Tag: Stress

6 ways to overcome the holiday blues

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Charlie Brown might have said it best as he opined to his pal, Linus: “Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”

Yes, the holiday season can foster moments of great joy, but it can also at times be a source of distress.

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Whether you’re worried about purchasing the right mix of decorations to create the perfect atmosphere for a Thanksgiving meal, or finding a way to connect with family members who live on the opposite coast, the holidays can be tricky to navigate.

It’s easy, especially in our increasingly social media-driven world, to “compare and despair,” says Dr. Michelle Paul, psychologist and director of The PRACTICE Mental Health Clinic at UNLV.

“It’s difficult to tear ourselves away from constant messages of what they’re doing and what we’re, in turn, not doing,” Paul said. 

As pumpkin pies bake, and grocery stores line their shelves with peppermint-flavored treats, Paul explained the sources of holiday blues that can sometimes affect us, and shared some practical ways to greet this time of year.

What causes holiday stress?

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There are a number of things about the holidays that can potentially be sources of distress. For each person it’s going to be different, but there are some general themes that we can reliably predict.

  • Loss of a loved one: If someone has lost a loved one, that loss can be made all the more poignant, and experienced more deeply, around the holidays. The holidays generally represent a time where family and friends get together, and enjoy each other’s company, so having lost someone can create distress.
  • Materialism: In our culture, the holidays represent a focus on having gifts and possessions. There is marketing around how the Thanksgiving table ‘should’ be set, and how the holiday decorations inside and outside of our homes ‘should’ appear. However, not everyone has the means to make extra purchases, setting the stage for comparing and judging others or ourselves negatively for ‘failing’ to keep up.
  • Hustle and bustle: Rushing to make sure I have the right groceries, the perfect gift for that someone special, and the best decorations, is magnified during the holidays. It’s difficult to find a balance around celebrating in a way that’s meaningful, and not getting caught up in a long to-do list.
  • Unrealistic Expectations: If your circumstances don’t match the cultural ideal of a Norman Rockwell painting, your mind tends to go to a place of judgment. And with judgment comes shame. You start thinking, ‘What’s wrong with me that I can’t have it the way they do?’

How does social media contribute to holiday stress?

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Social media is supposed to help us connect. But the unintended consequences of social media include increased stress, isolation, and a decreased sense of belonging. It’s had this weird, paradoxical effect of giving us this ongoing, never-ending opportunity to look in the mirror and compare ourselves to others. We’re constantly bombarded through our phones, with young people being particularly vulnerable to the pressures of social media. 

As an adolescent, you’re figuring out who you are and where you fit in. It’s a time when friendships are very important and meaningful, and you begin to build relationships outside of your family. Today, teens are also being asked to manage these social media messages about what is cool and not cool, and you can’t get away from it. You could escape it 40 years ago. You could go home and take a break from whatever drama was going on at school, or what a classmate wore to class and what you didn’t. 

As human beings, we naturally want to find where we feel in, instead of out, where we belong and feel connected. The holidays add another layer of that, with strong messages that circulate around us for months in advance.

What are some tips that can help people cope with these and other holiday stressors?

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  • Determine your values: Step back and think intentionally about what you want the holidays to represent. Who do you want to be in relation to the holidays? What kind of values do you want to connect to? Once you make that determination, you can behave in accordance with those values. 
  • Act on your values: Behaving in ways that are consistent with your values is more important than making comparisons or judgments. Thanksgiving, for example, is all about being thankful for what you have. And there are lots of activities around Thanksgiving that wouldn’t require spending a ton of money. Maybe on that day, you can take a walk in nature in order to contemplate or spend time appreciating what you have. If you’re missing family members, why not do a Friendsgiving? Enjoy food and company and embrace the fact that you’re a ragtag team of people spending time together. Or, go out and volunteer. If you’re feeling that you’re not receiving, why not do the opposite and do some giving?
  • Avoid compare and despair: Have self-compassion. You can compare, but you don’t have to add in the layer of judgment. If someone’s reality is different than yours, that’s OK! Stop “shoulding” all over yourself, and stop using damaging or punishing language. Instead of saying, ‘I should do this,’ or ‘I must do that,’ you could try, ‘I preferably should.’ Be mindful of your own mental chatter and the automatic tendency to go toward punishing language.
  • Make connections: Focus on creating space for belonging or acceptance. Find places where you can receive support, but also give support in return. Reach out to others. Think about worth, value, and appreciation versus the enemies of comparison, judgment, shaming, blaming, and pushing people away.
  • Take stock: Take an inventory of what your individual sources of stress are because it’s different for everybody. Ask yourself: If I could change one or two things to feel better, what would they be? Do some active problem solving. If you lost a loved one, for example, celebrate that person’s life, or change up what might have been a holiday routine with that person. Make room for it to not be a happy time — it’s OK if it’s not a happy time. 
  • Seek help: If you’re really feeling that you can’t cope with the stressors around you, it’s perfectly reasonable to reach out to others, or even a mental health professional. Sometimes we get muddled in our own brains, and an outside perspective from a trusted mental health practitioner can help provide you with clarity and relief. 
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About The PRACTICE

The PRACTICE is a UNLV mental health clinic that offers counseling and other services to campus and community members. Faculty experts in clinical and school psychology and mental health counseling train and supervise advanced graduate students in high-quality mental and behavioral health care. Faculty and student clinicians work together to provide evidence-based care, drawing upon the most up-to-date research and knowledge available.

Narcissism Reduce Chances of Depression

Photo by Amir Geshani

Queen’s University Belfast

People who have grandiose narcissistic traits are more likely to be ‘mentally tough’, feel less stressed and are less vulnerable to depression, research led by Queen’s University Belfast has found.

While narcissism may be viewed by many in society as a negative personality trait, Dr Kostas Papageorgiou, who is Director of the InteRRaCt Lab in the School of Psychology at Queen’s, has revealed that it could also have benefits. He has published two papers on narcissism and psychopathology in Personality and Individual Differences and European Psychiatry.

Dr Papageorgiou explains: “Narcissism is part of the ‘Dark Tetrad’ of personality that also includes Machiavellianism, Psychopathy and Sadism. There are two main dimensions to narcissism – grandiose and vulnerable. Vulnerable narcissists are likely to be more defensive and view the behaviour of others as hostile whereas grandiose narcissists usually have an over inflated sense of importance and a preoccupation with status and power.”

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He adds: “Individuals high on the spectrum of dark traits, such as narcissism, engage in risky behaviour, hold an unrealistic superior view of themselves, are overconfident, show little empathy for others, and have little shame or guilt.

“However, what this research has questioned is – if narcissism, as an example of the dark tetrad, is indeed so socially toxic, why does it persist and why is it on the rise in modern societies?”

The papers include three independent studies each involving more than 700 adults in total and highlights some positive sides of narcissism, such as resilience against symptoms of psychopathology.

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A key finding of the research was that grandiose narcissism can increase mental toughness and this can help to offset symptoms of depression. It also found that people who score high on grandiose narcissism have lower levels of perceived stress and are therefore less likely to view their life as stressful.

The research is a fresh approach to the study of personality and psychopathology, highlighting that there are some positives to be found in terms of potential societal impact.

Dr Papageorgiou comments: “The results from all the studies that we conducted show that grandiose narcissism correlates with very positive components of mental toughness, such as confidence and goal orientation, protecting against symptoms of depression and perceived stress.

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“This research really helps to explain variation in symptoms of depression in society – if a person is more mentally tough they are likely to embrace challenges head on, rather than viewing them as a hurdle.

Dr Papageorgiou says: “While of course not all dimensions of narcissism are good, certain aspects can lead to positive outcomes.

“This work promotes diversity and inclusiveness of people and ideas by advocating that dark traits, such as narcissism, should not be seen as either good or bad, but as products of evolution and expressions of human nature that may be beneficial or harmful depending on the context.

“This move forward may help to reduce the marginalisation of individuals that score higher than average on the dark traits. It could also facilitate the development of research-informed suggestions on how best to cultivate some manifestations of these traits, while discouraging others, for the collective good.”

An event on Mental Toughness and Narcissism is being held at Queen’s on 15 November 2019, for more information visit https://aqrinternational.co.uk/event/mental-toughness-symposium.

Animals can lie to themselves too

Like Humans, Crayfish Talk a Tough Game

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Self-deception like this seems very human. Now, thanks to a recent study led by an Arizona State University biologist, for the first time we know that it happens in the animal kingdom, too.

Crayfish are some of the most aggressive creatures on earth. They fight with big claws capable of doing real damage. But sometimes there’s not much muscle under the bravado.

“What males are doing is making as little crappy muscle as possible, which is energetically saving,” said Michael Angilletta, a biology professor in the School of Life Sciences.

It’s like buying designer knockoffs. You save a lot of money, and most people can’t tell the difference. In the case of crayfish, you make a big claw without much muscle, and you put crappy muscle on it to boot. Everyone sees you wave your big claw and they presume that you’re a powerful crayfish.

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“Since they signal to each other before fighting, this is a way they can convince someone to back down without fighting,” Angilletta said. “Importantly, this only works if there’s enough crayfish out there that have big claws that are actually strong. If you accidentally fight one of those and call a bluff, you’re going to lose a claw.”

In the crayfish world, losing a claw is a disaster: It takes up to two years for a claw to regenerate. In the meantime, no one is mating with anyone who has a puny claw. 

Angilletta and his co-authors have been studying self-deception in crayfish for about 10 years. In 2006 they accidentally discovered that many crayfish with big claws were quite weak. There was about a tenfold variation.

“You would go, ‘Oh, this (pinch) is going to hurt,’ but it doesn’t hurt at all,” Angilletta said. “The question is are they not trying, or are they really not strong? And it’s repeatable from day after day with the same individuals.”

They combined mathematical modeling with an experiment to show that crayfish meet the criteria for self-deception. This approach opens up the possibility of studying self-deception in nonhuman animals, without being able to talk to them. They used 97 adult males, staging fights between 20 select crayfish and 77 opponents.

“How do we know what a crayfish would do if it knows whether it’s weak or it’s strong?” Angilletta asked. “If it knows that (it has a weak claw), it should actually be less aggressive.”

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It might escalate up to the point of a fight, and then run away. The probability that a crayfish engaged in a fight depended on two factors: the relative size of its claws and the expected difference in force. How do they know how strong (or not) they are? Crayfish use claws to deter predators, defend territory and capture prey. They have a pretty good idea of how strong their own claws are. They’re also skilled at assessing their size versus an opponent’s. They can even recognize previous opponents.

So natural selection has given them an ability to detect size and identity. Given that they have those abilities, it naturally follows that they have an ability to gauge strength when knowing it will improve decisions.

“In our population of crayfish, deceptive signalers largely ignored their own strength when escalating or evading aggression,” Angilletta said. “If this benefit of heightened aggression outweighs any long-term cost, natural selection should favor individuals who escalate aggression through self-deception.”

In other words, they buy into their own bluff. Angilletta teaches a biology course on human behavior called “Why people steal, cheat, and lie,” which explores the ecological and evolutionary causes of selfishness and cooperation in human societies.

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“What’s new about this study is that if you’re ever in a situation where I’m lying to you, there’s also a possibility I’m selling my lie exceptionally well because I’ve convinced myself that it’s true,” he said. “That’s because of self-deception. It’s very common in psychology but it’s not really that much in biology because we’re usually thinking about nonhuman animals and we don’t know what they’re thinking. We have a hard time understanding what they know and don’t know.”

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The paper was published last summer in Behavioral Ecology.

Video Credits:  Ken Fagan, ASU

Photo Credit: Charlie Leight, ASU

About ASU

Arizona State University has developed a new model for the American Research University, creating an institution that is committed to access, excellence and impact. ASU measures itself by those it includes, not by those it excludes. As the prototype for a New American University, ASU pursues research that contributes to the public good, and ASU assumes major responsibility for the economic, social and cultural vitality of the communities that surround it.

Why Males Are More at Risk Than Females For Neurodevelopmental Disorders?

Newswise — Researchers have recently begun to realize that biological sex plays a key role in disease risk. Sex plays a role in hypertension, diabetes, arthritis – and in many neurological and psychiatric disorders. Depression and anxiety affect females more, while neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorders, early onset schizophrenia, and attention deficit hyperactivity, affect more males. Males are also more sensitive to prenatal insults, such as gestational stress, maternal infection and drug exposure.

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//cdn.chitika.net/getads.jsTo better understand the molecular underpinnings of this disparity, Tracy Bale of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, along with several colleagues, focused on a molecule that plays a key role in placental health. In a study of mice, they found that the molecule, O-linked N-acetylglucosamine transferase (OGT) works by establishing sex-specific patterns of gene expression. The study was published this week in the journal Nature Communications. OGT seems to work via an epigenetic modification that broadly controls transcription, H3K27me3. Epigenetics is the study of changes in how genes are expressed. Dr. Bale showed that high levels of H3K27me3 in the female placenta produce resilience to stress experienced by the mother. This indicates at least one molecular pathway that allows females to be more resilient to maternal stress than males. “This pathway could help explain why we see this profound neurodevelopmental difference in humans,” said Dr. Bale. “OGT and H3K27me3 in the placenta are crucial to a lot of protein encoding that occurs during pregnancy, and so this process has a lot of downstream effects. The OGT gene is on the X chromosome, and seems to provide a level of protection for the female fetus to perturbations in the maternal environment.” Dr. Bale has focused much of her research on the links between stress and subsequent risk for neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism and schizophrenia in offspring. Her previous work on the placenta has found novel sex differences that may predict increased prenatal risk for disease in males. She has previously found that, in mice, a father’s stress can affect the brain development of offspring. This stress can alter the father’s sperm, which can alter the brain development of the child. Dr. Bale has also found that male mice experiencing chronic mild stress have offspring with a reduced hormonal response to stress; this response has been linked to some neuropsychiatric disorders, including PTSD. This suggests that even mild environmental challenges can have a significant effect on the health of offspring.