Emotional Resilience Blog from The Fear Course

The latest research, realisations and thinking in the world of emotional resilience, anxiety and fear reduction from around the world.

Having a goal can help stress and anxiety, but....

Having a goal can help stress and anxiety, but....

One of the areas researchers are examining in more detail at the moment in the area of anxiety, fear and stress management is that of the role of goals. There is a growing body of evidence that our goals, what we want to achieve and work towards, has a direct and lasting effect on our levels of anxiety and stress. Over the next few posts I will look at some of the latest research evidence about how changing your goals can make a marked impact on your levels of anxiety, fear, stress and even depression.

The first study I will look at was conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry, Seattle Pacific University, and Ohio State University.
This is a rather interesting neurological study looking at the pathway and process ( hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis) that produces cortisol, the stress hormone.

(For more information about cortisol and it's role with stress, anxiety and fear see my article here http://www.fearcourse.com/Th-link-between-anxiety-stress-and-cortisol.html).

As I mentioned, there is a growing body of research which is showing that having goals and a focus helps the alleviate stress, anxiety and even depression.

This study (to be published in June) looked at the ability of two different types of goal to reduce stress (cortisol levels) in 54 subjects.
The subjects had their cortisol levels tested before and after a stress induction process and then again after setting and working towards one of two different types of goal, or not working towards any goal (control group).
The first type of goal was for the subjects to promote themselves and do better than the other subjects in a series of tasks (a competitive self-serving goal).
The second goal was to help the other people (a compassionate, altruistic goal).

The cortisol/stress levels of the control group who didn't have any goal to work towards remained high after the stress induction and did not reduce.
The subjects who worked towards the competitive and self-serving goals actually saw their stress/cortisol levels increase.
However the subjects who were working on compassionate goals of helping someone else, saw significant drops in stress and cortisol levels.

Interestingly, the researchers then got the subjects who were following the competitive, self-serving goal to switch to a compassionate, altruistic goal, their increased stress levels went into reverse and fell significantly. The other subjects were asked to switch goals from their compassionate goal to a more competitive, self-serving goal and they had significant increases in stress.

So if you want to help yourself to reduce stress, help someone else. Helping yourself and competing against others just increases stress.

Do you listen to podcasts? I have just started a weekly podcast called David Wilkinson's Calm, composed & confident. It has a weekly round up of anxiety busting tips, the latest research, tools and techniques.

The podcast is free and available here via iTunes.

 

Reference
Ableson, J.L. etal (2014) Brief cognitive intervention can modulate neuroendocrine stress responses to the Trier Social Stress Test: Buffering effects of a compassionate goal orientation. Psychoneuroendocrinology Volume 44, June 2014, Pages 60–70

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The Key to a Happy Marriage lies ... with the wife.

The Key to a Happy Marriage lies ... with the wife.

One of the factors which helps us have successful interpersonal and social relationships is the ability to regulate our own emotions. For example if someone we like does something we don't like quite often we will just gloss over the incident. The same applies, but in a slightly different way, if the boss does something we don't like, we might mutter about it but we 'bite our tongue' and get on with it. If however we have reached the end of our tether we might just let it all go and have an angry outburst. There are some obvious career limiting aspects about this last option.


In a study just published in the journal Emotion, researchers from Stanford University found that the secret to martial satisfaction lay in the ability of the couple to be able to recover effectively and quickly from conflict or "hot button" incidents. The quicker and more fully the couple are able to recover from such incidents, and not hold on to them, the greater the levels of satisfaction the couple tend feel about the relationship.

However the research goes further.

They discovered that the key to a satisfying relationship lies with the wife. If the wife is able to up-regulate positive emotions and down-regulate negative emotions (see this article for an explanation of up and down regulation) then there is a much higher chance of the relationship being happier. The researchers found that wives who calmed down quickly also tended to be able to employ constructive communication strategies. Such strategies include behaviours like clearly expressing her feelings and suggesting solutions and compromises to the problem at hand. This contrasts with destructive communication strategies, such as criticizing, blaming and holding on to hurt. Constructive communication is more likely to result in conflict resolution, thereby positively impacting marital satisfaction.

Why exactly it is the wife that holds the key to the emotional health of the relationship is open to speculation.

The point for me is that if both members of the marriage work together to actively deal with conflicts, as opposed to blaming, criticising or just avoiding the issue, both are likely to have a happier and more satisfying relationship.

It would appear, for whatever reason, a calm wife equals a calm marriage which in turn is more likely to equal a satisfying marriage. 

 

Reference

Bloch, L., Haase, C. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2014) Emotion regulation predicts marital satisfaction: More than a wives' tale. Emotion, Vol 14(1), Feb 2014, 130-144. doi: 10.1037/a0034272

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Feeling low? It could be your social media friends...or the weather... or you!

Feeling low? It could be your social media friends...or the weather... or you!

Are you having a good day? Share it! Having a bad day? Keep it to yourself!

An interesting study published last week by a team of researchers from The University of California, San Diago, Yale and Facebook have found that a phenomenon I am currently writing about in my next book, emotional contagion, or how we catch emotions from each other, is present in social networks like twitter and Facebook. 
This paper has been quite widely reported in a number of news networks in the last few days, however there are some other findings that were not reported.

The main finding you may have read about, is that if someone in your online social network expresses a negative or a positive emotion we are likely to be influenced by that emotion. So say one of your Facebook friends days she is feeling depressed today, this is quite likely to have a negative effect on the other people in her network. This is called emotional contagion. We catch other peoples emotions.

What has not been reported as widely however, when you read the actual paper, is that this effect works for both negative and positive emotions. So happy people spread happiness and miserable people spread misery. Emotional contagion is a well documented phenomenon and I am not surprised to find it happening across social networks. However another finding from this paper is a little more interesting. If a thread starts on a negative, say someone in your network posts a message that they are not happy and this feeling effects other people and messages of sympathy start to build one positive post in the thread can stop the contagion and even turn it around. The opposite was also found. If there is a positive wave of emotion being expressed between friends one negative post can often stop the positive emotions dead in their tracks. 
This then, gives us the possibility to turn around and control the wave of emotion contagion.

A third and lesser finding was a fairly direct correlation with rain and chance of negative emotions being expressed and therefore caught even in places it isn’t raining!

There was one side effect happening I noticed in the data. The study was done across 100 US cities and I also noticed that people in New York City appeared to be influenced more negatively by rain than people in almost any other city. They also tended to be more vocal about it and affected, in turn, negatively, more people! 

Oh and to end on a positive, the researchers found a trend (not significant and therefore could be due to chance) that positive emotions tend to spread further.

Have a good day. :-)

Reference:

Coviello L, Sohn Y, Kramer ADI, Marlow C, Franceschetti M, et al. (2014) Detecting Emotional Contagion in Massive Social Networks. PLoS ONE 9(3): e90315. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0090315What's your social media poison? Facebook, Twitter, Pinetrest? A study published

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Flight MH370; Fear, Anxiety and uncertainty

Flight MH370; Fear, Anxiety and uncertainty

Its a week since flight MH370 disappeared on it's night time flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and the grief of relatives has turned to a mixture of grief, fear and anxiety as new facts emerge about the strange movements of the flight that night and the revelation that the aircraft's transponder appears to have been manually turned off, coupled with the mystery about the two passengers who boarded the plane using stolen passports. As the situation unfolds the poor relatives are left with confusing, conflicting and ambiguous reports and a heavy uncertainty prevails about the fate of their loved ones.

As human beings, we have a natural tendency to want certainty, particularly in stressful situations. Not knowing and ambiguity adds to the stress and increases fear and anxiety. The ambiguity of this situation is undoubtedly making the situation worse for the relatives as grief and fear swings to hope as the possibility of a hijack appears to be back on the agenda again, which in turn leads to anxiety.

Uncertainty and ambiguity makes fear and anxiety worse. It leaves us without control. The lack of control means that there are few if any actions we can take to make the situation better or at least distract us from the grief, at least temporarily. As an ex-police officer I have seen this occur on many occasions where we were searching for a missing child and the parents have had to stay at home in case the child returned and also to keep the emotion out of the search procedures. The effect on the poor parents, having little control and awash with the emotions of fear, anxiety and grief and nothing to do that can at least distract them and give the feeling they are at least doing something is terrible.

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Research into the blindingly obvious...

Research into the blindingly obvious...

I get a lot of research about anxiety, emotion regulation and emotional resilience across my desk on a daily basis. Much of it is pretty specialist about specific neurochemicals or the effects of certain constituents of drugs on a particular symptom for example. Some of it is truly useful to my clients in a practical way and some of it like the last blog on Chocolate is just interesting. Now and then however you find a paper or a report of a paper that makes you shake your head and wonder why they bothered.

In a paper published today, entitled 'A person-by-situation approach to emotion regulation' researchers found that in certain contexts using of the skills of emotion regulation might actually be harmful.

The example one of the researchers uses is "...for someone experiencing trouble at work because of poor performance, for example, reappraisal might not be so adaptive. Reframing the situation to make it seem less negative may make that person less inclined to attempt to change the situation."

Basically what this is saying that if you use (misuse I would say) your emotion regulation skills to feel better about something you can and should be changing like being late for work, it could be psychologically harmful! Oh really? Yup using one of your skills to feel better about being late for work is quite likely to get you fired.

As I say on the Fear Course with a couple of the more powerful techniques I teach. Be sensible about what fears you kill with this technique. For example if you have a fear of standing on the edge of crumbling cliff tops, it might well be wise to allow that fear to remain.

As the researchers point out. Context is important. No sh*t Sherlock.

To be fair one of the researchers does point out "Adaptive emotion regulation likely involves the ability to use a wide variety of strategies in different contexts, rather than relying on just one strategy in all contexts."

Likely?? Pretty certain I would say. Having one technique for dealing with your emotions is like trying to refloat the titanic with the aid of a small sponge. 

Which is why we teach a whole tool kit of strategies and techniques to deal with fear and anxiety and increase confidence along with the tools required to make the decision about when to use them. 

Reference
Troy, A.S. Et Al (2013) A Person-by-Situation Approach to Emotion Regulation: Cognitive Reappraisal Can Either Help or Hurt, Depending on the Context. Psychological Science October 2013.

  

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Does chocolate really affect our mood? New research

Does chocolate really affect our mood? New research

There are a few foods which are considered to be uppers or mood enhancers. Chillies, bananas and of course chocolate for example. As for the latter there have been lots of claims for chocolate over the years and one of them has been a fairly consistent claim that chocolate has a positive impact on mood. Most of the claims have been fairly anecdotal and what little research has been done is either very small scale or have been fairly ropey first publications by students.

However the first systematic review of all of the current high quality research has been published today. In an article titled 'Effects of chocolate on cognitive function and mood: a systematic review' researchers from the Centre for Human Psychopharmacology, in Melbourne Australia and Keel University in the UK have gone through the scientific evidence to find out if there is any really any substance behind the claims.

Firstly they could only find eight scientific, valid and reliable studies of the effect of chocolate, or more properly cocoa flavanols, cocoa polyphenols and methylxanthine, on mood. By any measure 8 studies isn't exactly a lot!

Anyway, when they reviewed these studies they found that five of the studies found clear evidence of either an improvement in mood or a reduction of a negative mood after the consumption of chocolate. Two studies couldn't find any effect and the last one was inconclusive.

Most poeple will take 5 out of 8 as a result!

The question then turns to whether the mood elevation properties of chocolate is actually down to something that actually happens in the brain or it is what scientists call an orosensory effect. In other words does chocolate or something in the chocolate change the brain or it's chemicals in some way or is it a psychological effect based on the taste, smell and texture of the chocolate, probably linked to memories of our youth?

At the moment the research is unclear about what is causing the effect however two studies (oddly the ones that reported no behavioural affect) found an acute change in brain functioning following the consumption of cocoa polyphenols.

Reading between the lines it would appear that it is likely that chocolate or more properly a mixture of cocoa and sugar does have a mood elevation effect and can even help elevate your mood when it is 'down'. to some extent. It also is likely that it is both the association of the feeling we have when eating chocolate (taste, texture and smell) and active ingredients in the sugar and cocoa that bring about a sense of mood elevation. This effect may then amplified bythe orosensory effects of actually eating the chocolate. 

There is no evidence yet of how long these effects last or whether it has a compound effect, i.e. the more chocolate you eat the better you feel. More research needs to be done on this.

As to whether chocolate can be used as part of an emotion regulation strategy...  You might like to run some of your own experiments! Let me know what you find.

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Reference
Scholey, A. & Owen, L. (2013) Effects of chocolate on cognitive function and mood: a systematic review. Nutrition Reviews Volume 71, Issue 10, pages 665–681, October 2013

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When you think about it, you don't think about it. Until…

When you think about it, you don't think about it. Until…

When you think about it to successfully navigate day-to-day relationships at home and at work, we have to have pretty effective emotion regulation strategies. Imagine what would happen if we didn't regulate our emotions continually. Every minor annoyance, frustration and fancy would have us reacting in ways that would be completely socially unacceptable. We would become victims of our emotions, acting on the almost moment by moment variations in emotion we have have during the day.

From the moment we wake up, we regulate the swathe of emotions often without even being aware of it. Just going to work in the morning is a triumph of emotion regulation. The alarm goes off, I am sure there are likely to be other things you would rather be doing than getting up and going to work. The tooth paste has run out or you don't have time for breakfast when you would probably rather putting your feet up, reading the paper and having a leisurely breakfast.
Driving or taking public transport, again is an assault course of emotional obstacles. Even seeing something you fancy like a bar of chocolate or an attractive stranger and deciding not to just take them is another success of emotion regulation. It's an almost minute by minute task, and we rarely notice it happening.
Most of us are regulating our emotions continually, without thought and without effort.
For a short period today, just notice how much you are successfully and automatically regulating your emotions. You might be amazed.

The problem comes when our emotions move out of the everyday sphere of automatic regulatory control and they themselves take control of our behaviour on a more regular basis. When anxiety or anger for instance, expands across a boundary to become a feature rather than a background and unnoticed emotion, to start affecting our lives and often the lives of others then things can start to go wrong.

In the next series of blogs I will have a look at what happens when our emotions come to prominence and take hold. I will look at the six base emotions of Fear (obviously), Anger, Sadness, Hurt, Guilt and Attachment.

 

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