Posts Tagged Anxiety

Abstract Thinking as Means to Boost Self-Control


Abstract Thinking as Means to Boost Self-ControlSelf-control is much easier talked about than accomplished, and that applies to improving diet, exercise and reducing stress.

Researchers point out that many of the long-term goals people strive for — like losing weight — require us to use self-control and forgo immediate gratification. But ignoring immediate desires in order to reap future benefits is often very hard to do.

In a new study, researchers Kentaro Fujita, Ph.D., and Jessica Carnevale of Ohio State University propose that the way people subjectively understand, or construe, events can influence self-control.

Experts say that thinking about things abstractly and placing the items into broad categories (called high-level construal) allows us to psychologically distance ourselves from the pushes and pulls of the immediate moment. This, in turn, makes us more sensitive to the big picture implications of our behavior and helps us become more consistent between our values and our behavior.

For example, a dieter choosing based on immediately apparent differences between the choices (low-level construal) might focus on taste and opt for a candy bar over an apple.

A dieter choosing on the basis of high-level construal, however, might view the choice in the broader terms of a choice between weight loss and hedonism, and opt for the apple.

Viewing the decision-making process in an abstract or construal process as a means to maximize self-control involves the integration of many scientific disciplines.

Researchers believe investigating the link between construal level and self-control may be a method to help society confront societal problems including obesity, addiction, and debt.

The research is published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

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Stress, Depression Reduce Brain Volume Thanks to Genetic ‘Switch’


Stress, Depression Reduce Brain Volume Thanks to Genetic 'Switch' Scientists have known that stress and depression can cause the brain to retract or lose volume, a condition associated with both emotional and cognitive impairment. Now, a new study discovers why this occurs.

Yale scientists have found that the deactivation of a single genetic switch can instigate a cascading loss of brain connections in humans and depression in animal models.

Researchers say the genetic switch, known as a transcription factor, represses the expression of several genes that are necessary for the formation of synaptic connections between brain cells. The loss of connections, in turn, can contribute to loss of brain mass in the prefrontal cortex, say the scientists.

“We wanted to test the idea that stress causes a loss of brain synapses in humans,” said senior author Ronald Duman, Ph.D. “We show that circuits normally involved in emotion, as well as cognition, are disrupted when this single transcription factor is activated.”

In the study, the research team analyzed tissue of depressed and non-depressed patients donated from a brain bank and looked for different patterns of gene activation.

The brains of patients who had been depressed exhibited lower levels of expression in genes that are required for the function and structure of brain synapses.

Lead author and postdoctoral researcher H.J. Kang, Ph.D., discovered that at least five of these genes could be regulated by a single transcription factor called GATA1.

When the transcription factor was activated in animal models, rodents exhibited depressive-like symptoms, suggesting GATA1 plays a role not only in the loss of connections between neurons but also in symptoms of depression.

This finding of genetic variations in GATA1 may help researchers identify people at high risk for major depression or sensitivity to stress.

“We hope that by enhancing synaptic connections, either with novel medications or behavioral therapy, we can develop more effective antidepressant therapies,” Duman said.

Source: Yale University

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Low Estrogen Linked to PTSD


Low Estrogen Linked to PTSDHigh levels of estrogen may help protect a woman from mood disorders, while low levels of the hormone can make a woman more susceptible to trauma at certain times in her menstrual cycle, according to new research by Harvard and Emory University neuroscientists.

Depression and anxiety disorders are twice as common in women as in men, but the reason for this gender difference has remained unclear.  The new research, however, suggests that women are most at risk for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when their estrogen is low during the menstrual cycle.

“PTSD is a disorder of recovery,” said author Mohammed Milad, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and director of the Behavioral Neuroscience Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).

Men may be less susceptible to mood disorders since testosterone is regularly converted into estrogen in the male brain, resulting in a more steady flow of estrogen.

In healthy women and female rats, estrogen calms the fear response, according to the Harvard researchers, who were led by Kelimer Lebron-Milad, an HMS instructor of psychiatry.

The Emory researchers, led by postdoctoral researcher Ebony Glover, proved that the same is true for women suffering from PTSD. The higher their blood levels of estrogen were when they completed a fear-extinction task, the less likely women were to act startled.

Both studies used “fear-conditioning” experiments, in which the participant is trained to fear a safe “conditioned stimulus” such as a colored shape, paired with a frightening or painful “unconditioned stimulus” like a shock to the finger or a puff of air to the neck or eye.

Overall, women or female rats showed less fear to the neutral stimulus when their estrogen levels were high rather than low.

PTSD is common in women after a trauma such as rape or sexual assault, which studies say are experienced by 25 to 30 percent of women in their lifetimes, and the symptoms last on average four times as long in women as in men after trauma.

This new research suggests the reason for this vulnerability may be the monthly menstrual change in estrogen.

“People are afraid to look into the influence of sex hormones on ‘fear learning’ and extinction,” said Mohammed Milad, “because it’s such a complex system.”

When Milad studied fear as a Ph.D. student, his lab used only male rats. But when he began to study fear in humans as a postdoctoral researcher, he saw that female data were much more variable.

“The data led me there,” to sex differences, Milad said. “Since females add variance, scientists have tended to avoid studying them” in rodent research, he said. Studies of the human brain would tend to combine men and women, assuming that neurological gender differences were minimal. But this attitude is changing.

In addition, since birth control pills affect estrogen levels, they may be used as a future treatment against post-traumatic stress.

The research is published in Biological Psychiatry.

Source:  Biological Psychiatry

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Appreciative Teens Are Happier, Healthier


Appreciative Teens Are Happier, HealthierTeenagers possessing traits of cooperation, purpose, creativity and persistence are more likely to be happy, and less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol or have behavioral problems at school.

In a new study, psychologists say the cluster of positive traits, or gratitude, is critical for adolescent mental health.

“Gratitude played an important role in many areas of positive mental health of the teens in our study,” said lead author Giacomo Bono, Ph.D., psychology professor at California State University.

“Increases in gratitude over a four-year period were significantly related to improvements in life satisfaction, happiness, positive attitudes and hope.”

Researchers studied the development of gratefulness by asking 700 students, ages 10 to 14, to complete questionnaires in their classroom at the beginning of the study and four years later.

After four years, researchers compared the results of the least grateful 20 percent of the students with the most grateful 20 percent.

This analysis showed that teens with the most gratitude by the end of the four-year period had:

  • Gained 15 percent more of a sense of meaning in their life;
  • Become 15 percent more satisfied with their life overall (at home, at school, with their neighborhood, with their friends and with themselves);
  • Become 17 percent more happy and more hopeful about their lives;
  • Experienced a 13 percent drop in negative emotions and a 15 percent drop in depressive symptoms.

Researchers found that teens with low gratitude at the start of the study could still benefit if they developed more gratitude over the four-year period.

“They experienced many of the same improvements in well-being. Moreover, they showed slight reductions overall in delinquency, such as alcohol and drug use, cheating on exams, skipping school, detention and administrative discipline,” Bono said.

“For instance, the top 10 percent of those who developed the most gratitude showed 9 percent less delinquency than the bottom 10 percent in gratitude growth.”

For the purposes of the study, the authors defined grateful teens as having a disposition and moods that enabled them to respond positively to the good people and things in their lives, Bono said.

The four-year study took place in New York with a sample that was 54 percent girls, 67 percent white, 11 percent Asian-American, 10 percent African-American, 1.4 percent Hispanic, 9 percent other and 1.6 percent no response.

“These findings suggest that gratitude may be strongly linked with life skills such as cooperation, purpose, creativity and persistence and, as such, gratitude is vital resource that parents, teachers and others who work with young people should help youth build up as they grow up,” Bono said.

“More gratitude may be precisely what our society needs to raise a generation that is ready to make a difference in the world.”

Source: American Psychological Association

Happy teenager photo by shutterstock.

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Sleep Problems A Global Epidemic?


Sleep Problems A Global Epidemic?Can’t sleep? You’re not alone. New research shows that the levels of sleep-related problems in the developing world are approaching those seen in developed nations, linked to an increase in depression and anxiety.

According to an analysis of sleep problems in African and Asian countries by researchers at the Warwick Medical School at the University of Warwick, an estimated 150 million adults are suffering from sleep-related problems across the developing world.

Researchers said 16.6 percent of the population report insomnia and other severe sleep disturbances in the countries surveyed, which is quite close to the 20 percent found in Canada and the U.S.

The researchers looked at the sleep quality of 24,434 women and 19,501 men aged 50 years and over in eight rural areas in Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia, as well as an urban area in Kenya.

They examined potential links between sleep problems and social demographics, quality of life, physical health, and psychiatric conditions.

The strongest link was found between psychiatric conditions such as depression and anxiety and sleep problems, mirroring trends seen in the developed world, the researchers note.

The researchers also point out that there was a “striking variation” across the countries surveyed. For example, Bangladesh had the highest prevalence of sleep problems, with a 43.9 percent rate for women — more than twice the rate of developed countries and far higher than the 23.6 percent seen in men. Bangladesh also saw very high patterns of anxiety and depression, according to the researchers.

In Vietnam, 37.6 percent of the women and 28.5 percent of the men reported sleep problems. Meanwhile, Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana saw rates of between 8.3 percent and 12.7 percent.

The researchers also pointed out that South Africa had double the rate of other African countries — 31.3 percent for women and 27.2 percent for men.

People in India and Indonesia had very little sleep issues — 6.5 percent for Indian women and 4.3 percent for Indian men, while Indonesian men reported rates of sleep problems of 3.9 percent and women had rates of 4.6 percent.

The research also found a higher prevalence of sleep problems in women and older age groups, consistent with patterns found in higher-income countries.

“Our research shows the levels of sleep problems in the developing world are far higher than previously thought,” said Dr. Saverio Stranges, who was the lead author of the study, published in the journal Sleep.

“This is particularly concerning as many low-income countries are facing a double burden of disease with pressure on scarce financial resources coming from infectious diseases like HIV, but also from a growing rate of chronic diseases like cardiovascular diseases and cancer. This new study suggests sleep disturbances might also represent a significant and unrecognized public health issue among older people, especially women, in low-income settings.”

The research also found that sleep problems are not linked to living in big cities, as most of the people surveyed lived in rural settings, he said, noting, “We might expect even higher figures for people living in urban areas.”

Source: The University of Warwick

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Colleges Gear Up to Help Students with ADHD


Colleges Gear Up to Help Students with ADHDSummer is winding down and colleges are ramping up for a new influx of recent high school graduates.

Given the steady increase in students diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), some colleges are proactively developing programs to help the student make a successful transition to college.

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, affects 1 to 4 percent of college students, according to national studies. For freshmen with ADHD, the transition to college can be especially difficult.

Many previous studies have shown ADHD among college students can be a serious disorder that is an everyday struggle.

Kristy Morgan, a recent Kansas State University doctoral graduate in student affairs and higher education, studied how students with ADHD make the transition from high school to college.

“Nobody had really studied the transition from high school to college,” Morgan said.

“Transitions can be the toughest time for people. This can be especially true when the transition is from the home environment where parents have been involved in daily plans, schedules and medication.”

“Kristy’s research is an important contribution to understanding and facilitating the transition to college for students with ADHD,” said Kenneth Hughey.

“The results and the recommendations that followed are intended to help students with ADHD make a successful transition, their parents as they support their children in the transition, and student affairs professionals who work with the students once they are on campus.”

In her small exploratory study, Morgan interviewed eight freshmen — four men and four women — to talk about their transition during their first semester of college. The freshmen were all living on campus and were at least an hour away from home.

Morgan found a common thread among these students with attention deficit disorder was a failure to adequately plan their college transition.

The students did not factor ADHD into their decision-making about college, but rather chose a college based on how the campus felt, the reputation of the school or that it was where they had always wanted to attend.

“Most of the students found college to be tougher than they had expected,” Morgan said. “Even with the availability of resources, they still felt overwhelmed with accessing these resources.”

Morgan found that preplanning was a significant factor for success. Students who had established an ADHD management strategies — such as ways to keep a schedule or study for tests were able to adjust to the new college life — while students who did not have strategies in place before they went to college, felt overwhelmed.

“A big struggle for students was adjusting to increased freedom and increased responsibility,” Morgan said.

“They anticipated loving the freedom of college and being away from their parents. But they also realized that college required responsibility and that responsibility was overwhelming to them.”

Morgan was amazed to find that parents were very involved in the transition from home to college. She discovered that some parents were instrumental for students’ college activities — they served as alarm clocks, organized their rooms and continued to manage medical care.

“The parents filled prescriptions and contacted doctors even while the student was at college, which was surprising to me,” Morgan said. “The students really did not handle it independently.”

Morgan discovered the reliance on parents became a negative as students often lacked basic knowledge of ADHD and how their medication worked. However, students did understand that medication was crucial to their success in college because they needed it to help focus during lectures and studying time.

“There were some students who took medication sporadically prior to college,” Morgan said. “They realized that to be successful in college, their medication moved from optional to mandatory.”

Morgan discovered that side effects influenced how often students took medication. For example, some students would not take medication because they felt it made them not as fun in social situations.

The women in the study were more likely to consistently take medication because it helped suppress their appetites and manage weight. The men were more likely to skip their medication to have a good time.

Helping Students with ADHD

The findings suggest that a combined effort between families, students and the university staff is needed to help students with ADHD adjust and succeed in college.

Morgan has developed the following recommendations for universities and families to support college students who have ADHD:

  • Families should inform students about their diagnoses. All too often, families have not educated students with ADHD because they think it might be just a childhood condition that they will outgrow.
  • Universities can streamline processes and make it easier for students to access resources. Students with ADHD are not likely to wait in long lines or fill out a lot of paperwork for resources.
  • Academic advisers can help students carefully structure their schedules for success. Many students with ADHD benefit when classes are scheduled close to each other, rather than spread out during an entire day. Advisers can also help students schedule classes with engaging professors and in rooms that have few distractions, such as windows or high-traffic hallways.

Source: Kansas State University

Young college student with books photo by shutterstock.

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Close Relationships Influence Health, Happiness


Close Relationships Influence Health, HappinessWhile sociologists and psychologists have known that having a close relationship improves one’s health and happiness, the biological underpinnings that influence these health effects has been obscure.

Learning how relationships provide protective health benefits has been accentuated with new findings that show dramatic benefits of being in a relationship for health issues ranging from pregnancy and birth defects to cancer and chronic disease.

“We know that having relationships in general and being socially integrated is associated with a reduced risk of mortality,” said psychologist Dr. Paula Pietromonaco of the University of Massachusetts.

“Our research follows from attachment theory, which suggests that there is one primary person that people turn to for comfort when they are distressed or frightened.” In adulthood, that person is often a romantic partner or spouse, she says.

“These sorts of relationship partners are especially important when people are faced with a stressful event because they have the potential to comfort and calm the person who is experiencing distress or to hinder that person’s efforts to feel better.”

In an ongoing longitudinal study of 225 newlywed couples, Pietromonaco’s team is finding that the way people feel attached to each other affects cortisol levels in response to stress — and can possibly predict depression or anxiety over time.

That is, our emotional quotient, as associated with being in a relationship, can influence future mental health challenges.

Researchers say preliminary findings show that when a wife is more anxiously attached – that is, someone who desires a great deal of intimacy and seeks reassurance and support – and a husband who is more “avoidantly attached,” cortisol levels spike in anticipation of a conflict discussion followed by a sharp decline in cortisol.

“In addition, these same anxious wife/avoidant husband couples appear to have more difficulty in discussing the conflict, and their behavior suggests greater disengagement from the discussion.”

Pietromonaco believes the patterns may signal difficulty with emotion regulation, and it is possible that individuals in these couples will be at greater risk for symptoms of depression and anxiety over time.

In the study, researchers are following the couples over the first 3 to 4 years of marriage, and will be examining the extent to which the patterns they see now predict changes in emotional health over the early years of marriage.

Upon a review of studies that addressed the effects of two-person relationships on a range of health topics Pietromonaco discovered several instances in which greater prenatal social support predicts more optimal fetal growth, higher infant birth weight, and reduced risk of low birth weight.

How, the researchers caution that such studies need to be replicated and expanded to take into account both perceived support as well as actual support interactions among both partners.

Researchers say the emerging field of relationship science will explore in what way the expectations, beliefs, and experiences of both partners can predict emotional and physical health.

“Although research on psychology and health has begun to consider these sorts of ‘partner effects,’ they are often not incorporated into studies designed to intervene to help people cope with chronic diseases such as cancer or diabetes,” said Pietromonaco.

“As Lynn Martire [Penn State] and her colleagues have noted, many couple intervention studies include both partners but assess psychological adjustment for the patient only.

“Yet how the patient’s caregiver, who is often a spouse, is adjusting and coping may be very important in predicting how patients themselves cope.”

Source: Society for Personality and Social Psychology

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