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.  

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?