Lessons From The Arctic Circle On Handling Depression

Though it has been documented since ancient times, clinical depression is viewed as an increasingly problematic affliction of the modern world — as of 2010, close to 300 million people, or 4 percent of all humans, were diagnosed with clinical depression, including 17 percent of Americans. (As this number obviously does not include undiagnosed, this already sizeable sum of sufferers is likely much larger.) Needless to say, this is a major public health problem warranting more understanding and treatment.

But who would guess that Tromsø, a small Norwegian town of around 70,000 located 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, might hold the key to deciphering the causes of depression and its solution?

As year-long resident of Tromsø, Kari Leibowitz, observes in The Atlantic, the town hardly seems like the sort of place that would accommodate a stress-free life, for while it is well governed and features all the modern amenities of a developed-world community, its location makes it subject to extreme variations in light. Continue reading

Trauma Can Run In Our DNA

It is not surprising that the impact of trauma often transcends generations; after all, the psychological and behavioral consequences can easily rub off on one’s children. But a recent finding from New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital strongly suggests that trauma is not just socially conditioned, but genetically inheritable.

As the Guardian reports, the study analyzed the genes of children born to Jewish men and women who, in some way or another, had suffered during the Second World War (as camp internees, torture victims, being on the run, etc.). The offspring of these survivors were already known to have an increase chance of stress disorders, and sure enough, results showed that the region of a gene linked to stress was altered in a way not seen in the control group. (The research team confirmed that the changes were not due to any trauma experienced by the children themselves.) Continue reading

The Importance of Gratitude

Though feelings of gratitude should be a regular activity, one might as well take advantage of the spotlight offered by Thanksgiving to reflect deeply on both what we are grateful for, and why gratefulness itself is so important.

The Greater Good Science Center, based in the University of Berkeley, California, unveils the social, psychological, and even physical benefits of practicing gratitude, as told by a leading expert on the subject, Robert Emmons.

The social benefits are especially significant here because, after all, gratitude is a social emotion. I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.

Indeed, this cuts to very heart of my definition of gratitude, which has two components. First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good thing in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.

The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride. We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.

Emmons’ research on the power of regular thankfulness has gleaned four “transformative” effects: Continue reading

How Awe Can Heal

Among the feelings and experiences that transcend all cultures, languages, and civilizations is the sense of awe and wonder one has upon reflecting on the beauty of nature, a masterful work of art, or some other emotionally captivating sensory experience. While we all enjoy such feelings, most of us would probably never imagine that they could be good for our health.

But according to recent study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, embracing the beauty of the world — be it artwork, music, wilderness, etc. — has a measurable positive impact on both mental and physical wellness. As The Telegraph reports:

In two separate experiments on more than 200 young adults reported on a given day the extent to which they had experienced such positive emotions as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride.

Samples of gum and cheek tissue – known as oral mucosal transudate – taken that same day showed those who experienced more of these – in particular wonder and amazement – had the lowest levels of the cytokine Interleukin 6 which is a marker of inflammation.

Psychologist Dr Dacher Keltner, of California University in Berkeley, said: “That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy.”

Cytokines are chemicals necessary for herding cells to the body’s battlegrounds to fight infection, disease and trauma but too many are linked with disorders like type-2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s.

Dr Jennifer Stellar, of Toronto University who was at California University in Berkeley when she carried out the study, said: “Our findings demonstrate positive emotions are associated with the markers of good health.”

This is also one of the first studies to explore the role of cytokine in depression as well as autoimmune diseases; people with clinical depression also tended to have higher levels of inflammation, showing yet another correlation between physical and mental health. By feeling awed, curious, and captivated by something, individuals who would otherwise be withdrawn from the world’s beauty and left to wallow in self-perpetuating sadness and poor health can enjoy a palpable respite.

To be sure, these are the results of one relatively small study, involving a little over 200 young adults, and the researchers are by no means advocating nature or art as a substitute for medication, therapy, and the like. But this does confirm a long-standing observation of how a sense of awe of the world around us — be it natural or human-made — is good for mind, body, and soul (whether you define the latter in secular or spiritual terms).

Speaking for myself, I can definitely attest to feeling at my calmest and least depressed when I am listening to a brilliant composition or immersing myself in nature (even at a park or my own backyard). It has not always worked, nor should be expected to, but even the mere thought of all the beauty there is to embrace and experience is enough to comfort me during some of my darkest moments. Our species needs more than just the basic needs of survival to truly live and flourish. Together with diet, exercise, social support, and a sense of purpose, the fulfilment and stimulation that comes from all the natural and humanmade beauty of the world cannot be understated in importance. It all comes together.

Next time you are feeling sad or otherwise off in some way, consider giving this a try. Again, it is by no means a cure-all nor viable for everyone, but it is a shot. We all need to escape from our heads once in a while, especially if there is a lot despair and sadness stewing around. Never underestimate the sense of inspiration and comfort that well placed wonder can have.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

How Eye Movement May Be as Good as Therapy for Trauma Victims

It is an intriguing if not ridiculous sounding idea, but there is some evidence that an obscure therapeutic practice called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) can be effective at treating people suffering from severe trauma. More from The Atlantic:

Here’s the idea: The person is told to focus on the troubling image or negative thought while simultaneously moving his or her eyes back and forth. To prompt this, the therapist might move his fingers from side to side, or he might use a tapping or waving of a wand. The patient is told to let her mind go blank and notice whatever sensations might come to mind. These steps are repeated throughout the session.

The psychologist Francine Shapiro invented EMDR in the 1980s when she noticed that moving her eyes from side to side seemed to reduce the occurrence of her own distressing memories. Later on, she theorized that trauma causes negative emotions to be stored within the same memory network as a troubling event. EMDR, she says, helps rewire these connections.

Some experts think the eye movements help re-shuffle memories so that when they are stored again, they lose some of their traumatic power.

“People describe that the memories become less vivid and more distant, that they seem further in the past and harder to focus on”, Chris Lee, a psychologist and EMDR practitioner at Murdoch University in Australia, told Scientific American.

Like so many other seemingly unconventional approaches, there is some dispute regarding EMDR’s effectiveness; some meta-analyses have found EMDR to be no better than cognitive-behavioral therapy, while a more recent study found EMDR to work better at alleviating PTSD than other forms of stimuli, or than keeping eyes closed.

Moreover, research shows that EMDR also works faster than other forms of therapy, with the majority of trauma victims seeing palpable benefits after just three 90-minute sessions.

From Syrian refugees and combat veterans, to even obese trauma victims, EMDR  seems to have a lot of promise — little wonder that it has been recommended by prominent institutions like the American Psychiatric Association, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, and the Departments of Defense and of Veterans Affairs.

To be sure, like any therapy or treatment, EMDR cannot help everyone; most people benefit from a combination of techniques and/or medications, often tailored to suit their particular needs. But some types might be more helpful for certain people than others, and it is always good to have more options available, especially options as seemingly simple yet broadly effective as eye movement. Here is hoping more research emerges on this interesting approach.

What are your thoughts?

How Doodling Helps The Brain

From The Atlantic:

For most people, the big question isn’t “when did you start drawing?” but “when did you stop drawing?” Virtually everyone drew and doodled at one point in their lives. For artists and non-artists alike, drawing is about more than art—it’s about the very art of thinking…

…”Drawing with pencil, pen, or brush on paper isn’t just for artists. For anyone who actively exercises the brain, doodling and drawing are ideal for making ideas tangible. What’s more, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, doodlers find it easier to recall dull information (even 29 percent more) than non-doodlers, because the latter are more likely to daydream.

While drawing is definitely the artist’s stock and trade, everyone can make doodles, bypassing the kind of refinement demanded of the artist. Drawing, even in a primitive way, often triggers insights and discoveries that aren’t possible through words alone. Just think of all those napkins (or Post-Its) on which million-dollar ideas were sketched out.”

As a frequent doodler myself, I never really considered any palpable mental and emotional benefits. But in retrospect, there was something relaxing and self-affirming about it — hence why so many people, myself included, tend to doodle during times of boredom.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

Music as Medicine

In the broadest sense of the term ‘medicine’, most would agree without question that music can definitely have positive effects to our mental and emotional well-being. (In a sense it also improves our physical health, insofar as most people cannot engage in exercise without it.)

The Atlantic reports on The Sync Project, a recently launched, Boston-based initiative seeking to further our understanding of the neurological and physical effects of music on humans. The goal is to go beyond anecdotes and produce more measurable evidence for how and why music impacts us, and from there look into any possible medical applications.

You can learn more about this interesting endeavor here, but I am interested in sharing what we do know about music:

Current research into how music affects the body and brain shows that there is at least some degree of influence, physically and psychologically.

For instance, research published in 2005 by Theresa Lesiuk at the University of Windsor, Canada, concluded that music helped to improve the quality and timeliness of office work, as well as overall positive attitudes while people were working on those tasks. A review in 2012 by Costas Karageorghis found there was “evidence to suggest that carefully selected music can promote ergogenic and psychological benefits during high-intensity exercise”. Meanwhile, Stefan Koelsch in Berlin has found “music can evoke activity changes in the core brain regions that underlie emotion“, and physically, “happy” music triggers zygomatic muscle activity—that is, smiling—and “sad” music “leads to the activation of the corrugator muscle”—the frowning muscle in the brow.

“Just because music—or anything else—acts upon a part of the brain, does not mean that mental health can be influenced”, Robert Zatorre, a neurologist at McGill University and a scientific advisor for The Sync Project, wrote in an email. “We need far more sophisticated understandings of what is going on in a given disease before we can really answer” the question of if music can definitively affect mental or physical health. “That said, there are a few promising avenues that people are trying with particular disorders, and hopefully that work will accelerate in future”.

Parkinson’s disease is among those specifically cited as being mitigated by the power of music. I can certainly attest to my depression and anxiety being assuaged by music, though of course a variety of other lifestyles changes contributed.

I look forward to seeing what efforts like The Sync Project discover. What are your thoughts and experiences regarding the medical potential of music therapy?

Less Than a Minute of Nature Can Boost Health

The Atlantic reports on yet another study confirming the benefits of exposure oneself to nature, even for literally a glimpse.

A nice walk through a city park can do wonders for a work-weary brain, reducing mental fatigue and improving attention. But if you’re trapped on the high floors of an office tower all day, you can’t exactly break for a long stroll and a picnic. Well, fear not. If you have a view of a nearby green space, like say a green roof, and even just a minute to spare, you can reap some of the same refreshing benefits of urban nature.

That’s the upshot of a new paper from an Australia-based research team set for publication in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. Their work has found that even taking just 40 seconds to focus on a view of nature can boost “multiple networks of attention”—sharpening your mind to handle the next task dealt by the work day. They call it a “micro-break,” and it turns out your brain loves it:

You can read the details and methodology of the study in the article, but it is certainly not the only research to confirm the importance of nature to human well-being:

The findings certainly fit with all that social science has found in recent years about the restorative power of nature. Whether it’s a walk through a park, a stand of trees out the window, or a mere desk plant, natural views give the working brain a breather—to varying degrees—by engaging our involuntary attention centers. The new conclusion that greenery might work its magic in mere minutes is an especially intriguing prospect in a fast-paced work world. And if green roof simulations were replaced with the real thing, the performance outcomes in the current study might even have been stronger.

I can certainly vouch for this by personal experience. From my regular bouts of anxiety and depression, to good old fashioned work-related stress, pausing for just a moment to focus on my desk plant, visit my garden, or take a stroll through a nearby park has done wonders.

I am glad to work just blocks away from a beautiful public park (and more glad that my job lets me take regular walk breaks). Since I have incorporated this practice into my daily routine, I have seen a notable decline in both the frequency and severity of stress, fatigue, and sadness (although other lifestyle and dietary changes have continued to that as well).

But a few minutes is all it takes to try this out and see the difference.

How Mindfulness Can Help Depression

Mindfulness meditation is one of the biggest trends in both medical and New Age circles. It broadly describes a form of mental training in which one deliberately focuses on emotions, thoughts, and sensory experiences of the present moment. Though it has roots in various religious traditions both Western and Eastern (especially Buddhism), it has long been observed to have secular applications as well, and the practice itself does not require any particular religious ritual or component.

There has been a lot of research showing that mindfulness, like meditation as a whole, has tangible mental and physical health benefits. The most recent study to confirm the benefits of “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)”, as it is known in medical parlance, was published in The Lancet, a leading medical journal. As Al Jazeera reported:

In this study, 424 adults in England with recurrent major depression, who were on maintenance antidepressant drugs, were randomly assigned to go off their antidepressants slowly and receive MBCT or to stay on their medication.

Study results published showed that after two years, relapse rates were similar in both groups — 44 percent in the therapy group versus 47 percent in the antidepressant drug group.

“Mindfulness gives me a set of skills which I use to keep well in the long term”, Nigel Reed, a participant in the study, said in a statement. “Rather than relying on the continuing use of antidepressants, mindfulness puts me in charge, allowing me to take control of my own future, to spot when I am at risk and to make the changes I need to stay well”.

The researchers said that while they found no evidence that [mindfulness] was superior to the use of antidepressants in preventing relapse, they said “both treatments were associated with enduring positive outcomes in terms of relapse or recurrence, residual depressive symptoms and quality of life”.

“We believe these results suggest a new choice for the millions of people with recurrent depression on repeat prescriptions”, Kuyken said.

I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this approach, although it is worth reiterating that this is just one of several ways to combat depression, and by no means is it a wholesale replacement of other therapies (indeed, it is usually complementary).

Solutions will always vary from individual to individual, but with the rate of depression growing across the world, any new options on the table will certainly help; moreover, mindfulness techniques are beneficial to overall wellness, not just as a therapy for depression.

Writing Does a Brain and Body Good

For those who love to write, the act itself — of creating new worlds, characters, and narratives, or of simply recording thoughts, experiences, and musings — is rewarding enough on its own. But an article in Mic.com cites a growing body of research suggesting that writing of any kind has palpable benefits to physical and mental health.

James W. Pennebaker has been conducting research on writing to heal for years at the University of Texas at Austin. “When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health,” Pennebaker writes. “They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function.”

Why? Pennebaker believes this act of expressive writing allows people to take a step back and evaluate their lives. Instead of obsessing unhealthily over an event, they can focus on moving forward. By doing so, stress levels go down and health correspondingly goes up.

You don’t have to be a serious novelist or constantly reflecting on your life’s most traumatic moments to get these great benefits. Even blogging or journaling is enough to see results. One study found that blogging might trigger dopamine release, similar to the effect from running or listening to music.

I am sure the results vary wildly from person to person, but I can attest to writing having a calming effect on me. At the very least, it offers a nice escape. What are your thoughts?