We are so desperate to connect with others that we will risk our own lives and those around us to exchange 140 characters while driving.

Although technology connects us in some ways, it has done much more to disconnect us over the last half-century or so. Freeways, commuting, school busing, television and most recently, handheld devices – all of these have resulted in a society unlike anything in history. Most of us don’t know many of our neighbors, we don’t often see our own families face to face. Most of our co-workers become strangers when the work day is over. Commuter churches are disconnected from their neighborhood.

I’m not a Luddite. Decades ago, when the Web was brand-new, I began to write about how access to more points of view was becoming a positive force in the world. I still believe that, even as Internet

img_20160927_090631

Face-to-face communication is essential sometimes. Photo from the Loma Fire, where I’ve spent most of this week.

gossip also does so much damage. Media domination by a handful of mega-corporations whose mission is to sell eyeballs to advertisers is not good for anyone. Diversity in viewpoints can drive creativity.

Research is uncovering fascinating insights into how our tone of voice, facial expression and eye contact – and even eating together – can act below our awareness to calm our automatic stress responses. Yet those means of communication, which are so important, are almost completely missing from social media. It is no wonder we are desperately eager to stay superficially engaged, even when we know how dangerous distracted driving is.

I myself don’t feel a great need to pay attention to text messages and so forth while driving. Don’t get me wrong – I feel the urge. But I rarely have trouble resisting it. So I’ve asked myself why this might be. The answer from my gut is that I have a good social support network – people I meet with regularly, face-to-face. These are people I trust deeply, from church, work, and our crisis intervention team. Social support has a very strong correlation to resistance and resilience under pressure. My intuition is that for people who build and maintain that kind of support, it is far easier to resist the urge to see and respond to every text, email or posting.

When we don’t have strong social support, we often buy into the myth that just getting away from the sources of stress will give real relief.  However, what really happens is that our “fight-or-flight” response just changes into different kinds of fighting (seen any online political fighting lately?) or fleeing (noticed anybody who is emotionally checked out around you?).

Building Gratefulness

A few years ago, my spiritual director challenged me to list three things I was grateful for, daily, for 30 days. There were a couple of other parts to this exercise, but it was aimed at helping build an “attitude of gratitude.” I’m happy to report that it stuck with me. One of the instructions that helped overcome my perfectionist and self-criticism tendencies was the instruction to not worry about missing a day – just pick it up again. The 30 days didn’t have to be consecutive. gratitude

Psychologists have only recently begun to look into the benefits of cultivating gratitude, but early findings are encouraging, confirming traditional teachings. In two long-term studies of college students and gratitude, researchers in England found that the more often and intensely people feel grateful, the more social support and lowered stress and depression they believe they have. This makes sense because anything that builds social support will almost surely help us cope with stress and do better overall.

Rejoice always, pray continuously, give thanks in all circumstances – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.

When we are more grateful, we tend to see the world in a more positive light, which protects against stress and depression. We also make our own world better by thanking helpful people – expressing gratitude – because they become more likely to offer us more support.

Does making gratefulness lists work? Yes, says a recent study titled, “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens.” Across three groups who either kept lists of hassles, things they were grateful for or ways in which they were better off than others, the people who tracked gratitude ended up with a more positive outlook. The gratitude list-makers were also more likely to offer emotional support to others – another example of gratitude encouraging social support. They also spent more time exercising, slept better, had fewer physical complaints and were more optimistic. Daily gratitude tracking was more powerful than weekly.

I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me – Psalm 23:4

Another study, on religious involvement and gratitude, showed that attending church more often leads to more gratefulness. The increase was greater for people who believed that God works with them to overcome difficulties and challenges.  This makes perfect sense through the lens of stress as a threat or challenge. When we feel ill-equipped to deal with a situation, our bodies have a “threat” stress response, raising the levels of hormones and neural pathways that cause long-term health problems. On the other hand, if we see the same situation as a challenge – because, in this study, we believe God is with us – our bodies react differently, in a way that doesn’t jeopardize long-term health.

Some other studies on the effects of greater gratitude:

  • Daily well-being increased with daily gratitude practices for Vietnam veterans with PTSD.
  • Gratefulness helps people stick with self-directed interventions to improve their body image.
  • Gratitude in children was related to positive functioning after the 9/11 attacks.
  • People who are more grateful tend to recall more positive life events, which helps make them more positive.
  • Writing about how a good thing, such as finding a romantic partner, might never have happened, increased their positive outlook – to the surprise of the writers.
  • Writing a letter of gratitude, about a time you were at your person best, identifying character strengths all contributed to happiness and positivity, while reducing depression.

Bibliography

Algoe, S. B., & Way, B. M. (2014). Evidence for a role of the oxytocin system, indexed by genetic variation in CD38, in the social bonding effects of expressed gratitude. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(12), 1855–1861. http://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nst182
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377
Fredrickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., & Larkin, G. R. (2003). What Good Are Positive Emotions in Crises? A Prospective Study of Resilience and Emotions Following the Terrorist Attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 365–376.
Geraghty, A. W. A., Wood, A. M., & Hyland, M. E. (2010). Attrition from self-directed interventions: Investigating the relationship between psychological predictors, intervention content and dropout from a body dissatisfaction intervention. Social Science & Medicine, 71(1), 30–37. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.03.007
Gordon, A. K., Musher-Eizenman, D. R., Holub, S. C., & Dalrymple, J. (2004). What are children thankful for? An archival analysis of gratitude before and after the attacks of September 11. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 25(5), 541–553. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2004.08.004
Kashdan, T. B., Uswatte, G., & Julian, T. (2006). Gratitude and hedonic and eudaimonic well-being in Vietnam war veterans. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(2), 177–199. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2005.01.005
Koo, M., Algoe, S. B., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). It’s a Wonderful Life: Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1217–1224. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0013316
Krause, N. (2009). Religious Involvement, Gratitude, and Change in Depressive Symptoms Over Time. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 19(3), 155–172. http://doi.org/10.1080/10508610902880204
Park, N., & Peterson, C. (n.d.). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions Martin EP Seligman & Tracy A. Steen University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from http://guardianlv.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/happiness01.pdf
Watkins, P. C., Grimm, D. L., & Kolts, R. (2004). Counting your blessings: Positive memories among grateful persons. Current Psychology, 23(1), 52–67.
Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 890–905. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.005
Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Gillett, R., Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2008). The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(4), 854–871. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2007.11.003

 

 

Yoga, one of these days!

I recently met Shannon McQuaide, director of Fireflex Yoga, which leads first responder on-duty yoga classes. Meeting her may finally get me to actually try yoga, even though I have believed for a long time that it would be good for me. In fact, I became absolutely convinced of its benefit when I read Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score

Fireflex Yoga

Fireflex Yoga

He devotes an entire chapter, Learning to Inhabit your Body, to yoga and its benefits.

Van der Kolk describes how he heard about Heart Rate Variability (HRV, a big topic of Stress, Science, Spirit) as a measure of how well your brain and body are connected.  Activities that increase your HRV will help quiet the fight-or-flight instinct that is responsible for the negative health consequences of carrying too much stress too long. Remember that, as I wrote in You cannot starve the evil wolf, escaping or avoiding stress usually backfires. You have to “feed the good wolf” through attitudes and activities – anything that increases your HRV will accomplish that. Yoga is a powerful way to “feed the good wolf,” in part because of its emphasis on breathing techniques. HRV essentially measures how well synchronized your heart and breathing are.

Van der Kolk’s research showed that traumatized people, including marines at Camp Lejeune, indicate that yoga is effective for helping people with ordinary or highly traumatic stress heal and grow.

I will admit that I’m a lot like “Annie,” van der Kolk’s patient who said, “I don’t know all of the reasons that yoga terrifies me so much, but I do know that it will be an incredible source of healing for me and that is why I am working on myself to try it.

After the earthquake

After the earthquake

Yoga is about looking inward instead of outward and listening to my body, and a lot of my survival has been geared around never doing those things.” I’m not quite “terrified,” but whenever I think about trying something like yoga, part of me seems to resist, strongly.

 

In 1990, I passed up an opportunity to try yoga in post-earthquake Haiti. I was with a Jordan International Aid medical relief team, traveling in and around Port-au-Prince putting on clinics. It was an overwhelming task – every day, far more people were lined up for care than we could possibly see. Women and children were especially hard hit- poor sanitation always hits them harder.

JIA Yoga

JIA medical team doing yoga in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Most evenings when we returned to the house where we operated from, some of the medical team would lead a yoga session. Even our Haitian national policemen were joining in, but somehow I just couldn’t bring myself to try it. I can’t claim to know why we sometimes are so resistant to things that we know would be good for us. I do know that it is related to stress and trauma. Shannon has invited me to join one of her classes at a fire station. Somehow, that seems safer than going to a classroom of strangers whose life experiences are unlikely to resemble mine. It seems to be important to start journeys of healing with people who understand, at a level beyond words, where we are coming from.

Oxytocin enhances men’s spirituality

Patty Van Cappellen, a social psychologist at Duke University, took a look at what happens when you give men oxytocin, a hormone associated with social engagement (sometimes mis-labeled the “moral hormone” because it can promote trust, altruism, generosity and intimacy). Men were studied because oxytocin is known to have different effects in men and women.

Two previous studies had suggested that oxytocin – which is released when we connect with others – is connected with spirituality. Oxytocin levels in HIV patients correlated to how spiritual they considered themselves to be. The same correlation was found in a study of devout American Christians.

In Van Cappellen’s study, some men were given oxytocin, others received a placebo. Then they were taught to meditate, a spiritual practice that the researchers believed would help reveal any effect the oxytocin produced.

The men who were given oxytocin were more likely to say afterwards that spirituality was important and that life has meaning and purpose – whether they reported belonging to an organized religion or not. The effects were still present a week later when the men were re-tested.

Oxytocin is just one of several hormones that have been connected to spirituality, but it has many pro-social and other effects that help balance stress. More than any of the others, it has been found to have many psychological effects that are similar to spiritual beliefs and practices – that’s why some were tempted to label it the “moral” hormone.

See the full study here.

 

Connecting Out

The central teaching in Stress, Spirit, Science is that when we are well connected out, in and up, we can thrive under pressure. Connecting out means social support; connecting in refers to ourselves and creation; connecting up has to do with ethics, values and the divine. Many years ago, I had a powerful connecting out experience when I decided to take a risk by sharing a painful story.

My friend and roommate, Dave Land, and I had started attending Bethel Lutheran Church in Cupertino, in the heart of Silicon Valley. For an upcoming young adult retreat, I had decided to tell about my friend John Heidish Jr., the popular president of the Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, volunteer fire department. He was a fellow volunteer with the Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services  and was burned to death in a flashover at a house fire just days before his 21st birthday, a year before I moved to California.

I created a “multimedia” presentation, which in those days meant a slide projector triggered by tones in a sound track on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I used James Taylor’s Fire and Rain as background music. The images were from my fire photos, with “rain” from firehoses.

The Methodist church where John’s memorial took place had pew Bibles and so, with nothing else to do, I picked one up and opened it. I like to read. It opened to John, chapter 13. The first words I read were verse 15, “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” They struck me as terribly, terribly appropriate. At Bethel, I had begun to realize that John’s funeral had affected me deeply. I drove the Sally Wagon (the Salvation Army’s mobile canteen) to the service and arrived early because we knew it was going to be heavily attended – fire companies were traveling long distances, even coming from surrounding states, to pay their respects.

The pastor used John 15:13 as the theme of his message. At the cemetery, he read the verse again as John’s coffin was lowered into the ground.

Those words came back to me in California during Bethel’s young adult group Bible study, when we read Luke 24, the story of grieving disciples on the road to Emmaus, who meet a stranger who turns out to be heidish-plaqueJesus. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” echoed how John 13:15 had touched me. I call that my “Emmaus experience,” when I realized that I was no longer just curious to know more about Christianity, but I had come to believe that its stories and teachings are deeply true, offering a path that leads away from death and toward life. At the retreat that day, with my slide projector and tape recorder, this was the story I told my new friends.

When the tape ended, I shut off the projector. The room was completely silent. For a moment I thought that they had all fallen asleep. Then I realized that some were quietly crying. I had experienced my own strong, uncomfortable emotions while creating the story, but I had no idea it might also deeply touch others. More than anything else, I found it intimidating, even scary, to provoke such strong feelings. As a radio and newspaper reporter, I had sought to be provocative, but this was so different – I was “reporting” about myself and receiving tears of empathy. In the safety of that church retreat, I felt new and unexpected connections to my friends.

I shared that story more than 30 years ago and I’m still a member of Bethel Lutheran. Although the people and pastors have changed over the decades, it continues to be a refuge where we lift one another up and share burdens.

In telling my story about John Heidish, I had begun to see how I could revise the past. His story was no longer just a tragic line-of-duty death; my friends and the Bible had given new meaning to his spirit of service, his life and death.

My story about John’s life and death touches the three spiritual themes of Stress, Spirit, Science – metanoia (often poorly translated as “repentance”), redemption and creation. Writing a new story helped me think differently about John’s life and death (metanoia); I discovered spiritual meaning in his sacrifice (redemption); and the retreat itself was a gift of presence and grounding, soil for new growth (creation) as we left behind day-to-day distractions.

You cannot starve the evil wolf

Have you heard the Native American legend of the two wolves?

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

As the legend says, you need to feed the good wolf. But just as important, it is impossible to starve the evil wolf. That’s why simplistic “stress reduction” usually fails. If you don’t also feed the good wolf, escaping and avoiding stress backfires and you actually end up feeding the evil wolf.

Plopping in front of the TV, mindlessly surfing the Internet, shopping for stuff you don’t need, avoiding decisions (“What do you want for dinner?” “Whatever.”) and other ways of emotionally checking out or withdrawing do not deactivate your fight-or-flight instinct. Fight-or-flight is the protective response from your nervous system and hormones, which can become stuck “on” when you have chronic or acute stress. When your fight-or-flight system stays activated through psychological flight, you may not even notice it any more, but your health is still at risk.

Fleeing, like fighting, backfires because it feeds the evil wolf. You won’t truly relax unless you feed the good wolf. In biological terms, if all you do is escape and withdraw, your sympathetic nervous system will remain aroused. That’s what leads to sleep problems, belly fat, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke and other health issues. When stress becomes a problem, you cannot directly turn down your sympathetic nervous system; you need to adopt attitudes and activities that turn up its counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system –  nurturing the good wolf.

You feed the good wolf through attitudes and activities that grow connections with people, creation (including yourself) and your values. Social connections are a powerful way to feed your good wolf. A hike in nature or doing yoga feed him. Spiritual practices like meditation, worship and compassion also feed the good wolf. You don’t need to wait for somebody else’s help – the most powerful ways to feed the good wolf are through your own acts of generosity, kindness and trust. What you give away matters far more than what you receive. But don’t make the mistake of just getting away from the things that stress you. You cannot starve the evil wolf.

Stress advice (mostly bad) from business websites

I’m  developing workshops and seminars for public safety and business, related to my upcoming book. I’ve been struck by similarities in the stressors experienced by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and public safety. The primary risk in any high-pressure career is that you lose your identity in your work, which can leave you disconnected from essential sources of resilience – your social support network (outward disconnection), yourself and creation (inward disconnection) and your values, ethics and spirituality (upward disconnection). The big difference is that in business the stress tends to be chronic, while public safety workers regularly face life-and-death acute stresses. In Silicon Valley business, people sometimes (often, in some companies) act as if their work is life-and-death!

I thought I’d take a look at what kind of advice businesses are getting about stress. I know there’s a lot of bad information out there.

First, let me tell you my point of view. “Stress reduction” is largely a myth – most of us have little power to remove the sources of stress in our lives (families and jobs are big stressors – get rid of them???). Advice about “fighting stress” or “combating stress” is even worse, since it treats stress as an enemy that must be defeated, activating the very neurophysiological systems that stress balancing will help calm down. The good news is that methods of balancing stressors, unlike trying to reduce or eradicate them, actually work, allowing us to take on enormous challenges without doing damage to our health.

Let’s see what the business publications have to say.

5 Tips for Coping With Stress at Work Starting First Thing in the Morning(Entrepreneur, 12/8/2014)

This article is in trouble and I haven’t even read past the headline. Although there are ways to balance work-related stress while you are at work, if your job is truly challenging, you don’t want to lower your performance by turning off the positive aspects of your stress response. They help you rise to the challenge. However, when you are done with the day’s duties, your body’s ability to leave them behind, to turn down the stress response, is critical. When that system stays “on duty,” health problems inevitably follow.

The Yahoo article suggest a “morning mantra” and “enter smiling,” which encourage positive thinking. Research does show that optimists cope with stress better… but studies also indicate that your optimism is largely a matter of genetics. It’s not clear that you can force yourself to become an optimist.

The article has a warning against coffee. It’s true that caffeine, like any other stimulant, will increase anxiety. But it is okay in moderation – a cup in the morning and another one when the afternoon sleepies hit won’t hurt. There’s also a recommendation here to have a “caffeine-free warm beverage that counteracts stress.” I’m not aware of any evidence to support this idea.

Finally, Yahoo says “Allow honesty.” Here, they’re onto something, suggesting that if you find yourself in a toxic situation, “extend compassion or remove yourself.” Self-compassion is the antidote to the perfectionism that pervades entrepreneurs and public safety workers – they are a lot alike in imposing unreasonable performance on themselves.

How Successful People Handle Stress (Forbes, 12/9/2014)

Travis Bradberry writes that “90% percent of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control.”

Huh? Suppressing your emotions will not balance your stress one bit. In fact, holding onto unexpressed emotions is a stressor.

Moderate stress can be good for you, this article says, citing research at U.C. Berkeley. It’s only a problem when it is chronic and sustained. So we’re back to stress reduction. A list of techniques follows.

Learn to say no. I hear this advice quite a bit in the context of stress management. It raises the question of where the wisdom and strength to say “no” come from. We say “yes” too much because we want to be liked, or are stuck in perfectionism or ambition. Where’s the instruction manual for how to turn those personality traits down? Not here.

Avoid asking “what if?” Like the previous advice, this is missing the how-to information. The goal is wonderful – we absolutely need to stay present and grounded to be able to let go of the “what ifs.”

Disconnect. Take regular time off the grid. This is another item I see frequently. Turn off your cell phone and all the other electronics and take a break. However, disconnecting is emptiness unless you also choose what you will connect with instead – friends, yourself, causes bigger than yourself.

Sleep. Yes, yes, yes. Sleep and stress are deeply related. Disrupted sleep adds increases the hormone levels that you want to turn down when you don’t need their energy-giving effects. It aggravates post-traumatic stress But again where are the instructions? “You should sleep more” is impractical advice for the person who is so keyed up that they don’t want to or can’t get to sleep, or they keep waking up early. Luckily, the next bit of advice, Exercise, is one of the activities that can help with sleep. But there is much, much more.

Don’t Hold Grudges. “Learning to let go of a grudge will not only make you feel better now but it can improve your health.” Unfortunately, that sentence is the last one in this section. It needs to be the starting point for advice on how to let go of grudges and resentments. The best work I’ve ever seen on this subject is Frederic Luskin’s Forgive for Good. People who are holding onto grudges are doing so because they don’t know how to let go – telling them “Let go” is not a solution.

Don’t Die in the Fight. This has something to do with “unchecked emotions,” but how it relates to stress is a mystery.

Mindfulness. Yes, indeed, mindfulness is the latest name for practices that help us remain present and grounded. However, it is not, as this article claims, “an effective way to gain control of unruly thoughts and behaviors.” It is about accepting things we cannot control, not controlling them!

Squash Negative Self-Talk. Similar to the positive thinking above, this bit of counsel suggests that you just stop ruminating on negative things. Just stop it. The author suggests writing down the negative thoughts and examine them for truth, which seems to be a sort of self-guided cognitive behavior therapy. Okay, but the fact is, our brains sometimes ruminate for a good reason – trying to learn from experience. My preference is to remember that it is earning its paycheck, which helps me to accept and view rumination positively – and that helps me let go of it. The danger in labeling any stress reaction as “bad” is that it blocks us from having compassion for ourselves, which as I mentioned previously, is the antidote to poisonous perfectionism.

Those articles are typical, so here are a few other tidbits of terrible and so-so advice from the business press.

Mentally strong people are aware of their stressors, and “they’re aware of the warning signs that they’re becoming stressed out.” Because of their self-awareness, they are able to “adjust their activities and their lifestyle accordingly so they can combat stress effectively.”

“Combat stress effectively.” Shall we fight stress? Wrestle with it? Do battle? No!!!

Stress is not an enemy that threatens your health and well-being. This reminds me of President Merkin Muffley’s wonderfully ironic line in Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

“One of the best ways to combat stress is to engage in leisure activities.” It can be anything — hanging with family, engaging in a hobby, watching TV. As long as it relaxes you and improves your mental state, it will be beneficial.

Not necessarily. Kevin Gilmartin, author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, like other psychologists, recommends hobbies and engagement with family and friends – the kinds of activities that can become lost when the job takes over. But there is a huge difference between truly connecting with family and hobbies, versus “hanging out” or mindlessly watching TV. Gilmartin calls this using “The Magic Chair.” To someone watching, the person in the Magic Chair seems relaxed, but inside they are still vigilant for the dangers the workday held. Don’t confuse “checking out” (disengagement, withdrawal) with relaxation.

Balancing stress is not about physical relaxation, it is about maintaining caring and compassionate connections with yourself, others, nature and values. If you are disconnected from these, you will never really relax – that’s the way we are wired. If you do maintain these kinds of relationships, you won’t need any other advice about how to manage stress.

How Well Connected are Your Brain and Body?

Adapted from my upcoming book, Stress, Science, Spirit: Connecting Out, Up and In to Thrive Under Pressure.

Ever heard of Heart Rate Variability (HRV)? It measures how well synchronized your breathing and heart rate are – but it is also increasingly recognized as an index for how well you are handling physical and emotional stress.

Every time you exhale, your heart slows down a bit. That’s why breathing techniques for relaxation always instruct you to exhale slowly. The more it slows down, the higher your HRV is likely to be and the better you are coping with stress, numerous studies have found. High HRV is good, in other words.

HRV gives a snapshot into the activation level of your vagus nerve, which is the communications superhighway between your brain and your body.

Research shows that people with high HRV – their hearts speed up and slow down more, synchronized to their breathing – are more resilient, physically and emotionally. Since the vagus nerve influences many of our body’s automatic systems, low HRV is associated with a wide variety of issues – emotional struggles, antisocial behavior, inflammatory and cardiovascular diseases, poor fitness and others. People with low HRV are much more likely to die after a heart attack (Robert E. Kleiger, J.Philip Miller, Thomas Bigger Jr., & Arthur J. Moss, 1987; Thayer, Yamamoto, & Brosschot, 2018).

Although our HRV is determined by genetics and your life experiences, you can change it. Early studies of HRV biofeedback has shown promise for helping to heal a variety of illnesses and injuries:

  • Major depression (Karavidas, et al., 2007),
  • Brain injuries (Lagos, Thompson, & Vaschillo, 2013),
  • Cardiac rehabilitation (Climov, et al., 2014),
  • Addictions – including food (Eddie, C. Kim, Deneke, & Bates, 2014; Meule, Freund, Skirde, Vögele, & Kübler, 2012; Penzlin, et al., 2015),
  • PTSD (Reyes, 2014),
  • High blood pressure (Guiping Lin, 2012),
  • Hostility (Lin, et al., 2015),
  • Chronic pain (Melanie E. Berry, et al., 2014).

HRV biofeedback is also showing promise in life-enhancing uses, including:

  • Improving sports performance by reducing anxiety (Paul & Garg, 2016),
  • Preparing military for combat deployment (Lewis, et al., 2015),
  • Grandmothers raising grandchildren (Zauszniewski, Au, & Musil, 2013),
  • Accelerated learning (Harmelink, 2016).

What do all of these have in common? They are interconnected via your “rest and digest” system (the parasympathetic nervous system). Central to it, the vagus (“wandering”) nerve connects the brain, gut (intestines, stomach), heart, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, ureter, spleen, lungs, fertility organs (in women), voice, ears and tongue.

High HRV indicates that your brain has greater control over the fight-or-flight system, so you are better able – consciously and unconsciously – to turn it down when danger passes.

Imagine that your body is a fire engine speeding down the road “Code 3” – siren screaming and lights flashing. The fire is out and the emergency is over, but you’re not the driver – you are in a back seat repeating to the driver over the intercom, “Slow down, slow down.” The driver will only ease off the gas and hit the brakes when she can hear your instructions.

“You” are your brain, the driver is your flight-or-flight system, the intercom is your vagus nerve and the speed at which your “slow down” messages are actually reaching the driver is your HRV.

If you are saying “slow down” 20 times a minute, but the driver only hears it five times, that’s low HRV. Your brain isn’t well connected to your body. As a result, neither your conscious mind nor your automatic nervous systems have much control, so the fire truck continues to barrel down the road as if there is still a crisis. In contrast, if most of your messages get through, the driver eases off the gas and the wear and tear on your body is reduced.

The usual goal of “stress management” would be to reduce the stressors, which would be like parking the fire engine – stop responding. Avoid “fires.” But how do you do that if it’s your job?

Instead, you can restore balance through activities and attitudes that help make the “intercom” between your brain and body work better, which will show up as increased HRV. Good news: the vagus nerve is two-way communications, so if you improve your HRV, you will help the back-seat driver’s messages get through.

You can improve your HRV directly through biofeedback, breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques. Even more significantly, your HRV will also reflect the strength of your social support, which is crucial to resistance and resilience to stress. A host of other activities will activate your vagus nerve, which has cascading effects that tell the fire engine (the fight-or-flight instinct) to slow down. Researchers have observed that this happens with yoga, meditation, gratitude, prayer, generosity, trusting and trustworthiness, compassion (for yourself and others), hugging a friend and even having a good cry.  These are the “connecting out (to people), in (to yourself and creation, being grounded) and up (values, ethics, spirituality) that Stress, Spirit, Science will describe in stories and practical advice.

Bibliography

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Climov, D., Lysy, C., Berteau, S., Dutrannois, J., Dereppe, H., Brohet, C., & Melin, J. (2014). Biofeedback on heart rate variability in cardiac rehabilitation: practical feasibility and psycho-physiological effects. Acta Cardiologica, 69(3), 299–307. http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/25029875

Eddie, D., Kim, C., Lehrer, P., Deneke, E., & Bates, M. E. (2014). A Pilot Study of Brief Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback to Reduce Craving in Young Adult Men Receiving Inpatient Treatment for Substance Use Disorders. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 39(3–4), 181–192. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-014-9251-z

Harmelink, A. (2016). Pilot Study of the Effects of Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback on Perceived Stress, Perceived Coping Ability, and Resilience in Accelerated Baccalaureate Nursing Students. Theses and Dissertations. Retrieved from http://openprairie.sdstate.edu/etd/1015

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The usual wrong conclusion

A press release from earlier this summer (Seventy-five percent of U.S. employers say stress is their number one workplace health concern) offered the unsurprising statistic that a huge majority of businesses consider stress their No. 1 priority.

Three-fourths (75%) of U.S. employers ranked stress as their top health and productivity concern, but employers and employees disagreed on its causes, according to surveys by Willis Towers Watson. Employers and employees had just one factor in common in their top three choices: inadequate staffing, which employees ranked number one and employers ranked number two. Opinions diverged after that — on some points, dramatically.

So far, so good – identifying workplace stressors is a positive step.  Some of the report’s identified sources of stress can be reduced.

Employees and employers seem to agree that low pay and inadequate staffing are big stressors. But what exactly is an employer supposed to do with that information? Is there a business anywhere that can simply decide to hire more people and pay everybody more? Highly profitable companies may have that option, sometimes, if they aren’t under great pressure from shareholders.  I’m not at all sure that there’s anything most businesses can do.  This seems to be a social and political problem more than a business issue.

“Lack of work/life balance (excessive workloads and/or long hours)” was employers top stressor, but only No. 6 according to employees, ranked behind the long hours and low pay, along with company culture, unclear job expectations and excessive organizational change. Employers were also much more concerned than employees about technologies such as cell phones and laptops that keep employees “on duty” more of the time.

Perhaps employers focus on their employees’ work/life balance because they believe they are powerless to increase their compensation, thanks to competition.

The reason I titled this post, “The usual wrong conclusion” is that it is almost entirely focused on the idea that stress management only means eliminating the stressors. To be fair, the press release acknowledges that “the demands of work and life will always cause some stress for some employees.”

Well, I’m not sure we would call our jobs “work” if they didn’t challenge us.

Here’s the bright nugget in the midst of the survey: One of the two ways employees tend to choose to deal with stress is “connecting with friend, family members and colleagues.” Bravo. That’s one of the three kinds of “connecting” that enable us to take on challenges and thrive.  I call it “connecting out” and it’s also called social support or fellowship. Many, many research studies show a strong correlation between social support and resilience.

The second preferred employee option is mixed – “activities such as exercise, stress-reduction techniques or sedentary activities including indulging in comfort foods or watching TV.” Exercise, particularly activities that activate the vagus nerve, such as yoga and tai chi, help turn down the damaging stress response. They help us connect to ourselves and the world, staying more present and grounded. I call this “connecting in.”

However, as relaxing as watching TV or eating comfort foods might be, they are certainly not helpful to balancing stressors. Quite the opposite, especially high-carbohydrate foods – which are quite tasty when you are stressed and not sleeping enough.

There’s a third kind of connecting that isn’t directly addressed in this report, which I call “connecting up.” In addition to our relationships with people and creation, we all need to be spiritually connected. Wait, before you assume I’m talking about religion, I’m not. Religion can be a source of spirituality (and it is for me), but what I mean in this context is any activity that helps you find meaning. Spirituality has to do with values such as honesty and kindness, which we typically take on faith rather than logic.

I can’t help but speculate that perhaps the reason low pay and under-staffing are huge employee concerns is that the concentration of wealth in the modern world has been accelerating. Would people perceive their pay as too low and their workload excessive if inequalities were not so great? I doubt it.

Dark Humor

It’s no secret that many of us engage in, and possibly rely on, dark humor to get through tough days. I find myself frequently reassuring responders that there’s nothing wrong with the black, sick jokes, as long as we keep them among ourselves.

A few years ago I got a taste of how they feel to the public when I arrived at an accident that a close friend was directly involved in. My friend was feeling responsible for serious injuries to the victim. I identified myself as a critical incident responder and asked a police officer how the victim was doing. He gave me a very grim look, twirled his finger and said, “Circling the drain.” He waited a beat for my reaction, then smiled and said, “Just kidding. He seemed to be okay when they transported him.” For a moment, my heart had sunk, wondering if the victim was going to die (he didn’t, but his injuries were critical). When I realized the cop was joking, I felt a moment of anger, but reminded myself that dark humor is a coping mechanism. I doubt most ordinary people would feel anything but angry at the apparent insensitivity. Go ahead and make the sick jokes, but don’t laugh out loud on the scene of a tragedy – even if all you are doing is directing traffic.

Here are a few good pages about the psychology of dark humor.

 

It’s Good to be Bad: The Psychological Benefit of Dark Humor – Contains really sick jokes, if that’s what you are after.

Humor as Weapon, Shield and Psychological Salve – Includes discussion of the Nazis’ fear of humor. Possibly quite timely in the current U.S. political season.

Awfully Funny – A deeper dive, with research references.

 

 

 

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