What if COVID-19 is making me LESS anxious?

We’re hearing a lot lately about how COVID-19 is causing people to feel anxious, depressed, irritable, and even suicidal. These feelings are real and need to be taken seriously. But I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret. Not everybody feels worse. Some people report a sense of lightness and calm that they haven’t felt for years. They are sleeping better. They have new-found interests and goals. They are more deliberate and creative in their meal choices, even if the ingredients come from a can. And some are enjoying the delights of a walk around the neighborhood more than they ever thought possible.

So what gives? For a start, natural disasters, wars, and other human challenges are known to bring people together, with a sense of common humanity, of being “all in this together”. Even the US Government’s public service slogan is #alonetogether. COVID-19 is not just a national disaster, it’s an international one, affecting every country on the planet. Kristin Neff, Ph.D. a leading researcher on self-compassion, notes that the word “compassion” literally means “to suffer with,” which implies a basic mutuality in the experience of suffering.  It makes sense that our anxiety goes down when we know other people are worried too.

But it’s more than that. One of the most common anxiety disorders is social phobia, which relates to our standing in comparison to others and our place in the social pecking order. While COVID-19 is a valid concern for all of us, many people are experiencing a reduction in FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Our friends’ Facebook posts seem to be less about their spectacular Colorado ski trips and more about toilet paper shortages and the challenges of dark roots when one can’t get to the hairdresser. To be sure, quarantine bragging is a thing but it seems to be more manageable.

For many people with a pervasive worry about health, finances, work, relationships, and other things (perhaps warranting a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder), COVID-19 has finally given them permission to feel their fears and not feel ashamed of them. Authorities are providing detailed instructions on how to stay safe such as mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing guidelines. These instructions are not just suggested; they are required. For anxious people, this is their moment. Those with obsessive compulsive tendencies who are usually ridiculed for germ-phobia are today regarded as heroes. Some jokingly refer to COVID-19 as the pandemic they have been training for all their lives. This is not just validation for anxiety – it’s a celebration of it. For an anxious person, it makes sense that they would feel better right now.

I mentioned that owning up to feeling less anxious right now is a dirty secret. Why might that be? Well, people are dying from COVID-19, or are seriously ill. We know that essential workers in health care, janitorial positions, and transport are risking their lives just going to work. For them, there is no option to shelter in place. And let us not forget the millions who have lost their jobs as a direct result of COVID-19. Feeling anything other than guilt under these circumstances might seem insensitive, disrespectful, or frankly selfish. But let’s remember that human beings are complex. We are capable of feeling many things at a time, and for all feelings to be real and justified. We can feel profound empathy and sadness for those who are suffering. At the same time, we can feel liberated from our own fear and a sense of gratitude for others. That is not selfish. That is the human spirit.

The world is such a dangerous place! Or maybe it just seems that way.

The world is such a dangerous place!  Or maybe it just seems that way.

Many of my clients express a deep fear that the world is a terribly dangerous place.  They say that listening to news of school shootings, car crashes, terrorism, and civil unrest in various parts of the world makes them feel vulnerable and fragile and frightened to go outside.

I agree that some days news can be depressing and it makes you wonder whether it is safe to be alive. But it is important to keep things in perspective. In reality, we are probably living in the safest period in history – as hard as that may be to believe.  Human beings are less likely to die from ALL causes than at any other time humans have been on this planet. We are living longer, we hardly ever (as least in the West) succumb to diseases like polio and typhoid, and homicide rates in almost every country are at their lowest rate ever recorded.  So why do we feel so unsafe?

The answer lies in what psychologists call ‘negativity bias’.  The human brain is wired to respond to threats and unpleasantness far quicker and stronger than it is to positive things, making us much more likely to be alert to danger and the negative things going on in our environment. This has served us well because humans wouldn’t survive very long if we didn’t have fear and anger to keep us out of harm’s way.  Our brains developed a tendency toward ‘bad news bias’ which makes it unavoidable for us not to notice danger and hopefully, to respond to it.  We don’t necessarily like bad news, but we seem to be instinctively drawn to it.  The media have known this forever. That’s why good news newspapers and websites go out of business within about a week. Couples counselors also know this. That’s why they often recommend that their clients say five positive things to their partner for every one negative thing because we are so much more sensitive to that one bad comment.

All well and good.  But can we actually override this tendency of our brains to think negatively? Absolutely. Meditation and psychotherapy (especially cognitive behavior therapy) work really well.  But you don’t even have to do that.  Just doing a couple of positive things every day – such as noticing a gorgeous sunrise or smiling at your barista – produce a cumulative effect in the brain which can be very powerful and even regrow neural pathways to produce positive feelings.

And remember that there is an awful lot of good news happening all the time in the world but most of it is so mundane it never gets reported. After all, there are 7 billion people on the planet going about their business and most of them (according to a number of different studies) are actually pretty happy.  

OMG! Texting makes you shallow – LOL

Texting_wisdomSo it’s true.  Texting makes you shallow.  Or at least that’s what a University of Winnipeg study causing a lot of buzz has found.  Frequent texters – especially those in their teens – are more likely to place higher value on wealth and image than on moral, aesthetic or spiritual values.  Worse, texters who send more than 100 messages a day are likely to be more racist and less ethical.  The researchers surveyed 2,300 psychology undergraduate students every year for 3 years to determine whether certain types of “brief” social media like texting and Twitter encourages rapid, relatively shallow thought.  Disturbingly, the researchers found that the students’ level of self-reflectiveness declined over the study period.

Although I haven’t read the research paper itself, something very obvious struck me about this research that was not reported in the media.  Ever heard of the phrase, “Correlation does not equal causation”?  The lead author of the paper referred to this when he stated, “There could be a hundred different reasons why these associations [i.e. the associations between texting and being shallow] exist.”  Perhaps the students were already shallow to begin with, driving them to reach out to others to try to become more ethical, moralistic and self-reflective.  Or perhaps their personality types were attracted to texting and tweeting and not the other way around.  Having worked in the media in a past life, I am well aware of deadlines, headlines and the temptation of making a story sound more “sexy” than it really is.  LOL

ADHD: let’s get moving!

suricates_namibia_3166709126.jpgMuch has been written about America’s education system and how children rank compared to their counterparts around the world.  But while we are so busy focusing on learning outcomes, nobody is talking about potential effects brought about by the elimination of physical education programs in response to shrinking budgets.  Even recess breaks have been cut in most places so that kids can spend more time ‘learning’.  No doubt the authorities mean well but from a preventative health point of view, it is short-sighted.

study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that just a few minutes of exercise can help children with ADHD perform better academically. The study, led by Michigan State University’s Matthew Pontifex, involved 40 children aged 8 to 10, half of whom had ADHD.  It was a pretty simple study; all the kids were asked to spend 20 minutes either walking briskly on a treadmill or reading while seated. The children then took a brief reading comprehension and math exam similar to longer standardized tests. They also played a simple computer game in which they had to ignore visual stimuli to quickly determine which direction a cartoon fish was swimming.  Guess what?  The results showed all of the children performed better on both tests after exercising.

ADHD is a complex disorder caused by an interaction of genetic, biological and environmental factors.  Nobody is suggesting that lack of exercise causes ADHD but the findings of this study were so significant that the author suggested that increasing children’s physical activity be considered a “first course of action” when treating children with ADHD, before medication.  Easy to say, but not so easy to do.   School officials say they are under pressure to improve test scores and argue that there is not enough time for P.E. classes.  But in the words of one Yale Researcher, Dr. David Katz, who is on a mission to reverse trends in obesity and chronic disease, “rambunctiousness in children should be treated with something more like recess, and less like Ritalin.”  It may be controversial but there are so many benefits to exercise, why not at least give it a try?

Inside the mind of James Bond

Ever wonder how James Bond manages to effortlessly seduce multiple women, single-handedly remove dictatorships, triumph at every game of poker – all while holding a martini in one hand and the keys to an Aston Martin in the other? The answer, apparently, lies in personality psychology. The urbane Bond is a fictional character of course, but there are plenty of men who possess the ‘James Bond psyche’, including a large portion of the prison population. Studies by University of Western Sydney psychologist Dr. Peter Jonason and his colleagues found that Agent 007 possesses a set of personality characteristics known as the “dark triad”: narcissism (being self-obsessed and manipulative), psychopathy (impulsive, thrill-seeking and callous), and Machiavellian tendencies (deceitful and exploitative). Though you might think these characteristics sound unpleasant, “dark triad” individuals have such high self-esteem and lack of empathy that they are able to to maneuver into relationships and take advantage of others despite the risk of social rejection and reprisal. A study of 35,000 participants worldwide showed that the “dark triad” personality type exists in every culture in the world, including traditional societies.

The combination of daring, risk-taking behavior has another upside: it is very alluring to many women in the short-term and from an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense. Successful risk-taking is universally appreciated as a sign of good genes so Dark Triad men tend to have an active sex life and father more offspring. In fact they have the disagreeable habit of stealing other men’s wives and girlfriends for flings. As a result, they have NOT been “weeded out” by natural selection because they reproduce before it’s discovered what bastards they really are. Let’s face it: narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism are not qualities found on your average Match.com profile. Interestingly, the research also shows that the women who are most attracted to Dark Triad men are those with low self-esteem, although whether Bond women would fall into this category is debatable.

The good news for nice guys according to Jonason’s research is that if given a choice, women will actually favor a brave humanitarian over an opportunistic risk-taker. Dr. Jonason and colleagues found that the allure of Dark Triad men quickly fades – they score low on altruism and this doesn’t do them any favors when it comes to sustaining long-term relationships. So nice guys do win out in the end, although the ability to bring down a dictatorship or two might not do them any harm.

‘Tis better to give than to receive – in terms of health benefits anyway

Science has long known that support from loved ones –in the form of touch, tenderness or kind words – really can make people feel better.  As well as reducing a patient’s immediate discomfort and stress, the benefits can continue in the form of reduced blood pressure and improved immune function.  Now some fascinating research shows that giving the support can be as beneficial as receiving it.

A study  in the January 2012 edition of Psychosomatic Medicine, a peer-reviewed health psychology journal, reported on what happens to the brain activity of women who provide support to their partners.  In the study, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to scan the brains of 20 young women whose boyfriends were standing just outside the scanner.  As the women’s brains were being scanned, the poor fellas were subjected to painful electric shocks – something they willingly signed up for in the name of science.  At various times, the women were able to hold their boyfriends’ arm.  At other times, the women had to watch their boyfriends endure the shocks without being able to do anything.  To provide a ‘control condition’, there were times when the boyfriends did not receive any shock at all and the women could either touch or not touch their arm.

The researchers found that simply touching their boyfriends’ arm as they experienced pain activated the ‘reward’ regions of the women’s brains, the same areas that are active in response to chocolate, sex and winning money.  In other words, giving support was processed as a very basic type of rewarding experience.  There was another interesting finding:  the brains of the women who were able to touch their boyfriends during the shocks showed decreased activity in the region of the brain known to be involved in stress and fear.

What does all this mean?  Naomi Eisenberger, the senior author of the study, speculated that humans are wired to give support to those close to us.  This increases the chances of the support giver surviving and in evolutionary terms, making it more likely that healthy genes will be passed on.  By making it psychologically rewarding to give support, nature is sneakily encouraging us to do it more often.

What I would love to know – and no doubt the researchers are on to it – is whether the results would be the same if it were women receiving the electric shocks while their boyfriends provided the soothing touch!

When did we forget how to walk?

I recently returned from a week-long trip to the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina.  Its fresh mountain air, stunning landscape and proximity to hiking trails attracts visitors year-round.  Part of the reason for my visit was to do exactly what other people go there for – take some long walks, be soothed by nature, and have a break from Michigan‘s winter.  But it occurred to me as I was driving there how absurd it was to spend10 hours in a car so that I could go for a walk.  

When did walking become an ‘activity’, something we go out of our way to do?  Sometimes we get in a car, drive to a carpark, walk for an hour or two, return to the car and then call it – depending on your country of origin – ‘hiking’ (US), ‘bushwalking’ (Australia), ‘rambling (UK) or ‘tramping’ (New Zealand).  It’s something so unlike the activity we do every day that we give it a special name.  Writer Bill Bryson, in his entertaining volume about his adventures on the Appalachian TrailA Walk in the Woods, observes how Americans have come to view the great outdoors.  Nature, he writes, is either ruthlessly conquered and destroyed, or treated as something “holy and remote.”

I can personally vouch for this. When I arrived at the ticket counter at the grandly beautiful Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, I asked whether I could walk from the carpark to the estate so that I could enjoy the grounds.  The receptionist, sensing that I had just landed from another planet, said, “Oh it’s too far to walk.”  When I inquired how far, she said, “At least two miles.”  When I told her I was happy to cover this distance on foot and in fact preferred to do so, she huffed, “We don’t allow anyone to walk.”

With attitudes like this, it’s hardly surprising that people are getting less exercise than they need.  The Center for Disease Control‘s recent physical activity statistics showed that fully one-quarter of the American population engages in absolutely no leisure time activity whatsoever.  And by this, the CDC means not even a single walk around the block once a week.  No wonder the Appalachian Trail is held in such high esteem.

Retail therapy? Be careful what you wish for.

I am not a fan of shopping. I feel guilty even as I write this, as if I’ve just confessed to not liking babies, kittens, or naps on Sunday afternoons. I’m not sure exactly what it is that upsets me, but I can only describe it as sensory overload – too much visual, auditory and tactile input for my sense organs to process at one time.  Venturing into the shops at this time of year can be daunting to say the least.

It was something of a fluke therefore, or perhaps serendipity, that I came across a book today about the psychology of consumer behavior. It was called Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy, by James Roberts, a professor of marketing. The theme of the book is that the more we shop, the more unhappy we become. In a neat illustration of this, the author has a simple graph showing that between 1970 and the present day, America’s gross domestic product skyrocketed and personal spending increased to record levels, yet individual levels of self-reported happiness flatlined over the same period. Americans are apparently no happier today than in 1970 despite the accumulation of material possessions, or maybe because of it. The author notes that shopping, like drinking alcohol and compulsive eating, can be addictive because the brain releases neurotransmitters such as dopamine, inducing sensations of pleasure. It’s not called “retail therapy” for nothing; as far as the brain is concerned, shopping is a form of self-medication. Unfortunately, the effects are short-lived and shoppers, like alcoholics and compulsive eaters, go back again and again for another “dose”.  It is not uncommon for people to recover from an eating disorder, only to develop an addiction to shopping.

Why are we in the western world so slow to see these connections?  In Bhutan, a small, landlocked country near the Himalayas, citizens’ quality of life is not measured by wealth (or gross domestic product) but by “Gross National Happiness,” an official indicator of  psychological and social well-being unrelated to economic prosperity.  I was pleased to read that in July 2011, 68 countries, including western nations such as Canada, the UK and Australia, co-sponsored a United Nations resolution to encourage the adoption of gross national happiness indicators.  Notably absent from the United Nations resolution:  the USA.

The moral to the story?  You’ll find plenty of shiny objects at the shopping mall.  But happiness?  Not so much.

Oh, and by the way, I bought James Roberts’ book. I can be a consumer when I need to be.