How belief can drive recovery

When I worked in the pharmaceutical industry, the placebo effect was frequently dismissed as ‘all in the mind’ or ‘psychosomatic’. It wasn’t a real improvement, it was believed, merely that people ‘think’ they’re feeling better.

This was conventional wisdom at that time and is still a widely held belief today. When a mother kisses a scrape or graze on their child’s knee, the pain seems to reduce. Sometimes, an adult will feel better once they arrive to see the doctor. We tend not to imagine that some physical change in the brain has actually caused the improvements.

The truth is, physical changes do occur in the brain and they are caused by what the person believes or expects will happen.

Take research into what is known as placebo analgesia, for example, the reduction in pain that occurs when a person receives a placebo that they believe is a real painkiller. The analgesia occurs because the person’s brain produces its own painkillers. They don’t just ‘think’ they’re feeling less pain. They actually DO feel less pain.

A similar kind of thing has been observed with research into Parkinson’s Disease. Fabrizio Benedetti, a neuroscientist at the University of Turin School of medicine and who runs the most advanced placebo research lab in the world, identified production of dopamine in the brain of Parkinson’s patients who received placebo injections.

He even measured activation of individual neurons that fired according to the how much placebo they’d received. The net gain in movement and reduction in tremors wasn’t just ‘all in the mind’ of the patients, nor did the patients just think they could move better but really they couldn’t. The improvements were real and they were due to real physical changes in the brain driven by what the patients believed or expected would happen.

In another of Benedetti’s experiments, he enlisted volunteers to receive an injection of capsaicin (aka chilli peppers) into their hands or feet. The volunteers thought they were participating in a trial of a new and powerful local anaesthetic, but the anaesthetic was really a placebo. They had the placebo cream applied to one of their hands or feet but not to the other and then the chilli pepper was injected into both. So, they might have the cream applied to the left hand but not the right, but the chilli pepper would be injected into both hands so that a comparison could be made.

Upon injection, the pain was substantially less in the hand or foot that had the placebo anaesthetic cream applied but there was maximum pain in the other hand or foot. When Benedetti examined the brains of the volunteers, he found that the brains of the volunteers had produced their own natural versions of morphine, known as endogenous opioids.

But even more impressive was that these opioids were produced only in the specific region of the brain governing the specific region of the left hand or foot that had the placebo cream applied.

In other words, the person expected to have no pain in one specific region of their hand or foot and, as a consequence, endogenous opioids were produced in the necessary region of the brain required to deliver that precise result. As Benedetti noted, the entire brain was not flooded with endogenous opioids, only the specific region governing the hand or foot that had the placebo applied. In some ways, the human mind acts with surgical precision.

Perhaps we should rebrand the placebo effect as ‘The specific impact of expectation or belief on the brain and body’ … or maybe that’s a bit of a mouthful and ‘placebo effect’ is just easier. The point is that the word placebo, for many, conjures up the idea that nothing is actually happening, that improvements really are just ‘all in the mind’. But that is simply not so.

Expectation or belief produces real changes in the brain and body, often consistent with what the person expects or believes will happen, and these changes drive physical effects throughout the body.

Of course, there are limits and we shouldn’t automatically think that belief will instantly cure disease. It is wise to follow medical advice. But as more research is undertaken into the placebo effect, we’re learning that some systems of the body previously thought inaccessible to the placebo effect are accessible after all. It just takes a little longer.

Researchers have shown that placebos can be used to suppress the immune system, for example, and an active line of research is ongoing into PCDR – or Placebo Controlled Dose Reduction – where a dose of a drug is gradually lowered and replaced by a placebo over a number of days. It’s called conditioning,

The patients get a result each time they take their meds. As the mental association between taking the drug and the result strengthens, some of the drug can be replaced by a placebo and the patient’s growing conditioned belief compensates by generating its own physical effects.

Scientists believe this might be helpful for patients who take immunosuppressant drugs, like organ transplant patients and even those who have particular autoimmune disorders. The reduction in volume of drug required as it is gradually replaced by a placebo would surely be a cost saver for society and that money could be put to other uses. And perhaps side effects would be minimised.

We are living in an exciting time for placebo research and for research into the broader mind-body connection. We’re now learning that the contents of our minds can deliver real consequences in the body.

The skill for harnessing the effect, perhaps, is in believing that this is actually true and also learning to be more in control of the contents of our minds.

 

References

This article is based on Chapter 2 (The Power of Believing) of, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body‘, by David R Hamilton, PhD. All references are listed at the back of the book.

The vagus nerve and cancer

DNA with light shining behind itI recently read a scientific paper, published this year in the Journal of Oncology (see paper), with great interest. It linked the activity of the vagus nerve with cancer prognosis.

Why is this important?

I’ve written quite a bit about the vagus nerve in some of my blogs and books (The Five Side Effects of Kindness), mainly because the vagus nerve produces an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. I’ve also emphasised how this effect is even amplified by the experience of compassion.

That’s why I found the paper so exciting because it reviewed 12 scientific studies, involving 1822 patients, and suggested a link between high vagus nerve activity and better cancer prognosis. The effect, the authors wrote, was most likely due to an anti-inflammatory effect created by the vagus nerve.

I’ve summarised the main findings of the paper below.

The authors pointed out that three main biological factors contribute to the onset and progression of tumours. These are: oxidative stress (free radicals), inflammation, and excessive sympathetic [nervous] activity (stress).

Amazingly, the vagus nerve seems to inhibit all three.

Many of the studies measured heart rate variability (HRV), which is the main index of vagus nerve activity. Briefly, when we breathe in, heart rate quickens a little, only to slow down again when we breathe out. The vagus nerve is responsible for the slowing down, and thus the difference between this increase and decrease (high and low) of heart rate – heart rate variability (HRV) – is considered an indicator of vagus nerve activity.

Generally, the paper found that the higher a person’s HRV, or vagus nerve activity (also known as vagal tone), the slower the progression of cancer, and this was true for all cancers studied. The effect was especially pronounced in late stage, metastatic cancers.

The authors suggested that in early stages of cancer, the treatment a person receives is the overwhelming positive factor and so swamps out any observable effects of the vagus nerve, but at later stages, when treatments are often less effective, the vagus nerve’s workings are far more apparent and the vagus nerve becomes the main determining factor.

So much so, in fact, that the authors found that survival time in patients with high HRV (or vagus nerve activity) was 4 times greater than in patients with low HRV (or vagus nerve activity).

The effect of the vagus nerve on inflammation was suggested as the main factor. It is known as the ‘Inflammatory Reflex’. The vagus nerve basically turns off inflammation at the genetic level by turning down a gene that produces TNF-alpha (Tumour Necrosis Factor), which is an inflammatory protein in the body that sets off a cascade of inflammation. Thus, the vagus nerve can effectively control inflammation in this way. Therefore, higher vagus nerve activity usually means lower inflammation.

In one study of patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, for example, patients with high HRV (or vagus nerve activity) survived longer and had lower inflammation levels than patients with low HRV (vagus nerve activity).

The study authors wrote that, the vagus nerve “may modulate cancer progression by inhibiting inflammation.”

The study also showed that tumour markers in other cancers (like PSA – prostate specific antigen – for example) were also lower in patients with highest vagus nerve activity.

So, the question is: can we increase our vagus nerve activity?

The answer is yes.

There are a few ways, in fact, that include:

-exercise

-meditation

-yoga

-practice of compassion

I’d like to draw your attention to the latter because I’ve written about this before and it demonstrates a powerful link between mind and emotions and physical health.

Studies have shown a link between compassion and vagus nerve activity, an idea first put forward by Stephen Porges, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and now widely known as polyvagal theory.

For example, vagus nerve activity has been shown to increase through regular practice of a compassion meditation (the Buddhist’s metta bhavana or ‘Loving Kindness’ meditation). Here, we consistently cultivate a feeling of kindness and compassion for ourselves and others.

The same meditation has also been shown to lower a person’s inflammatory response to stress, presumably via increasing vagus nerve activity.

So, yes, we can increase vagal tone!

For me, this research is extra evidence that exercise, meditation, yoga, and even compassion, offer us far more protection from illness than we have imagined up until now. Now we are beginning to see the underlying biological mechanisms that explain why these practices are so beneficial.

Of course, exercising, meditating, doing yoga or being a nice person doesn’t mean a person will be immune to cancer. We all know that’s not true. But it might mean that they offer us a degree of protection, perhaps lessening the impact of some of the factors that do cause cancer.

How kindness can reduce wrinkles

mother showing kindness to daughterYes, you read correctly!

Have you ever cut an apple in half and left it on the table? If so, you’ll have noticed it quickly goes brown. This is oxidation, or oxidative stress, as scientists prefer to call it.

Oxidation occurs in skin too, and it can be a side-effect of lifestyle, diet, stress, even sunlight. It doesn’t happen as quickly in our skin as it does in a sliced apple left on a table, so don’t worry, but it happens nevertheless. It’s caused by what are known as free radicals.

Here’s a simple way to think of free radicals. Think of what Harry Potter’s spectacles look like: two ‘O’s and a little bridge between them. His spectacles are actually the exact shape of oxygen, the stuff we breathe. Oxygen – O2 – has two ‘O’ atoms and a bond (bridge) connecting them as in, O-O.

Now imagine Harry gets hit by one of Draco Malfoy’s spells and it snaps the bridge of his spectacles. So now he has two single lenses that are no longer bonded to one another. When this happens to oxygen, not due to one of Draco’s spells but to some kind of stress, the two ‘O’s are said to be free radicals.

Once bonded, they are now separate. Instead of being in a relationship, they are single. And they simply hate being single. They’ll do anything to be back in a relationship.

Unfortunately, such is the strength of a free radical’s desire to bond that it will happily covet its neighbour’s wife, so to speak: it will pinch any nearby atom. This isn’t so great for the body, especially if the atom pinched is part of the cells of our skin, or even the cells that line our arteries, or our immune system, or even a brain cell. Once the free radical has taken an atom, these cells can begin to fall apart.

The body has natural ways of dealing with free radicals, though. It uses anti-oxidants. An anti-oxidant is anti (against) oxidation. It is a willing partner for a free radical, thereby eliminating any further damage to cells.

We get anti-oxidants from many fruits and vegetables, salads, teas, olive oil, cinnamon, dark chocolate, and many other foods. It’s one of the reasons why doctors encourage us to eat those foods. We also have natural anti-oxidants in the body.

But when free radicals are produced more abundantly than the body is able to mop them up, that’s when we get oxidation / oxidative stress.

In the skin, it contributes to the formation of wrinkles.

So, what has kindness got to do with it?

It’s probably easier to think of it the other way around. You’ve probably noticed that stress speeds up ageing. This is partly because stress increases free radicals.

On the other hand, kindness generates the hormone, ‘oxytocin’ (see ‘Molecules of Kindness’), which reduces free radicals.

Scientists publishing in the journal, Experimental Dermatology, were studying two types of skin cells: keratinocytes, which make up 90 per cent of the outer layer of skin, and fibroblasts, which are the cells that make collagen.

They found that free radical levels are much lower in both the keratinocytes and the fibroblasts when there’s plenty of oxytocin present, and higher when there’s not much oxytocin present. In other words, oxytocin actively reduces free radicals.

Now, you cannot get oxytocin from your diet. You cannot eat it or drink it. The only way to get oxytocin into your skin is to produce it naturally. And the way to do that is through your behaviour!

Oxytocin production is a side effect of kindness (see ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness‘). Just as feeling stressed produces stress hormones, the feelings of warmth or connection that accompany acts of kindness generate oxytocin in the body.

This oxytocin reduces free radicals all throughout the body. Not only does it reduce free radicals in skin but studies show it reduces them in the arteries too, producing a ‘cardioprotective’ effect; that is, protecting the heart and arteries.

So, you want to reduce wrinkles? Be kind.

Someone once said to me, “That can’t be right because I am kind and I have wrinkles.”

Of course, being kind doesn’t mean you won’t age. But it does mean that being kind can slow the process down … just as stress speeds it up.

It simply comes down to the feelings that kindness and stress produce because these feelings generate substances in the body.

As I mentioned above, feeling stress generates stress hormones, and they contribute to the production of free radicals.

Feelings of warmth, connection, affection, gratitude – feelings that accompany kindness – generate oxytocin and oxytocin reduces free radicals.

In other words, stress speeds up ageing, kindness slows it down.

So, yes, as unlikely as it might sound on first reading, kindness really can reduce wrinkles.

 

Want to learn more?

There has been a great deal of recent research into the internal physiological products of being kind and compassionate. I have collated much of this research, including the different ways that kindness impacts cells, the immune system, nervous system, arteries, and brain in my book, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’. Available from all major booksellers. Here’s a few Amazon links. Amazon.co.uk  Amazon.com  Amazon.com.au  Amazon.ca  Audiobook

The Science of High Performance in Sport

tennis player abstract

Whether you’re playing tennis, golf or even running the 100 metres, there are certain things you can do that can help you to achieve high performance.

Here’s 7 of the most important ones:

Practice

How good do you want to be? One of the most important things to know is that practice lays down neural pathways in the brain. Whether it’s a cross-court winner in tennis, an approach shot at golf or even the start in a 100 metres sprint, practice is key to laying down these pathways that make you improve at these movements.

Practice creates habits in the brain and therefore the muscles, which not only helps you improve but also means that your body will know what to do in those all-important moments when you only have a split second to think.

Mental practice

Almost every elite athlete does mental practice. Neuroscience research shows that the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. In one piece of research, the brains of volunteers carrying out repetitive movements over 5 days were compared with volunteers imagining the same movements. Amazingly, the new brain pathways were identical in both groups.

So, to harness this fact, visualise yourself doing your sport, but see yourself doing everything just right. Due to the feedback between the brain and the muscles, this ensures that your muscles also learn to work in the way you’re imagining.

You can also use mental practice to play shots you find especially difficult, thus speeding up the learning on the court, green, or track. One important thing to keep in mind with mental practice is that you’re not just necessarily imagining the winning result, but the physical movements you’re doing in creating that result.

Repetition is key

The 3 rules of physical and mental practice are: Repetition! Repetition! Repetition!

High performance requires well defined neural pathways in the brain that connect with the muscles. The only way to build such neural pathways is repetition of the movements. And remember, the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. Use mental practice as well as physical practice.

In one-to-one competitive sports, if someone repeatedly beats you with the same shot or manoeuvre, practice countering it repetitively – both on the field and in your mental practice. Repetition wires neural pathways and thus habits into the brain.

Doing it once or twice is unlikely to get your breakthrough, but doing it a few hundred times might make a real difference. Many people don’t get the breakthroughs they seek because they don’t realise how much repetition is required. It’s all about your mind and body learning what to do, and this occurs through repetitively laying down neural pathways in the brain.

Focus

Stay focused, especially at the higher levels of your sport. Loss of focus for even a moment can turn a game of tennis, leave you 2 or 3 shots to catch up in golf or mean the difference between a gold medal and fourth in a race. Focus is as much a key to building a habit of winning as is training your body.

A simple focus exercise when practicing is to give every shot your 100% attention. Keep your eye on the ball at all times. This is not just something you do in competition, but essential in practice so that mental focus becomes a habit.

Mindfulness practice also helps because it develops the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the front part of the brain, above your eyes, that controls concentration.

Relax

If a tennis ball is flying at you at over 200kph, tension will only slow your reaction time. Similarly, tension before an important golf shot will chop away some smoothness from the shot, introducing an error of a few to several metres. Tension in a race tightens muscles and slows speed of movement.

Practice being highly alert and focused, yet relaxed at the same time. Many people think these are things you do at different times – alert one moment and relaxed in another – but it is important that you learn to do them at the same time. Focused doesn’t mean grimacing and holding your eyes and muscles rigid.

Relaxing helps your trained neural pathways take over. If you’ve practiced enough then your wired habit should do the rest – i.e., your body knows what to do. A good tip is to practice conscious breaths several times a day in a variety of different conditions and contexts. It will help you stay relaxed, yet focused, regardless of what is happening around you.

Body language

How you hold and move your body affects your focus and how you feel. There’s what’s called a ‘bi-directional relationship’ between your brain and muscles. It’s why you smile when you’re happy and tense your muscles when you worry. People mostly think it just goes that one way – from the brain to the muscles – but it goes the other way too, from the muscles to the brain.

To harness this, practice holding and moving your body in a way that conveys self-belief and quiet confidence. Do it on the court, green or track, but also practice it all throughout the day as you go about your life. You’re looking to create a body language habit and wire it into the brain, and this requires repetition while you practice, compete, and throughout your daily life.

Will to win

A will to win can be that edge that makes the difference in the latter stages of any game, when one or two points or one or two centimetres make all the difference. A will to win helps maintain high focus but it also activates trained neural pathways that ensure that your body does what it needs to do to win.

Winning becomes a habit when you have a well-developed will to win.

 

About the author

david-headshotDr David Hamilton is author of 9 books, including ‘The 5 Side Effects of Kindness’, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, and ‘I Heart Me’. He is a former athletics coach and also a former scientist within the pharmaceutical industry. He left the latter to study the placebo effect and teach people how to harness the mind-body connection for health, wellness, and high performance in sport.

 

 

 

Placebo School logoCheck out my online course – Placebo School. It’s all about understanding and harnessing the mind-body connection.

How to slow ageing

happy elderly ladies playing with a ball

My friend Skip told me recently that he met a 98-year-old man in Bali who challenged him to a race to climb a tree. Skip is a very physically healthy and fit person – an ex-British champion gymnast – yet the 98-year-old nearly matched him.

I spent 6 months of last year nearly full-time renovating our new home. I clearly remember my first building job. My Dad and I had to remove the floorboards in one room, then get rid of all the large rocks underneath (typical in a very old cottage), so that a new floor could be laid.

Lifting the floorboards and removing the joists wasn’t so hard. We did that in less than an hour. It was lifting the heavy rocks for disposal that was the hard bit. When I woke up the following morning, I could barely get out of bed. Muscles I didn’t even know existed were hurting. Walking to the shower, and then downstairs for breakfast, was painful.

I phoned my Dad to see how he was, worried. He is 73-years-old, after all.

“Fine, Son!” was his reply when I phoned him, in an astonishingly (to me) upbeat voice.

He didn’t hurt at all. How could that be? I’m in my mid-forties and no stranger to exercise. I regularly work out. Dad was completely fine. I felt … wrecked … I think that was the word I used that morning.

These kinds of examples of older people demonstrating physical fitness that we only expect in people much younger remind me of how much attitude plays a role in ageing.

For a start, there is no standard rate of ageing. Yes, we have biology. Yes, we have genetics that predispose the human body to an approximate lifespan. But how that biology and those genetics work has a lot to do with attitude.

Back in the 80s, Harvard professor, Ellen Langer, ran a study of a group of senior citizens, some of whom were struggling with arthritis, who were asked to pretend they were 20 years younger. They arrived at the residential centre, where they would live for the next week, and immediately felt transported back in time. Langer ensured that the house was decorated like the 1950s, that daily newspapers each day were from 1959, that the radio played ‘live’ from 1959. Even the TV ran 1959 shows.

They were also asked to converse with each other like it was 20 years ago, discussing their family as if they were all younger. In other words, they were to completely immerse themselves in the mindset that they were 20 years younger. Importantly, they were also encouraged to do things for themselves – carry their own bags, walk up the stairs, etc, without Langer’s team treating them like they weren’t capable.

Astonishingly, when their physiological readings before and after beginning the study were taken – physical strength, eyesight, hearing, gait, manual dexterity, taste sensitivity, memory, mental cognition – they had grown younger. Interestingly, four independent volunteers were asked to look at ‘Before’ and ‘After’ photographs and stated that they believed the ‘After’ photos were two years younger.

In her book, ‘Counterclockwise’, Langer wrote that on the last day at the centre, men, “who had seemed so frail… ended up playing an impromptu touch football game on the front lawn.” 1 week!! This was after just 1 week of holding a younger attitude.

We have two ages. There’s our chronological age, which is the number of years we’ve lived, which of course only goes in one direction. Then we have our physiological age, which is the age of the body, and that depends to a large extent on diet, exercise … and attitude. It can go backwards.

The food we eat, the exercise we take, our attitude to life, ageing, other people, all make a difference to our physiological age. A poor diet, lifestyle and attitude generally takes its toll on the body, prematurely ageing it. A healthy set, on the other hand, keeps the body younger.

One study of 999 Dutch people aged between 65 and 85 quizzed them on their attitudes to ageing. They were asked whether they agreed or disagreed to statements of the sort, “I often feel that life is full of promises,” “I still have positive expectations about my future,” “There are many moments of happiness in my life.” Those whose responses showed them to have higher levels of optimism had a 77% lower risk of death from heart disease and 45% lower risk of death from any cause.

A similar study, conducted at Yale University, asked 660 people for their responses to questions like, “As you get older, you are less useful. Agree or Disagree?’ Those whose responses showed the most positive attitude to ageing lived an average of seven and a half years longer than those with the least positive attitude.

The study also concluded that attitude was more influential than blood pressure, cholesterol levels, smoking, body weight and even exercise levels in how long a person lived.

Attitudes to other people and social contact make a big difference too. People with a poor attitude to others typically don’t make friends as well and neither do they have a broad social network. People who tend to be aggressive, hostile, or even bullies towards others are more prone to cardiovascular disease. People who are more understanding of others, are kind and compassionate, on the other hands, tend to make friends more easily and tend to have better quality relationships. They also tend to have more social contact.

And social contact is highly important. It turns out that social contact is one of the most important factors, in fact, in living to 100. Social contact, as well as helping keep stress down by providing friendships where we can discuss our worries and challenges, also helps produce oxytocin, which is a hormone that helps maintain the health of the cardiovascular system.

The bottom line in research of all of the above types is that attitude affects ageing and it does it by affecting, not just our minds, but our biology and physiology.

One of the key attitudes to adopt is to actually act younger. It’s easy to surrender to what we think we should be doing, or be able to do, given our age. But outside of a bit of common sense regarding our physical state, most people are capable of more than they believe they should be.

A person who is 80 and who believes that the body is mostly worn out at 80, that no improvement is possible in their physical condition regardless of what they do, that their memory, eyesight, physical strength, etc, are set for decline, will live according to this belief, and it will influence what they actually do, how much they move, how they speak, and how their body responds to life.

Let’s say another person has grown up with the belief that humans live until they are 150 years old and that 80 is ‘middle age’. Such a person would likely find that their attitude and the lifestyle, exercise and movement they adopt, would lead to improvements in their physical condition.

Attitude counts! The same holds true when we’re 30, 40, 50, 60, 70… I think you get my drift. If we have a negative preconceived idea of limitations of age, then we tend to live according to these limitations, whatever age we currently are, and don’t stretch our minds and bodies in the way that they are able to be stretched. As such, we age according to our mindset.

Enough said! I’m off to play on the swings. 🙂

7 ways to help you take your time

woman reading book by windowI’ve had to remind myself of it recently, to take my time. We bought a house in May, an old cottage that needed a lot of renovating. Our plan was to do the renovation work and move in by the end of June. It was a deadline that we were working towards.

It didn’t quite work out that way and we’re still living with in-laws. Renovations often take longer than planned. We’ll be ready to move in soon but the whole experience has helped me look at how I do things and reminded me of the importance of not doing everything in a hurry.

Here’s 7 ways to help you take your time:

1) It’s healthy

Hurrying all the time creates stress. Decide that your long-term health is more important than getting something done quickly.

2) Start earlier

If there’s somewhere you need to be, either leave earlier or contact the person you’re meeting and give them a realistic E.T.A. If you’re regularly late for things, ask yourself, honestly, how late you typically tend to be. Next time, leave early by that amount… plus an extra 10 minutes.

3) Meditate

Practice daily meditation. A regular practice of meditation trains you in new habit of having a quieter mind. The result is that you are more focused in the moment and also less likely to get stressed. Neurologically, this is because meditation causes physical changes in the concentration and focus areas of the brain and also those that affect positive emotion.

4) Reorganise your To-Do list

Make a To-Do list and create two columns. In one, list your priorities, and in the other list things that you have to do but that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you didn’t manage them. Sometimes, just having things a little clearer relieves stress and helps you take your time with the things that are more important, thereby ensuring that you do a better job.

5) Learn from nature

Observe that nature takes its time. You don’t see a tree hurrying to grow or the sun rushing to get out. Take a walk in nature and simply notice that it does what it does when it does it. There’s no urgency with nature. Let yourself be inspired by its pace.

6) Should your deadlines be guidelines?

Be flexible with your deadlines. OK, having deadlines can be good because they help focus us on our goals. But are you one of those people who give everything a deadline? Look for some middle ground. Decide which things are better with a strong deadline and where your deadlines should really be more like guidelines. Working to a deadline can be good and small amounts of stress can also be good, but making everything a deadline is not so good as it can create too much stress too much of the time.

7) Focus on the present moment

A nice stress-relieving trick is simply to give whatever you’re doing your complete focus. If you’re walking fast to get somewhere, listen to the sound of your footsteps instead of reminding yourself that you need to hurry. If you’re washing dishes, become aware of the feel of the water. If you’re stuck in traffic, listen to the sounds around you. Do it with an open, curious mind. When you focus on the present moment, it quietens your mind and often produces an influx of positive emotion.

The 4 Components of Emotion

Most of us think of emotion purely as a feeling. We might feel happy or sad, for instance, or love, joy, or grief. But there is much more to emotion than a feeling. Emotion is really smeared all over and all throughout the body.

The diagram below shows how this is so.

4 components of emotion
Reproduced from ‘I HEART Me: The Science of Self-Love’

Let me explain. When you feel an emotion, a pattern of brain chemistry follows it. For example, happiness is often accompanied by changes in serotonin, dopamine and even endogenous opiates (the brain’s own versions of morphine). If you then feel a different emotion, brain chemistry shifts to a pattern that reflects your new emotion. Brain chemistry alters in response to how you feel at any moment. So far so good.

Your emotions also affect your muscles. You smile when you feel happy while stress causes your brow to crease and your shoulders to tense. These muscle movements are not conscious choices you make. They are like reflex reactions because your muscles are in communication with emotional centres of your brain.

Emotions also play tunes throughout the autonomic nervous system (ANS). OK, they don’t actually play tunes but I like the sound of that expression. I basically mean that your ANS responds to your emotional state. This is why an emotion is technically smeared all over your body. Your ANS connects your brain to your heart and other organs in your chest, your abdomen and pelvis, and also to your eyes, larynx, and through your blood vessels and sweat glands to your skin.

Via the ANS, your skin actually responds moment-by-moment to the contents of your mind. Let’s say you have a stressful or worrisome thought, for instance. Your skin starts to sweat. It’s quite obvious when you feel really stressed and your palms become moist. But even a little stressful thought causes micro amounts of sweating. In fact, this is the basis of the polygraph (lie-detector) test. When a person tells a lie and knows it’s a lie, the tiny (or large) amount of emotional stress they feel increases sweating. This is detected by sensors that measure the electrical conductance of the skin. When there’s sweating, conductance goes up!

So you can see how emotions are connected with brain chemistry, muscles, and all throughout the autonomic nervous system. And the connection is ‘bi-directional’, meaning ‘both ways’. Just as emotions affect chemistry, muscles, and the ANS, so chemistry, muscles, and the ANS affect emotions.

Here’s a few examples. That brain chemistry affects emotions is the basis for the pharmaceutical model of treating depression and other psychiatric disorders. If serotonin can be increased, for instance, it can cause a person to feel happier. Similarly, low levels of EPA or DHA (omega-3 fatty acids) following childbirth has been linked with post-natal (partum) depression where higher levels seem to have antidepressant effects.

We can also use our muscles to affect our emotions. Straightening your spine, relaxing your shoulders and breathing comfortably can boost mood and confidence. Smiling on purpose can also improve mood. It is the basis of laughter yoga.

Changes in ANS activity affect emotion too. The ANS has two components. There’s the sympathetic strand, which is the fight-or-flight part. It’s the bit that’s active when we feel stress or worry. Then there’s the parasympathetic strand, which is the rest-and-relax part. People who are stressed or worry a lot have more activity in the sympathetic portion and less activity in the parasympathetic portion.

Conscious breathing exercises (like meditation, yoga, Tai Chi) are a good way to increase parasympathetic function, and with the increase in parasympathetic function we tend to see an increase in positive emotion, coupled with a decrease in negative emotion.

So not only does emotion affect chemistry, muscles, and the ANS, but chemistry, muscles, and the ANS affect emotion. That’s what the double arrows in the diagram mean.

You can see why we can’t actually disentangle emotion from the brain or body and that we really can think of emotion as ‘smeared’ all over and throughout the body.

In some ways, we can start to think of the body and mind as a single thing – the bodymind – where changes in the mind affect the body and changes in the body affect the mind, with neither operating independently of the other, but rather operating as a single holistic entity.

References

References, and a fuller account of this and its broader implications, can be found in ‘I Heart Me: The Science of Self-Love’, by David R Hamilton PhD (Amazon UK  Amazon.com  Amazon.ca  Amazon.com.au).

A strategy for overcoming worry, fear or anxiety

Breathe written on a pebbleEverybody has worries and fears. They can be useful because they can be warning signs of danger. They can also give us insights into the workings of our own minds. For some, understanding the source of a worry or fear helps them address a deeper issue causing it. But for most people, those repetitive bolts of worry, fear, or anxiety are nothing but a nuisance.

New insights in neuroscience offer us hope, however, in being able to change our emotional states.

During worry, fear or anxiety, brain resources tend to be flowing towards worry, fear and anxiety areas of the brain. Part of the fear architecture in the brain is the amygdala.

It’s a habit…

You might have noticed that the more we worry the more we seem to find to worry about. Worry, fear and anxiety are like habits for many people and so much so that eventually it only takes a small thing to set it off. Several years earlier, the same thing wouldn’t have had as much of an effect, if at all, and you now wonder why it is that you seemed so much stronger, more resilient, when you were younger. It’s partly because just like a muscle grows bigger and stronger through exercise, so worry, fear and anxiety brain areas grow too.

Just as a muscle becomes more powerful, so worry, fear and anxiety seem to become more powerful, in that we become more sensitive to circumstances around us and even begin to lose confidence. The phenomenon is broadly known as neuroplasticity.

This is where the hope lies though, because, a) neuroplasticity occurs in many regions of the brain, and b) it doesn’t just refer to growth but to shrinkage through lack of use. Think of what happens to a muscle if you stop using it.

The strategy I’d like to share with you uses this insight. If you stop worrying so much, you tend to find less things to worry about. That’s because you’re not using the ‘worry muscle’ as much and so it shrinks, just as a muscle shrinks if you stop working it.

Easier said than done! True! So the strategy involves bypassing the whole positive thinking thing. Instead we use simple techniques to divert resources away from the worry areas of the brain to areas associated with conscious control of our minds. It’s kind of like not letting resources flow backwards but making them flow forwards instead. Through not ‘feeding’ the worry areas so much, just like a muscle weakens through lack of use, the same happens to worry regions of the brain.

It takes a little bit of work, but it can be well worth it.

The How-to…

Here’s what you do. Each time the worry, fear or anxiety surfaces, take a comfortable breath, focusing all of your attention on the act of breathing – the sound, the sensation in your nostrils, the movement of your tummy or chest. By doing this, you interrupt the flow of brain resources towards the worry areas and instead send resources towards the prefrontal cortex (the bit above your eyes). It’s an area at the front of your brain that’s associated with conscious control. This is because you are consciously controlling something; in this case, your breath. This prefrontal cortex, among other areas, is active when we focus our attention on our breath.

It sounds easy on paper and initially the positive effect might only last a moment or two and you might find yourself having to do it 2, 3 or even 10 times in a row. This is where the work comes in. You almost need to be relentless, focusing on your breath every time the fearful thought or feeling arises. The technique is not for everyone as some might find it tiring and you might also doubt it could actually work.

But it can bring powerful results if you keep it up for a few days. Within that time, as neuroplasticity occurs to build the prefrontal cortex while at the same time shrinking the amygdala, you might notice a little letting-up of your fearful thoughts and feelings. Keeping the practice up for a few weeks might produce lasting results.

There is another fun way to do it. Instead of focusing on your breath when the fearful feeling arises, I have encouraged people to do a little victory dance – a silly, crazy set of made-up dance moves, choreographed by your good self. The key with victory dancing is to do it long enough until you smile (or laugh) – that might take 5 seconds or half a minute. That way, you’re activating positive emotion centers of the brain instead of fear areas. The same thing occurs as before – you build positive emotion areas of the brain while shrinking the worry areas and this is because you’re giving positive emotion areas a workout in instead of feeding worry areas.

You can even add a little visualization or an affirmation while you do the breath thing or the victory dance thing. For the visualization you might imagine the worry area of the brain shrinking down. For the affirmation you might say a positive statement that reflects how you intend to feel.

And if motivation to do it is a hurdle for you, a good thing to help keep you motivated is to remind yourself that you’re simply choosing to work different muscles. We all know how muscles get stronger and weaker depending on how much we exercise them. Doing this and acknowledging that there are actual changes taking place in the brain can provide just the motivation you need.

It is a vey useful strategy. It might not be for everyone and it’s also not the answer to all of our worries, fears, and anxieties. But it certainly is a useful tool.

7 Ways that Love is Good for Your Health

Painted heartLove feels good. I think we’d all agree on that. But it also has some surprising health benefits. Here’s a list of 7 of them:

 

1) Love is good for your heart

I think we all expect this. Biologically, love produces the hormone ‘oxytocin’. It’s why it’s often referred to as the ‘Love Hormone’ or even ‘Cuddle Chemical’ (yes, hugs produce it too). Research also shows that it is a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone. Simply put, it protects your cardiovascular system: it reduces blood pressure, helps clear your arteries of free radicals and inflammation, and even helps repair damaged blood vessels.

2) Love makes you happy

Emotionally, love makes us feel euphoric. We even feel tingling sensations in our hearts. In the brain, love elevates levels of both dopamine and serotonin, which contribute to this effect.

3) Love improves general health

Some research that compared couples whose relationship was close with those whose relationship wasn’t so much, found that couples who were in a close relationship reported their health as ‘very good or excellent’. The health reports were poorer in the other couples.

4) Love is good for your immune system

Every couple has arguments. That’s to be expected. But research shows that couples who argue in a more loving, positive way, were measured to have higher immediate immune function compared to couples who showed more negative behaviour. I guess, even when we argue, we should remember to be kind.

5) Love can help you get fit

OK, this might be obvious in the sense that regular sex is good for the heart, but there is another way that love can aid fitness. We all know that many people who start on an exercise program quit within 6 months to a year (you’ve probably been there yourself – seen it, done it, got the t-shirt), but did you know that when you work out with a romantic partner, not only do you work harder (perhaps you’re trying to impress) but you are also more likely to keep the program up?

6) Love can help you live longer

Research that compares married couples (in happy marriages) with single people shows that married people lived longer. And the good news for men is that the effect is especially pronounced in us. Seems we benefit from all that nagging good advice. Married men are less likely than single men to over indulge in drinking and smoking, which is better for health in the long term.

7) Love can lessen physical pain

Researchers who measures pain perception typically ask volunteers to place their hands in ice-water or receive electric shocks. Electric shock pain-perception-studies have shown that the experience of pain is lessened when we hold someone’s hand. And it’s even better news for females – pain decreases most in women in happy marriages who held their husbands’ hand.

4 Reasons Why Dogs Are Good for Your Health

Oscar my yellow labrador retrieverOne of the things I love about writing blogs is that I get to talk about stuff that’s relevant in my life, where I’ve been inspired, had a wise insight, or learned something new.

I’ve written a few blogs about my dog Oscar and what I’ve learned from him. If you haven’t been keeping up to date, he’s a yellow (golden) Labrador retriever and he’s 11 and a half months old (that’s him in the photo!).

We moved house a few weeks ago and now live in the country (in a beautiful village called Bridge of Allan, in central Scotland). I’m so enjoying the long healthy walks. I say healthy, because I feel healthy with all the miles I walk, breathing in the fresh country air. It got me thinking that dogs really are incredibly healthy for us.

Here’s 4 reasons why:

1) Dogs boost your immune system

Many people find that when they first get a dog they get much fewer colds. The main reason for this is that dogs (and puppies) bring dirt into the house on their paws. The dirt contains tiny bacteria that gives our immune systems something to work on. Like muscles, the immune system needs to work to build its strength.

Living in too clean an environment can lessen the immune system. It’s one of the suggested scientific reasons for an increase in allergies over the past few decades.

When a dog brings dirt into the house on it’s paws the human immune systems go to work, building up its muscles like we’ve gone to the ‘immune system gym’. As this happens, the immune system becomes more robust and resilient, and we’re more protected from colds and other illnesses and diseases.

2) The give us plenty of exercise

I walk about 20 miles a week with Oscar. I’ve lost about 8 pounds in weight since he came into our lives. Last weekend I ran the ‘Perth Kilt Run’, which is a 5k run in Perth (Scotland) and you have to wear a kilt. I ran a rather respectable 24 minutes and 39 seconds, which I think is good considering I hadn’t done any running training and a kilt gets quite heavy after about 4k :-).

I’m certain that walking all those miles with Oscar was excellent training for me.

3) They’re good for the heart

Research shows that interacting with dogs elevates levels of the hormone, oxytocin. As well as it’s role in childbirth and breast feeding (oxytocin is involved in the ‘letting down’ response of breast milk), oxytocin is a powerful ‘cardioprotective’ hormone (it protects the heart and cardiovascular system). Research shows that it lowers blood pressure and significantly reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation, two families of chemicals involved in cardiovascular disease.

Couple this with a stronger immune system and more exercise, it’s why research also shows that the chances of a second heart attack, for men who had one previously, is 400% lower for men who have a dog compared with men who don’t.

4) They’re good for mental health

We’re a social species. Humans need social contact. It’s built into our genome and is why we’re healthier and live longer when we connect with each other. Social network research shows that we’re healthier the more connected we are.

Part of this reason is, of course, oxytocin. Dogs are great company and we bond strongly with them. It’s not at all uncommon for people to talk to their dogs. I know! I talk to Oscar and tell him what I’m up to. 🙂

Human and animal contact also helps counter stress and is protective towards depression, so having a dog is also good for our mental health. Of course, we can also say the same for cats (in case you’re a cat owner reading this and are wondering).

 

So overall, I think it’s nice to reflect on how dogs are so good for our health and to feel deep gratitude for their presence in our lives. I feel immensely grateful for Oscar’s presence. He has changed my life for the better on so many levels.