawn from another assessment not initially intended to examine anger.

Furthermore, previous studies didn’t separate what’s known as “trait” anger (the tendency to be angry all the time) from “state” anger (being enraged at the time of testing). As the authors note, “Making a distinction between patients with an angry disposition as a constant factor embedded in personality, and patients that respond angrily to an immediate situation, is of clinical importance”.

To test the role of both forms of anger in anxiety and depressive disorders, de Bles et al. drew participants from a large-scale longitudinal study based in the Netherlands that followed people for a period of four years. The original sample consisted of nearly 2,900 adults ages 18 to 65 years of age recruited from a variety of treatment sites in the community, although there were also controls who did not have a lifetime history of psychological disorders. The data for the anger study came from nearly 2,300 who participated in the fourth wave of the follow-up.

Included in the study were not only the anger scales but also demographic measures including educational background, body mass index, smoking history, lifetime history of alcohol dependence and abuse, and use of drugs in the past month. The average age of the sample was 46 years old, with most between 33 and 59 years of age; two-thirds were female. As might be expected in a psychiatric sample, those with anxiety and depressive disorders were more likely to smoke, had higher body mass, and reported having a history of alcohol dependence and abuse.

To measure trait anger, the Dutch authors asked participants to complete a 10-item scale widely used in personality research. Half of the trait anger items assessed a general disposition for experiencing anger and eventually expressing it (temperament); the remaining five asked whether participants were more likely to express anger after some sort of provocation. Sample trait items were “I get annoyed quickly” and “I am quickly irritated.” The tendency to express anger in the form of an outburst, or the more state-like quality, was tapped by a self-report scale in which participants stated that they frequently experienced irritation, overreacted to minor annoyances, inappropriately expressed anger and rage toward others, and had at least one anger attack in the past month. To be counted as an anger attack, participants had to check off symptoms such as feeling their heart was racing or short of breath, trembling, feeling dizzy, sweating, feeling like attacking others, and throwing or destroying objects.

The researchers divided their participants into five diagnostic groups that included those with a current depressive disorder (204 participants), anxiety disorder (288), comorbid (joint) depressive and anxiety disorder (222), no psychiatric diagnosis (470), and a history of past anxiety and/or depressive disorder that was no longer active (1107). As the authors predicted, the scores on the trait anger measures were highest in the comorbid anxiety and depression group, with approximately 45% classified as above the 75th percentile of scores. The combined group also had a higher prevalence of anger attacks, at approximately 23% within the past month. The highest rates of anger attacks occurred for people with major depressive disorder and, of the anxiety disorders, social phobia, panic disorder, and especially generalized anxiety disorder.

Of all the other predictors, only past month use of a drug predicted higher rates of anger attacks. However, participants with remitted disorders also had higher trait anger scores and rates of anger attacks, so that even in recovery, anger remains a problem for individuals with a history of these psychological disorders.

An important takeaway from this study, according to the authors, is that clinicians working with people who have these disorders may easily overlook the trait of anger and anger attacks because “they are not part of core … symptoms, and insight and self-consciousness of feelings of anger may be hampered”. Notably, people who experienced worry and symptoms of depression had higher levels of anger, suggesting a more general problem with emotion dysregulation, or the inability to maintain control over their feelings. It is also important, as the authors point out, to address anger among people with these psychological disorders as a public health precaution, given the many adverse outcomes that can be associated with an anger outburst in people whose anxiety and depression go untreated.

To sum up, the study shows the unrecognized but important role of anger in psychological disorders not usually conceived of in terms of the tendency to experience rage. Looking at the findings from another perspective, if people you know seem unusually angry and ready to explode, consider the possibility that anxiety and depression may be the source of their emotional turmoil. Helping them manage their psychological disorders may prove, in the long run, to help them be better able to manage their angry emotions.

Source: Psychology Today

Spending Time on Cultural Activities Might Extend Senior’s Life

Amy Norton wrote . . . . . . . . .

If you’re a senior who loves to take in the latest art exhibit or check out a new musical, it might do more than stimulate your senses: New research suggests it could lengthen your life.

Scientists found that among over 6,700 older adults they tracked, patrons of the arts had a markedly better survival rate over the next 14 years.

People who, at the outset, devoted time to cultural activities at least every few months were 31% less likely to die during the study period, versus those who never did.

The findings do not prove the arts will extend your life. But they do add to evidence that “engaging in the arts can help promote good health,” said lead researcher Daisy Fancourt, an associate professor at University College London, in the United Kingdom.

And you don’t have to be the artist. According to Fancourt, a body of research suggests that “receptive” arts involvement can benefit physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Walking around a museum might not be a workout, but it does replace sedentary time on the couch. Being immersed in music, art, dance or theater can also provide mental stimulation, a balm for stress or depression, and a chance to socialize.

“Participating in the arts should not be something you do when everything else is OK in your life,” said Dr. Nicola Gill, of Health Education England, part of the U.K. health service. “It should be something you do as part of everyday living. The richer your tapestry of life, the better able you are to survive and thrive.”

Gill co-wrote an editorial accompanying the study published online in the BMJ.

The findings were based on 6,710 U.K. adults who were, on average, 66 years old at the start. Over 3,000 said they attended arts events infrequently (once or twice a year), while 1,900 did so frequently (at least every few months).

Over the next 14 years, both groups had a lower death rate compared with people who were uninvolved in the arts. In that latter group, the death rate was 47%, versus 27% in the group that made time for the arts once or twice a year.

The lowest death rate was seen among people who frequently attended arts events — at just under 19%, the findings showed.

Of course, there are many other differences among those groups of people, Fancourt said. Most obviously, older adults who are healthier and wealthier can more easily see concerts, plays and art exhibits.

So her team accounted for people’s wealth, education level, marital status and whether they lived in urban or rural areas. And those factors did not account for the longevity edge.

Arts patrons did tend to score higher on tests of memory and thinking, have fewer disabilities, and be more physically and socially active in general.

Still, those differences explained only part of the arts-longevity link, the researchers said.

Does that mean there’s something unique about the arts that promotes a longer (hopefully better) life? Not necessarily.

If you dislike museums, devoting time to them probably wouldn’t benefit you, noted James Maddux, a senior scholar with the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va.

And, he said, there’s nothing to say that people couldn’t get similar benefits from other activities that get them out of the house and socializing — whether that’s seeing movies or sports, or taking a hike in the woods.

“I wouldn’t want people to get the idea that these [arts] activities are the ones everyone should be doing,” said Maddux, who was not involved in the study.

Instead, he sees the findings as more evidence that it’s important to fill your life with meaningful activities.

A question the study leaves open is whether participation in the arts — not only being an audience member — is related to a longer life.

“Is it even better to take a painting class or dance lessons?” Maddux said. “That might enhance your experience of seeing exhibits or performances.”

In addition, Fancourt’s team noted, the study participants were surveyed at only one time point: It’s not clear whether you would need to be a lifelong arts fan to see a longevity benefit — or whether the same holds true for retirees who newly discover the theater.

Source: HealthDay


Today’s Comic

Lifestyle Strategies Ease Some Bladder Control Problems

Dana Sparks wrote . . . . . . . . .

If you’ve been struggling with the embarrassment and discomfort of a bladder control problem, you may be looking for ways to improve it. Fortunately, there are simple lifestyle changes that may improve bladder control or enhance response to medication.

Health care providers often call these strategies lifestyle modifications or behavior therapies. They’re safe, easy, effective and inexpensive. You can try these techniques before trying other types of treatment, such as medications or surgery, or in combination with them.

Focus on fluids and food

How much fluid you drink can influence your bladder habits, and so might certain foods you eat.

Too much fluid

Drinking too much fluid makes you urinate more often. Drinking too much too quickly can overwhelm your bladder, creating a strong sense of urgency.

Even if you need to drink more because you exercise a lot or work outdoors you don’t have to drink all fluids at once. Try drinking smaller amounts throughout the day, such as 16 ounces (473 milliliters) at each meal and 8 ounces (237 milliliters) between meals.

If you get up several times at night to urinate:

  • Drink more of your fluids in the morning and afternoon rather than at night
  • Skip alcohol and beverages with caffeine, such as coffee, tea and cola, which increase urine production
  • Remember that fluids come not only from beverages, but also from foods such as soup

Too little fluid

Drinking too little fluid can lead to a buildup of body waste products in your urine. Highly concentrated urine is dark yellow and has a strong smell. It can irritate your bladder, increasing the urge and frequency with which you need to go.

Bladder irritants

Certain foods and beverages might irritate your bladder, including:

  • Coffee, tea and carbonated drinks, even without caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Certain acidic fruits — oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes — and fruit juices
  • Spicy foods
  • Tomato-based products
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Chocolate

Consider avoiding these possible bladder irritants for about a week to see if your symptoms improve. Then gradually — every one to two days — add one back into your diet, noting any changes in urinary urgency, frequency or incontinence.

You might not have to eliminate your favorite foods and drinks entirely. Simply cutting down on the amount might help, too.

Try bladder training

When you have an overactive bladder, you can get used to urinating frequently or at the slightest urge. Sometimes, you might visit the toilet when you don’t have the urge because you want to avoid an accident. After a while, your bladder begins sending “full” messages to your brain even when it’s not full, and you feel like you have to urinate.

Bladder training, or retraining, involves adjusting your habits. You go to the toilet on a set schedule — even if you have no urge to urinate — gradually increasing the time between urination. This allows your bladder to fill more fully and gives you more control over the urge to urinate.

A bladder-training program usually follows these basic steps:

  • Identify your pattern. For a few days, keep a diary in which you note every time you urinate. Your health care provider can use this diary to help you make a schedule for your bladder training.
  • Extend your urination intervals. Using your bladder diary, determine the amount of time between urinating. Then extend that by 15 minutes. If you usually go every hour, try to extend that to an hour and 15 minutes. Gradually lengthen the time between trips to the toilet until you reach intervals of two to four hours. Be sure to increase your time limit slowly to give yourself the best chance for success.
  • Stick to your schedule. Once you’ve established a schedule, do your best to stick to it. Urinate immediately after you wake up in the morning. Thereafter, if an urge arises, but it’s not time for you to go, try to wait it out. Distract yourself or use relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing.If you feel you’re going to have an accident, go to the toilet but then return to your schedule.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t succeed the first few times. Keep practicing, and your ability to maintain control is likely to increase.

Strengthen your pelvic floor

Your pelvic floor muscles and urinary sphincter help control urination. You can strengthen these muscles by regularly doing pelvic floor exercises, commonly referred to as Kegels.

The pelvic floor muscles open and close the tube that carries urine from the bladder to outside your body (urethra). These muscles also support the bladder during everyday activities such as walking, standing, lifting and sneezing.

  • Practice Kegel exercises. To perform, squeeze your pelvic floor muscles — as if you’re trying to stop your stream of urine — for three seconds. Relax for a count of three and repeat several times. Your doctor might recommend that you do a set of these exercises three or four times a day, lying down, sitting and standing.To be sure you’re doing them correctly, ask your doctor or nurse to help you or to refer you to a physical therapist knowledgeable about pelvic floor exercises.
  • Biofeedback. Biofeedback can help train pelvic floor muscles. Sensors placed near the muscles transmit exertion levels to a computer, which displays the levels on the screen. This immediate feedback may help you master Kegel exercises more quickly because you can see whether you’re using the correct muscles. Biofeedback can be done with a professional or with a home device.
  • Vaginal weights. Cone-shaped weights are another option used to help with Kegel exercises. You place a weight in your vagina and contract your pelvic floor muscles to keep it from falling out. Many cones come in sets of varying weights, so you can build up to heavier weights as your pelvic floor muscles strengthen.

Control contributing factors

Certain medications, excess weight, smoking and physical inactivity can contribute to bladder control problems. If you address these factors, bladder-specific techniques — such as avoiding bladder irritants and bladder training — might be more successful.

  • Manage your medications. Drugs that might contribute to bladder control problems include high blood pressure drugs, heart medications, diuretics, muscle relaxants, antihistamines, sedatives and antidepressants. If you develop incontinence or difficulty urinating while taking these drugs, talk to your doctor.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight can contribute to bladder control problems, particularly stress incontinence. Excessive body weight puts pressure on your abdomen and bladder, sometimes resulting in leakage. Losing weight might help.
  • Stop smoking. Smokers are more likely to have bladder control problems and to have more-severe symptoms. Heavy smokers also tend to develop a chronic cough, which can place added pressure on the bladder and aggravate urinary incontinence.
  • Be active. Some studies indicate that regular physical activity improves bladder control. Try for at least 30 minutes of low-impact moderate activity — such as walking briskly, biking or swimming — most days of the week.
  • Minimize constipation. Straining during bowel movements can damage the pelvic floor. Unfortunately, some medications used to treat bladder control problems can worsen constipation. Exercising, drinking enough water and eating high-fiber foods, such as lentils, beans, and fresh vegetables and fruit, might help improve constipation.
  • Manage chronic cough. Your cough could be making your bladder problem worse. See your doctor about treatment options.

Source: Mayo Clinic