Mind-Body

New Study: Mindfulness Reduces Fearful and Anxious Emotions

With the prevalence and continued rise of anxiety and trauma-related disorders, it’s become more and more important to develop effective treatment strategies. This need is what sparked new research from the University of Southern Denmark exploring the effect of mindfulness training on participants’ ability to rid the body of negative emotions.

A recent report from MindBodyGreen outlined the study: “Researchers recruited 26 participants and placed them into either an experimental or control group. While the experimental group went through a four-week mindfulness training consisting of daily practices of short breathwork or meditation through a smartphone app, the control group did not. After the month-long training period, participants were brought into a lab to complete an experiment in emotions.

Researchers were able to condition-specific fear reactions linked to certain images by subjecting participants to a small shock after showing them the images. The association of the shock with the images created a physiological response of fear within the body. Typically, these learned fear reactions are acquired through any sort of trauma or psychological disorders and can be very difficult to forget.

The following day, participants were brought back to test their reactions to the same images. The researchers discovered that subjects who had been trained in mindfulness were able to completely extinguish the fear reactions from the previous day, showing no response when faced with the images. The results, therefore, established the link between mindfulness and eliminating fearful and anxious emotions, which is the first time a study has proved this with direct physical evidence.”

While most of us have a basic understanding of the power of mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation to alleviate stress and anxiety in the present and future, this particular research experiment shows how these practices can help those suffering from fear and anxiety due to past trauma. The research implies that things like guided meditation may be used in place of a typical psychological treatment to help alleviate trigger responses.

“We can show that mindfulness does not only have an effect on subjective experiences of negative emotions, as has been shown previously but that you can actually see clear effects on autonomic arousal responses, even with a limited amount of training,” said lead author Johannes Björkstrand. He added that the team hopes to replicate the study on a larger scale and learn more about what processes in the brain are involved.


Steps to Overcoming Burnout

Many times when we feel burnout, the last thing we want to do is combat the issue head-on. This is due to the fact that burnout typically comes from a high-stress situation in which we feel numbed from the amount of work that’s on our plate. Yet when we fail to view our health and wellbeing as the number one priority, burnout has the potential to send us into a downward spiral emotionally, physically and spiritually, and wreak havoc on key pillars of our lives like family, and community.

A recent MindBody article explains how we get burnt out:

“Ironically, for many of us, burnout starts with success. We get promotions. Our bank account numbers go up. We get a big following on social media. This success can be tricky because it causes us to do more and more to pursue greater success. In our attempt to constantly grow, we work harder.

For other people, burnout may stem from focusing solely on caring for family members—especially aging or ill parents—without caring for themselves.

As it turns out, the price for pushing yourself too hard—whether you're trying to achieve wealth, a promotion, social status, a happier family, or even a better world—is disconnecting from yourself. As you get more and more disconnected, you become more robotic and less aware of the choices you're making, and this accelerates your spiral into burnout.”

If you’re feeling stuck in autopilot, overwhelmed by your daily life, and disconnected from yourself and others, you are likely experiencing burnout. The good news is, there are steps that you can take right now to heal from burnout and turn things around.

First, working on changing your mindset with a morning ritual, meditation practice, or gentle movement routine like yoga can help you gain clarity and control.

Externally, surrounding yourself with uplifting, supportive people can protect you from burnout and re-energize you. On the other hand, toxic, depleting people will drain your battery even more.

Outdoor therapy, consisting of sunlight, greenery, and water, is known to increase not just vitamin D, but your body’s level of nitric oxide, which increases blood flow, optimizes the immune system and serves as a signaling molecule for the brain. Forest bathing, a practice of simply being outside and nature, is now gaining popularity as it is shown to positively affect our moods, and make us happier, more productive and healthier human beings.

Satisfying the innate human craving for touch is also a productive way to combat burnout, per MindBodyGreen.

“These days, many of us are ‘touch-deprived.’ This contributes to burnout because stimulating our touch receptors calms us, lowers our blood pressure, and reduces our levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In addition, it raises our levels of oxytocin, a hormone that helps us to bond with other people.”

Lastly, nourishing yourself with healthy foods, more sleep, and essential nutrients, will help boost your immune system, reduce stress, optimize your brain functioning, and as a result, heal you from burnout. Ultimately, it’s important to go easy on yourself and avoid strict diets, harsh cleanses, or challenging workouts.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself and pay attention to what you need, instead of numbing yourself with things that do not serve you. You’ll be back to your thriving self before you know it.


Self-Care Practices to Relieve Post-Holiday Stress

In a world where many of us have been programmed to believe that more is always better and that rest is for the weak, it’s often difficult to get started on a self-care routine. 

Recently, however, our levels of stress and anxiety have gotten so out of control, that the sheer amount of people looking for easy ways to unwind and find some peace in their lives has led to the boom of the “self-care industry.” 

After the holidays, when many of us are feeling the sugar and alcohol hangover, as well as a desire for some quiet time after reunions with family and friends, self-care feels particularly incredible. 

For those that aren’t quite ready to invest in a monthly yoga membership, sign-up for a meditation retreat, or go get a massage, and want to start with simple, easy practices, there are many free ways to start caring for yourself at home. 

Kelsey J. Patel, reiki master, and empowerment coach, shared a few tips to maintain a healthy relationship with yourself in a recent article on Livestrong

"Do a daily check-in with yourself each morning to see what you need, just for you, that day," she says. "It could be the simplest thing like your morning coffee alone, a 30-minute walk with your favorite music, or drinking a green juice to fuel your body."

Strengthening your ability to speak your truth, particularly the ability to say no to certain engagements and conversations, is also important. 

"Honor yourself and your desires and share it lovingly and openly,” Patel added.

Remember that movement can be the best medicine. Whether it’s dancing, running, skiing, boxing, yoga, or anything in between, prioritizing exercise and expressing yourself through movement will help release stagnant energy, energize you, and help you feel good in your own skin. 

True self-care is knowing what works for you as an individual. This means exercising in a way that is enjoyable for you, and not pushing yourself into any regimen out of fear of not being enough, or fitting into someone else’s standard of success. 

Finally, be your own best friend -- and take his or her advice to heart.


Trouble Sleeping? Try This.

Whether it’s chronic insomnia or tossing and turning before bed once in a while, sleep deprivation can become a big domino that negatively impacts other aspects of our lives. Lack of sleep can lead to emotional disease, loss of productivity and energy, and other health issues.

When we can’t fall asleep, many of us turn to a distraction like a phone or a laptop screen. However, this blue light is often the worst thing we can do to signal our bodies to sleep. In fact, light will stop the natural production of melatonin, a natural hormone your body secretes that helps to maintain your wake-sleep cycle and can increase cortisol levels.

Read.

Swap the screen for a Kindle. Reading gets your mind of “trying” to sleep and puts you in a restful state. Plus, if you can’t sleep anyway, you might as well be enjoying your time and possibly learning something in the process.

Listen to music or a podcast.

Another way to help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system is to listen to music. According to the Sleep Foundation, "Music has the power to slow your heart rate and breathing, lower your blood pressure, and it may even trigger your muscles to relax. These biological changes mirror some of the same changes that your body undergoes when you're falling asleep,” per Livestrong.

If you’re not in the mood for music, you can find a podcast on almost every topic that can help reign in your mind and focus. Podcasts can be like bedtime stories for adults.

Meditate.

Chances are, you’re awake because of a busy mind. Integrating a mindfulness practice into your day will help alleviate stress and calm the mind when you are ready for bed. That said, if you are still feeling anxious at night, accept what is happening and come back to those tools.

Try a body scan, from the tips of your toes to the crown of your head, and imagine releasing tension in each little part of the body. If your own meditation doesn’t work for you, consider downloading an app like Calm or Insight Timer, which have many meditations specifically for bedtime.

Breathe.

Focus on the constant inhale and exhale. Notice how the air moves in through your nose, and out through your mouth, and how it feels in the body.

Then, you can practice lengthening the breath.

According to Livestrong, deep breathing “stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for activities that occur when our body is at rest.”

Michelle Drerup, PsyD, director of behavioral sleep medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center explains that the parasympathetic nervous system functions oppositely to the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates activities associated with the fight-or-flight response. She recommends trying the 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise.

How to Perform the 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise:

  • Sit up straight and breathe in silently through your nose to the count of four.
    Hold your breath to the count of seven.
    Exhale through your mouth to the count of eight, making an audible "woosh" sound.
    Repeat the cycle for four breaths, gradually working your way up to eight full cycles.

If your insomnia persists, there could be an underlying issue, and therefore you may seek out a medical professional.


A Better Way to Manage Loneliness

In an age where we’re more digitally connected than ever, our social media accounts look like vision boards rather than our real lives. Meanwhile, our levels of real-life social isolation are on the rise.

This is due to a variety of factors. Some look to smaller household sizes, with 10% of Americans now living alone. Two in five Americans report that they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated. This feeling of loneliness can lead to chronic illness and inflammation on a cellular level. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

According to the 2016 VICELAND UK Census, loneliness is the number one fear of young people today—ranking ahead of losing a home or a job. The study found that 42% of Millennial women are more afraid of loneliness than a cancer diagnosis, by far the highest share of any generation.

Typically, when we feel lonely, we want to get rid of the feeling as quickly as possible and see it as a sign to do more in the external world. Yet perhaps this is exactly the opposite of what loneliness is asking of us.

Imagine your sense of connection and belonging as a building structure. It’s often standing on key pillars of our lives, like our romantic partners, friends, family relationships, creative projects, volunteer work, career (work friends), roommates, etc.

When one of these pillars falls, such as when we go through a breakup or live alone for the first time, or move to a new city and don’t have any friends yet, we see how fragile that building is.

We feel empty, like something is missing, a pillar of the foundation -- so we go about frantically trying to build it back up, or find a quick replacement because we can’t bear to feel lonely.

Yet if we just paused to focus on the foundation, we could form a long term strategy to dealing with loneliness instead of reaching for a band-aid. A sense of connection laid on solid, unbreakable, foundation, a deep relationship with yourself, a growing, compassionate, and patient relationship with yourself, is the most sustainable way to keep your structure standing.

In this view, when one of the structures falls, a better way to manage would be focusing on your relationship with you. Of course, seeking out connection and community in all those other ways, like supportive friendships and volunteering is important, but we overlook the most powerful tool of all.

Loneliness shows up to remind us to come back into alignment, starting with our inner self.

It asks us to sit with ourselves and work on building a thriving relationship from the inside out. We may decide to try new things and ask ourselves questions. To process trauma, celebrate wins, push ourselves to do the things we’ve put off forever, and start sharing authentically. Getting to know this new version of ourselves, refining our values and sticking up for them.

When the inner relationship is strong, when one or a few pillars fall, the entire structure does not tumble.

I love this Brene Brown quote from her book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging.

“True belonging is not passive. It's not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It's not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it's safer. It's a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. We want true belonging, but it takes tremendous courage to knowingly walk into hard moments.”

Maybe loneliness scares us because it forces us to feel deeply. To integrate our experiences, take off our masks and gaze inward at our truth. To simply breathe.

Loneliness isn’t something to push away, it’s something to befriend, to spend a night with having quality time, getting clear about your values, your intentions and the impact you want your life to have on those around you. It’s an emotion to cozy up with -- cup of tea in hand, book in the other, after a day of plenty of water, clean food and a stroll in the park with your friend.

See, it’s not so bad after all. Here’s to one less stranger! Loneliness doesn’t ask us for much.


New Study Finds High Intensity Exercise Is Best for Memory

The idea that the mind and the body are more connected than we previously believed is now being accepted by more and more people. We all know that staying active and treating our bodies right can help alleviate stress, promote wellbeing, increase our energy levels and promote longevity on many levels. 

According to a new study, when it comes to the effect of aerobic exercise and brain health, the level of intensity of the workout really matters. 

A report published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, examined the effect of aerobic exercise intensity on memory and general cognitive abilities. A group of healthy adults between the ages of 60 and 88 were analyzed during a 12-week period, in which they participated in three sessions per week. The participants were split evenly into three groups: one HIIT workout group, one moderate-intensity continuous training group, and one group that only stretched. 

“The researchers tested the amount of each group's "newborn" neurons—this type of neuron has been previously shown to be more active than mature neurons and can better form new connections in the brain and create new memories,” per MindBodyGreen. 

The researchers found that the participants in the HIIT group saw their memory performance increase by 30% after the three-month period, compared to no change for the moderate exercise group. 

“These scientists found that the HIIT group specifically boosted their high-interference memory, which typically helps people distinguish between similar information (think differentiating cars from the same make or model),” per MBG. 

Key takeaways from the study include:

  • High-intensity interval training results in the greatest memory performance in inactive older adults compared to moderate continuous training or stretching 
  •  Improvement in fitness correlates with improvement in memory performance

Overall, the new research supports the notion that exercise can help promote healthy aging and reduce the negative side effects of degenerative brain diseases like dementia. 

"There is an urgent need for interventions that reduce dementia risk in healthy older adults. Only recently have we begun to appreciate the role that lifestyle plays, and the greatest modifying risk factor of all is physical activity," wrote Jennifer Heisz, Ph.D., lead author of the study. 


Research Finds a Healthy Gut Can Build Muscle

Scientists are just starting to uncover the countless ways in which the gut’s microbiome is crucial to individual health and wellbeing. More and more people are awakening to the fact that maintaining a “healthy gut,” full of trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microscopic living things, is essential to the body’s functioning. 

The growing amount of research in recent years on the human microbiome demonstrates that gut microbes, which have been found to interact with nearly all human cells, play a key role in metabolism, immunity, and other key bodily functions. Changes in gut microbes have been linked to obesity, liver disease, diabetes, cancer and neurological conditions that damage brain tissue, per Medical News Today

Now, new research supports the idea that gut microbes have a role in regulating muscle mass and function. Scientists at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore led a study published in Science Translational Medicine, which compared strength and movement in mice as they performed activities in a lab. One group of mice had no microbes, or were “germ-free,” and the other group had normal, “healthy” gut microbes. 

“Researchers found that the mice without the gut microbes had weaker skeletal muscles and produced less energy than the mice with gut microbes,” per Medical News Today. “In addition, the team found that transplanting gut microbes from normal mice into germ-free mice increased muscle mass and strength in the latter. This intervention also led to partial restoration of muscle growth and function in the previously germ-free mice.”

"These results," said senior study author Sven Pettersson, a professor in the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine at NTU, "further strengthen the growing evidence of gut microbes acting as crucial gatekeepers to human health, and provide new insight into muscle mass maintenance with respect to aging."

Another study compared the gut microbiome in 18 adults with high-physical functioning and favorable body composition, and 11 with low physical functioning and less favorable body composition. The findings showed that the bacterial profiles of the two groups were significantly different. Researchers then inoculated mice with the bacteria from both groups of humans. They found that the mice with bacteria from the adults with “favorable body composition” had more grip strength than when compared to LF-colonized mice. 

These studies support the notion that bacteria plays a role in maintaining muscle strength, especially as we age. 

You might be asking yourself, how do I maintain a healthy gut microbe? To support the general health of the gut microbiome, you should consume foods high in prebiotic fiber, and consider taking a probiotic supplement. Other steps to improve gut health include getting good sleep, drinking water, eating slowly, engaging stress-reducing activities, and shifting your diet towards plant-based.

Read more on Healthline about signs of an unhealthy gut and ways to improve your gut health.


Yin Yoga for Deep Relaxation and Mental Clarity

Yin is a style of yoga in which students hold postures for long periods of time. It contrasts with the more fast-faced, dynamic Yang practice typically known as Vinyasa yoga, which has been popularized in the Western world. 

The deeply meditative and restful practice of yin yoga is vital for creating balance in our lives. As we spend more time sitting at desks, staring at screens and driving cars, it is important to stretch and move our bodies. That said, adding a high-intensity workout or cardio vinyasa class to your routine may only work to spike your cortisol levels. A yin practice is a great way to turn on your parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for slowing your heart rate and aiding in key processes like digestion and hormone regulation. 

A 2018 study found that incorporation of yin yoga for five weeks reduced both the physiological and psychological risk factors known to be associated with non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. “Yin yoga could be an easy and low-cost method of limiting the negative health effects associated with high stress,” read the report. 

A key component of yin is targeting the deep connective tissue between the muscles and the fascia throughout the body. By doing so, you can increase circulation in the joints and improve flexibility. 

Yin is accessible to everyone, almost everywhere. While props and blankets are nice to have, there is no equipment necessary for a yin practice. There are countless videos and resources online, both free and premium, that will guide you into different postures. 

As self-care moves more into the mainstream, we are starting to understand why it is so important to cultivate a positive relationship with ourselves. Yin yoga gives us the space and time to connect with our breath and send gratitude to our bodies. Sitting in poses for up to ten minutes at a time, we feel what it’s like to just pause for a moment without the distractions of social media, calendar deadlines, and to-do lists. 

Like other forms of meditation, it supports a practice of acceptance, one of the most helpful tools for a happy, healthy, low-stress life. Instead of running away from challenging poses or situations, yin reminds us that sitting with discomfort will help you grow. Throughout class, the mind will want you to leave the pose. Students are encouraged to listen to that voice, let it go, and observe our own thoughts and reactions from a place of non-judgment and calmness. 

For anyone feeling disconnected with their bodies, yin is a perfect practice for reconnecting. Yin emphasizes listening to the body, playing close attention to the sensations in each pose and how they change throughout the class. This gives us the opportunity to be present and authentic. 

 When strong sensations come up, invoking memories, anxieties and tension that we store deep in our tissues, yin gives us the opportunity to let it go. While these memories and emotions can be tough to deal with at the moment, there is a long-lasting benefit. 

For people who want to start meditating, but can’t seem to get themselves to sit totally still for a length of time, yin yoga may be a great introduction. In the process, you may find more ease in your body, benefiting your other workouts. Best yet, you will likely find that you are less reactive to stress, more joyful, and find it easier to connect with your heart and practice compassion for yourself and others.


Why Positive Self-Talk Improves Athletic Performance

At any given moment, chances are we are experiencing some form of mental dialogue. Most of us wish we could shut off the voices in our head, which is why more and more people are beginning to embrace mindfulness practices intended to quiet the mental chatter, such as yoga and meditation. 

That said, not all self-talk is bad. In fact, cultivating a better relationship with that voice inside our heads can improve our mental health, sense of emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and physical performance. This is why positive self-talk has become a pillar of sports psychology, although it remains one of the hardest skills to master.

For athletes, negative internal messages and thoughts can cause debilitating pre-race jitters and performance anxiety. The first step in cultivating positive self-talk is to flip the script with positive messages. For example, if you are running a long-distance race, instead of telling yourself “I’m tired,” you may replace the phrase with “you’ve prepared for this and are strong enough to finish this race.” 

These seemingly inconsequential thoughts you whisper to yourself become self-fulfilling prophecies. It turns out that your brain has the power to alter your physical limitations. 

In a 2013 study, four self-chosen motivational phrases led 24 volunteers to last an average of 18% longer in a cycling test to exhaustion. The self-talk group also felt that the exercise was easier -- based on the fact that the rating of perceived exertion on a 10-point scale increased at a slower pace than the control group. 

A newer study shows that motivational self-talk, particularly when it is in the second person, can improve athletic performance, as outlined by Runner’s World

Researchers at Bangor University measured the time it took 16 cyclists to complete 10-kilometers, as well as their power output and rating of perceived exertion. During the first trial, they talked to themselves in the first person (“I”), and in the second race, they talked to themselves in the second person (“you”). 

When addressing themselves in the second person, the cyclists completed the 10K time trial an average of 2.2% faster (17:48 versus 17:24). Their perceived level of exertion was the same in both trials. 

To explain why the cyclists performed better with the second person mental dialogue, James Hardy, Ph.D., lead researcher, told Runner’s World that the advantage could be attributed to “self-distancing.” This distancing perspective helps one “stand back and observe what is going on, akin to being in the balcony looking down on the dance floor rather than on the dance floor itself. This promotes clearer thinking, better choices, and enhanced performance.” By taking a step back and assuming the perspective of a supporting onlooker, athletes gain a better self of willpower and self-control. 

The researchers added that individuals with bigger egos, or those who score high for narcissism, user more first-person pronouns, and may not benefit from the self-distancing perspective. 

Mitchell Greene, Ph.D., a sport psychologist in Haverford, Pennsylvania, recommends that athletes prepare a list of second person statements, and have a game plan for when to use them. 

“The more prepared you are for the physical and psychological dips you will experience, the more quickly you can go to your self-statements, the less possibility that you will let physical fatigue, the performance of other runners, self-doubt, and negative thoughts slow you down,” he added.