Before getting to these three good posts/articles on resilience, stress, and the human brain, please take some time to find a reputable charity to donate to in support of the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Here are tips for finding a reputable charity and avoiding scams (the site, Charity Navigator, rates charities on a number of factors) – and here’s a recommended list of Hurricane Sandy charities from another site, Charity Watch, which also rates charities.
1) Summaries of talks on stress and resilience given during Day 2 of the Culture, Mind, and Brain Conference
I love how these talks highlight the interplay of genes and the biology of the human body with social and cultural factors. Some surprising findings (for instance read about the first talk on rat pups separated from their mothers for an 18 hour stretch, and how a simple change in the environment helped mother-pup relations proceed on normal terms afterwards, leading to no long-term negative consequences for the pup).
2) Can people learn to adapt better to highly stressful circumstances?
Some of the factors common to people who adjust better to life after a traumatic event include:
a) realistic optimism (knowing and accepting what you can change and what you can’t, and focusing all your efforts on what you can change)
b) social support
c) good regular health habits (e.g. eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and taking up meditation).
While there is a genetic component to resilience, Southwick said its influence is less important than one might expect.
“The biggest insight that we have realized is that many people are far more resilient that they think and have a far greater capacity to rise to the occasion,” he added.
3) 10 Tips for Developing Resilience
These suggestions have some overlap with what’s been discussed so far, and it’s a good list to start with if you’d like to change the way you react to adverse circumstances. Keep in mind that these tips refer to mental habits – they can be cultivated, but don’t produce instantaneous or 100% consistent results. They take time and patience to work on.
Compared to younger and older individuals of their species, both adolescent humans and mice on average have a stronger tendency to keep exhibiting a fear response to a threat even when the danger is gone.
In the human experiment, the fear response was initially elicited by pairing a visual stimulus (one of a sequence of yellow or blue images on a computer screen) with a harsh startling sound; in subsequent trials the same images appeared without any startling noise – leading to an extinction of the fear response in children and adults, but not in the adolescents, who kept showing a fear response to whatever image had once been paired with the noise.
As for the animal experiment, the article reports that the experimenters “used standard fear conditioning common in these types of animal studies.” (This is vaguely worded… did they use loud noises? Or pain?) The experimenters also measured neuronal activity in the mice:
… the research team found that the prelimbic region in the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that processes emotion, is activated during acquisition of fear, and the infralimbic prefrontal cortex is used to extinguish this fear association.
When compared to younger and older mice, adolescent mice didn’t exhibit the kinds of neuronal activity associated with fear extinction (this corresponded to their behavior – they continued to show a fear response over time, regardless of the fact that the danger/unpleasantness was no longer present). Even as they got older, the adolescent mice didn’t lose their fear response.
Related data from other studies with humans:
It is estimated that over 75 percent of adults with fear-related disorders can trace the roots of their anxiety to earlier ages.
It’s not clear how the persistent fear response in this experiment fits into the complex puzzle of excessive anxiety and its sources, people’s predispositions towards it, the reasons it persists (or doesn’t) into adulthood, and the ways in which it disrupts mental and physical functioning (also, adolescents with anxiety disorders have often reported that their symptoms started in childhood). And how do these results tie into other findings with teens that show a greater tendency for them to do something dangerous even if they understand the risks?
An overview of different types of anxiety that can become excessive and interfere with daily life (e.g. social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.)
Most of the study participants were girls (though the experimenters reported that the results for the boys weren’t significantly different).
Maintaining a blog had a stronger positive effect on troubled students’ well-being than merely expressing their social anxieties and concerns in a private diary, according to the article published online in the APA journal Psychological Services. Opening the blog up to comments from the online community intensified those effects.
Maybe the effects were stronger for a public blog because the teens felt less isolated with their problems and felt relief that they could be heard; it turns out that when they opened the blogs up to comments, the response from other Internet users was almost always positive and encouraging (few to no trolls). I’m assuming the blogs were anonymous, making the teens less vulnerable to disruption in their lives offline and maybe helping them write more freely about their worries.
Incidentally, the photo at the top of the post links to a relevant write-up on “stressed out lab rats” – how rats living in chronic stress tend to make decisions out of habit, as if their constant stress doesn’t allow them to be more mentally flexible. There are definitely parallels to stressed out humans.
Some of the advice in this short piece – Six Great Ways to Vent Your Frustration – could have come in handy as I moved from one city to another this week, but I’ll share with you the techniques I called on to manage frustration during the move itself:
1) Scold inanimate objects
When a drawer is stuck, your table won’t fit through the door, and your backpack refuses to accommodate the dozen books and folders you’re trying to cram into it, let them know exactly how disappointed you are.
2) Hum under your breath
For me it was mostly Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.
3) Picture an end point
I kept thinking of myself at the end of the day in bed with a book after a long shower. Feelings of peace flowed through me.
4) Make jokes
The laughter might have an edge of hysteria to it, but it’s still laughter.
5) Take moments here and there to rest
Sit down, lie down, stop for a drink (of water, not liquor), look around at
how much stuff you have left to do how much you’ve accomplished.
6) Make note of progress
Look around and remind yourself that however much is left you really are getting things done. The room is emptier and tidier, half the furniture has been cleared out; there’s progress, bit by bit. That was my mantra: bit by bit.
7) Have concrete plans for what you need to do
Spelling out a list of steps you need to take and a schedule to follow makes life more manageable. Then if you get done with things ahead of time you’re rewarded with a good feeling of being efficient and effectual (and if you don’t get done ahead of time, scold some more inanimate objects). It’s also best to de-clutter as much as possible beforehand, a lesson I’ll take to heart for any future moves.
8) Tear things up
I had to tear up a lot of papers. It was satisfying.
9) Thank other people
Thinking about others and how they’re helping you counteracts the tendency to stew silently.
10) Count your blessings
A few things went unexpectedly well during the move, and I’ve got much to be thankful for – not least, having a home to move to.
Here’s an interesting post to read about assessing and possibly reducing your risk of age-related cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia.
Some questions posed there:
Do you have ongoing stress in your life, or have experienced significant amounts of stress at some period during middle-age?
Do you rarely engage in exercise?
Do you spend most evenings blobbed out in front of the TV?
Reading through the possible risk factors you see some that you can’t control, such as genes and family history and your early childhood circumstances (for instance if you grew up in a very stressful home), but the list also emphasizes modifiable risk factors: amount of exercise, drinking habits, sleep habits, mental stimulation, etc. How all of those interact is still an open question. But when you think about it there never seems to be one trick, one magic way (or magic pill), that improves your long-term cognitive and physical health (which are closely intertwined). Instead it’s about making your life as healthy as possible all around, in multiple areas.