Friday, May 17, 2013

How Stress Effects Your Brain

Research published this past May 6th by researchers from King's College London reveals how stress hormones reduce the number of new brain cells.

That's right.  Prolonged stress saturates your system with fight or flight hormones which stops the creation of new cells in your brain.  In a process called "neurogenesis", your brain produces new cells in adult brains.  Unless, that is, you experience elevated levels of distress or negative stress over prolonged periods of time.  At a molecular level, stress and especially distress is known to increase levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) which in turn acts on a receptor called the glucocorticoid receptor (GR). How the GR decreases neurogenesis in the brain remains unclear and is still being researched.

In practical terms, this finding means that it is important that anyone experiencing high levels of stress over prolonged periods of time needs to develop strategies to manage their body's stress cycle, a topic that we discuss in other posts on this blog.

Story source:  Christoph Anacker, Annamaria Cattaneo, Ksenia Musaelyan, Patricia A. Zunszain, Mark Horowitz, Raffaella Molteni, Alessia Luoni, Francesca Calabrese, Katherine Tansey, Massimo Gennarelli, Sandrine Thuret, Jack Price, Rudolf Uher, Marco A. Riva, and Carmine M. Pariante. Role for the kinase SGK1 in stress, depression, and glucocorticoid effects on hippocampal neurogenesis. PNAS, May 6, 2013.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Be Happier ~ Listen to Upbeat Music

People can successfully try to be happier, especially when cheery music aids the process. (Credit: © Syda Productions / Fotolia)
May 14, 2013 — The song, "Get Happy," famously performed by Judy Garland, has encouraged people to improve their mood for decades. Recent research at the University of Missouri discovered that an individual can indeed successfully try to be happier, especially when cheery music aids the process. This research points to ways that people can actively improve their moods and corroborates earlier MU research.

"Our work provides support for what many people already do -- listen to music to improve their moods," said lead author Yuna Ferguson, who performed the study while she was an MU doctoral student in psychological science. "Although pursuing personal happiness may be thought of as a self-centered venture, research suggests that happiness relates to a higher probability of socially beneficial behavior, better physical health, higher income and greater relationship satisfaction."

In two studies by Ferguson, participants successfully improved their moods in the short term and boosted their overall happiness over a two week period. During the first study, participants improved their mood after being instructed to attempt to do so, but only if they listened to the upbeat music of Copland, as opposed to the more somber Stravinsky. Other participants, who simply listened to the music without attempting to change their mood, also didn't report a change in happiness. In the second study, participants reported higher levels of happiness after two weeks of lab sessions in which they listened to positive music while trying to feel happier, compared to control participants who only listened to music.

However, Ferguson noted that for people to put her research into practice, they must be wary of too much introspection into their mood or constantly asking, "Am I happy yet?"

"Rather than focusing on how much happiness they've gained and engaging in that kind of mental calculation, people could focus more on enjoying their experience of the journey towards happiness and not get hung up on the destination," said Ferguson.

Ferguson's work corroborated earlier findings by Ferguson's doctoral advisor and co-author of the current study, Kennon Sheldon, professor of psychological science in MU's College of Arts and Science.

"The Hedonic Adaptation Prevention model, developed in my earlier research, says that we can stay in the upper half of our 'set range' of potential happiness as long as we keep having positive experiences, and avoid wanting too much more than we have," said Sheldon. "Yuna's research suggests that we can intentionally seek to make mental changes leading to new positive experiences of life. The fact that we're aware we're doing this, has no detrimental effect."

Story Source:  Yuna L. Ferguson, Kennon M. Sheldon. Trying to be happier really can work: Two experimental studies. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2013.

Monday, May 13, 2013

You Can Choose How Stress Effects You

Coping with Stress

When trouble approaches, what do you do? Run for the hills? Hide? Pretend it isn't there? Or do you focus on the promise of rain in those looming dark clouds?

New research suggests that the way you regulate your emotions, in bad times and in good, can influence whether -- or how much -- you suffer from anxiety.  In short, if you use what is called "reappraisal" to look at stressful situations, you will tend to suffer less from social anxiety and less anxiety in general, even less than those who avoid expressing their feelings.

Reappraisal?  It's a technique that involves looking at a problem in a new way, said University of Illinois graduate student Nicole Llewellyn, who led the research with psychology professor Florin Dolcos, an affiliate of the Beckman Institute at Illinois.

"When something happens, you think about it in a more positive light, a glass half full instead of half empty," Llewellyn said. "You sort of reframe and reappraise what's happened and think what are the positives about this? What are the ways I can look at this and think of it as a stimulating challenge rather than a problem?"

Remember, not all anxiety is bad, just as not all stress is bad.  According to Llewellyn, "Low-level anxiety may help you maintain the kind of focus that gets things done."

"Research shows that people who are temperamentally inclined to focus on making good things happen are less likely to suffer from anxiety."

Previous studies had found that people who were temperamentally inclined to focus on making good things happen were less likely to suffer from anxiety than those who focused on preventing bad things from happening, Llewellyn said. But she could find no earlier research that explained how this difference in focus translated to behaviors that people could change. The new study appears to explain the strategies that contribute to a person having more or less anxiety, she said.

"This is something you can change," she said. "You can't do much to affect the genetic or environmental factors that contribute to anxiety. But you can change your emotion regulation strategies."
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Nicole Llewellyn, Florin Dolcos et al. Reappraisal and Suppression Mediate the Contribution of Regulatory Focus to Anxiety in Healthy Adults. Emotion, 2013 (in press)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Noise, Everyday Stress & Heart Disease

We don’t think often of the background noise that surrounds us.  It becomes part of the furniture, another element of day to day life that just is.  Usually we only notice when our surroundings become unusually quiet – and we’ll note the absence of background noise such as traffic, radio and television

Now comes a study recently published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives that shows that the everyday background noise we live with is a stressor that contributes in a measurable way to our long-term heart health.  The association between noise exposure, particularly high noise levels, and cardiovascular disease is known from previous studies.

Now researchers at the Helmholtz Zentrum München in Munich, Germany, show how exposure to noise during everyday life influences heart rate variability, i.e. the ability of your heart to adjust the rate at which your heart beats during an acute stressful event.  Specifically, how the heart responds to a specific stressor and our hormonal stress response is activated.

In this study of 110 men and women, average age 61, participants were equipped with portable ECG devices to record their heart rate when exposed for six hours to noise both above and below a threshold of 65 decibels (dB).   "The study showed that not only higher noise levels have a stressful effect and are harmful to health, but that lower noise levels can cause adverse health effects, too," said Professor Annette Peters, director of the Institute of Epidemiology II (EPI II) at Helmholtz Zentrum München.

In layman’s terms, even a routine phenomena such as barely noticeable traffic noise triggers our stress response, causing our body to release “fight or flight” hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, elevated levels of which are associated with chronic diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to arthritis. 
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Story Source:  Ute Kraus, Alexandra Schneider, Susanne Breitner, Regina Hampel, Regina Rückerl, Mike Pitz, Uta Geruschkat, Petra Belcredi, Katja Radon, Annette Peters. Individual Day-Time Noise Exposure During Routine Activities and Heart Rate Variability in Adults: A Repeated Measures Study. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2013; DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1205606