Posts Tagged Mental Health and Wellness

Thinking About Giving Inspires People to Help Others


Thinking About Giving Inspires People to Help OthersResearchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan have found that reflecting on what we’ve given, rather than what we’ve received, may lead us to be more helpful toward others.

The study is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

In the study, Adam Grant and Jane Dutton wanted to understand how reflection, in the form of expressive writing, might influence prosocial behavior.

They found that the receipt of gifts or favors from another person might cause an individual to be obliged to help that person, but the motivation to help doesn’t necessarily extend to other people.

Moreover, reflecting on what we’ve received from others may even cause us to feel dependent and indebted. This finding lead the researchers to wonder whether thinking about times when we have given to others might be more effective in promoting helping.

They hypothesized that reflecting on giving could lead a person to see herself as a benefactor, strengthening identity as a caring, helpful individual and motivating one to take action to benefit others.

In their first experiment, the researchers studied fundraisers whose job was to solicit alumni donations to support various programs at a university.

The researchers randomly split the fundraisers into two groups: One group wrote journal entries about recent experiences of feeling grateful for receiving a benefit and the other group wrote journal entries about recent experiences in which they made a contribution that enabled other people to feel grateful.

Grant and Dutton then measured how many calls each fundraiser made per hour in the two weeks before and the two weeks after the week that they spent journaling. Because the fundraisers were paid a fixed hourly rate, with no fundraising goals or incentives, the number of calls they made reflected voluntary effort to help raise funds for the university.

As the researchers hypothesized, the fundraisers who wrote about giving for just two or three days increased their hourly calls by more than 29 percent in the following two weeks. The fundraisers who wrote about receiving, however, showed no change in the number hourly calls made.

In a second experiment, the researchers randomly assigned college students to one of three groups, requiring them to list three ways they had recently given help, list three ways they had recently received help, or list three different foods they had eaten in the last week.

When the participants came to the university’s behavioral lab a few weeks later to pick up their payment for participating in the study, they were given a form describing the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. On the form, the participants were asked whether they would like to donate any portion of their $5 payment to an earthquake relief fund.

Nearly 50 percent of participants who had reflected on giving donated, compared to 21 percent in the beneficiary group and 13 percent in the control cohort.

Grant and Dutton believe that the findings from these two experiments have important real-world implications.

“Helping, giving, volunteering, and other actions undertaken to benefit others play a critical role in protecting health, promoting education, fighting poverty and hunger, and providing disaster relief,” the researchers write.

Experts believe self-reflection is a powerful tool to motivate helping and volunteering behaviors that benefit individuals and communities. And, as a general rule, we should reflect on positive experiences and think about what we’ve given to others—not only what we’ve received.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Woman writing in a journal photo by shutterstock.

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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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Challenges of Co-Parenting


Challenges of Co-ParentingDivorce frequently brings the challenge of how best to raise the kids. In today’s environment, it is common for both ex-spouses to share legal and physical custody of children after divorcing.

However, few studies have looked at the process of co-parenting, so little is known about how divorced parents negotiate the co-parenting process. A new study identifies factors that influence the success of co-parenting.

Researchers from Kansas State University discovered that the type of relationship a woman has with her ex-partner is a factor in how the couple shares custody of children.

Investigators followed divorced or separated mothers who were sharing physical custody of their children with their former partners.

Mindy Markham, Ph.D., an assistant professor of family studies and human services divided the study group into three patterns of co-parenting — continuously contentious, always amicable and bad to better.

Markham also looked at additional negative and positive factors that influenced the mothers’ co-parenting relationships.

The study included 20 predominately white, well-educated women between the ages of 26 to 49 who were divorced or separated from the father of their children.

The mothers, from two Midwestern states, shared with their former partners legal and physical custody of the children, who ranged in age from 21 months to 12 years.

At the time of the study, the couples had been separated or divorced from six months to 12 years.

“The findings of this study suggest that shared physical custody relationships are dynamic and can vary greatly,” Markham said.

In current study, nine mothers (45 percent) had continuously contentious co-parenting relationships with their ex-partners from the time of separation to the present.

This stressful negative relationship fueled the mother’s perception of her ex’s parenting abilities; financial concerns, including the ex not having a job or not paying child support; control or abuse by the ex-partner; and the inability of the ex to separate marital — or personal — issues from the co-parenting relationship.

“All mothers in this type of co-parenting relationship reported differences in parenting styles and were concerned with how the ex was raising the children,” Markham said.

“Parenting practices that concerned the mothers varied greatly and included putting children in harmful situations, not bathing the children, not disciplining them and having no rules or routines.

“It was especially difficult for these mothers to share custody with ex-partners who were uninvolved during the marriage. They didn’t believe their exes were responsible parents.”

Markham said eight of the women in the continuously contentious relationships didn’t want to share custody of the children with their ex-partner, but most were told by lawyers or the court that they would have to do so.

Twenty percent of mothers reported an amicable co-parenting relationship — where they reported always getting along with their ex-partners from separation to the present.

In this form of relationship the mothers believed their ex-partners were responsible parents, money wasn’t a source of conflict and the mothers chose to share physical custody.

Seven of the mothers in the study (35 percent) had bad-to-better co-parenting relationships, where co-parenting was contentious at the time of separation, but greatly improved over time.

At the time of the study, these women’s relationships were similar to those of women with always amicable relationships. These mothers wanted to share physical custody, thought the father was a responsible parent and most said money was not a source of conflict.

Significantly, all mothers in bad-to-better relationships said they were unable to co-parent amicably with their ex-partner in the beginning because personal issues were not kept separate from parenting responsibility.

“Although ex-partners with bad-to-better relationships originally allowed their feelings about one another to negatively affect their co-parenting, at some point they realized this was not beneficial and made a conscious effort to change the relationship for the sake of their children,” Markham said.

Being able to communicate with the ex-partner is a major factor during co-parenting. In the always amicable and bad-to-better relationships, mothers were able to communicate well with ex-partners.

The ability to communicate with the ex-partner made discussing differences in parenting styles easier, reported this group of women.

However, for women in continuously contentious relationships, lack of communication was a big issue, Markham said.

These mothers limited direct in-person or phone communication with their ex, preferring alternative methods like texting or email. They also avoided seeing their ex in person when it came time to exchange children by having them picked up at day care or school.

Markham said she was surprised by the level of animosity that accompanies shared custody, at least from some mothers’ perceptions.

“Nearly half of the mothers in this study continue to have conflicted relationships with their ex-partners, and conversations with these women negate the notion that shared physical custody ensures cooperative, less conflicted relationships,” she said.

“This study can be important for helping professionals recognize that shared physical custody is not a panacea for postdivorce problems — and that in some cases it exacerbates them.”

Source: Kansas State University

Parents arguing while child covrs his ears photo by shutterstock.

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Change in Pronoun Use Reflects Women’s Role in Society


Change in Pronoun Use Reflects Women’s Role in SocietyNew research suggests progress in gender equality can be traced by the language found in published literature over the past 50 years.

In a new study led by San Diego State University researchers, investigators explored how the language in the full text of more than one million books reflected cultural change in U.S. women’s status.

Findings are published in the journal Sex Roles.

Jean Twenge, Ph.D., and colleagues examined whether the use of gendered pronouns such as ‘he’ and ‘she’ mirrored women’s status between 1900-2008. Their analyses showed that the frequency of use of female versus male pronouns followed the ups and downs of women’s status over time.

Researchers found that female pronouns were used progressively less often (compared to male pronouns) in the post-war era (1946-1967) when women’s status declined or stagnated, and more often after 1968 when women’s status rose considerably.

Investigators also found that U.S. books used relatively more female pronouns when women were more educated, participated in the labor force more, and married later – all signs of increased status for women.

Researchers posit that U.S. college women were more assertive at times when relatively more female pronouns appeared in books.

“These trends in language quantify one of the largest, and most rapid, cultural changes ever observed: The incredible increase in women’s status since the late 1960s in the U.S.,” said Twenge. “Gender equality is the clear upside of the cultural movement toward individualism in the U.S., and books reflect this movement toward equality.

“That’s exciting because it shows how we can document social change.”

Source: Springer

Woman blowing letters off a book photo by shutterstock.

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Artery Disease Linked to Depression


Artery Disease Linked to DepressionA new research study has discovered that peripheral artery disease often accompanies depression.

Researchers at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and the University of California, San Francisco, discovered the relationship during a study of more than one thousand men and women with heart disease.

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a circulatory problem in which blood flow is reduced to the extremities – usually the legs and feet. Blood flow is reduced because of arterial narrowing with the condition often resulting in pain, reduced mobility and, in extreme cases, gangrene and amputation.

The study may be found online in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Researchers followed men and women with coronary artery disease over a seven-year period. The 1,024 participants were members of the Heart and Soul Study.

“We discovered that there was an association between depression and PAD at baseline, and also found that the patients who were depressed at the beginning of the study had a higher likelihood of developing PAD during follow-up at seven years,” said Marlene Grenon, M.D., C.M., a vascular surgeon at UCSF.

“These findings add to the growing body of research showing the importance of depression in both the development and progression of PAD,” said senior author Beth Cohen, M.D., M.A.S. “This also emphasizes the need for medical providers to be attentive to the mental health of their patients who have developed, or who are at risk for, PAD.”

Researchers discovered that some of the risk for PAD was associated with modifiable risk factors such as smoking and reduced physical activity.

“We still don’t know which comes first,” said Grenon. “Is it that patients with PAD become depressed because their mobility is impaired, or that people who are depressed engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and lack of exercise, and are thus more at risk of developing PAD? Or might it be a vicious cycle, where one leads to the other?”

Further research is needed to tease out cause and effect, she said.

Researchers believe that whatever the initial cause, improving healthy habits such as being more physically active, eating better, quitting smoking and improving stress management might reduce both PAD and depression.

“These lifestyle changes would be considered healthy for anyone, and would also help overall cardiovascular health,” said Grenon.

“As providers, we can help patients recognize the connections between mental and physical health,” added Cohen.

“This may help reduce the stigma of mental health diagnosis and encourage patients to seek treatment for problems such as depression.”

Source: University of California – San Francisco

Abstract of man’s heart photo by shutterstock.

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Stress Changes Learning in the Brain


Stress Changes Learning in the BrainA new experiment from German scientists suggests stress invokes our brain to use different and more complex processes during learning.

In the study, cognitive psychologists Drs. Lars Schwabe and Oliver Wolf discovered that the presence or absence of stress is associated with use of different brain regions and different strategies in the learning process.

Stress appears to make the brain work harder and use a more complex approach when learning. Study findings are reported in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Researchers discovered that non-stressed individuals applied a deliberate learning strategy, while stressed subjects relied more on their gut feeling.

“These results demonstrate for the first time that stress has an influence on which of the different memory systems the brain turns on,” said Schwabe.

In the study researchers analyzed the data from 59 subjects. Two groups were assigned with one group asked to immerse one hand into ice-cold water for three minutes (while being observed by video surveillance).

As expected, this activity stressed the subjects with data collected and confirmed by hormone assays.

The other group was asked to immerse one of their hands in warm water. Then both the stressed and non-stressed individuals completed a task called weather prediction. The task involved having subjects look at playing cards with different symbols and then using the cards to predict which combinations of cards forecast rain and which sunshine.

Each combination of cards was associated with a certain probability of good or bad weather. People apply differently complex strategies in order to master the task.

During the weather prediction task, the researchers recorded the brain activity with MRI.

Researchers found that both stressed and non-stressed subjects learned to predict the weather according to the symbols. However, the way in which they learned the task varied.

Non-stressed participants focused on individual symbols and not on combinations of symbols. They consciously pursued a simple strategy.

The MRI data showed that they activated a brain region in the medial temporal lobe – the hippocampus, which is important for long-term memory.

Stressed subjects, on the other hand, applied a more complex strategy.

They made their decisions based on the combination of symbols. They did this, however, subconsciously, i.e. they were not able to formulate their strategy in words.

In this group of stress participants, brain scans showed that the so-called striatum in the mid-brain was activated — a brain region that is responsible for more unconscious learning.

“Stress interferes with conscious, purposeful learning, which is dependent upon the hippocampus,” concluded Schwabe. “So that makes the brain use other resources. In the case of stress, the striatum controls behavior — which saves the learning achievement.”

Source: Ruhr-University Bochum

Abstract of the brain with key photo by shutterstock.

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Brain Scans Show Teen Drinking Impairs Brain Efficiency


Brain Scans Show Teen Drinking Impairs Brain EfficiencyNew research suggests brains scans can identify patterns of brain activity that may predict if a teen will develop into a problem drinker.

The study also confirms that heavy drinking affects a teenagers’ developing brain.

Using special MRI scans, researchers looked at forty 12- to 16-year-olds who had not started drinking yet, then followed them for about three years and scanned them again.

Researchers discovered that half of the teens started to drink alcohol fairly heavily during this interval.

Investigators also found that kids who had initially showed less activation in certain brain areas were at greater risk for becoming heavy drinkers in the next three years.

However, once the teens started drinking, their brain activity looked like the heavy drinkers’ in the other studies — that is, their brains showed more activity as they tried to perform memory tests.

“That’s the opposite of what you’d expect, because their brains should be getting more efficient as they get older,” said lead researcher Lindsay M. Squeglia, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Diego.

Researchers say an operational definition of heavy drinking typically included episodes of having four or more drinks on an occasion for females and five or more drinks for males.

The findings add to evidence that heavy drinking has consequences for teenagers’ developing brains. But they also add a new layer: There may be brain activity patterns that predict which kids are at increased risk for heavy drinking.

“It’s interesting because it suggests there might be some pre-existing vulnerability,” Squeglia said.

Researchers say they are not advocating for teens to receive MRIs to determine their risk of excessive alcohol consumption. But the findings do give clues into the biological origins of kids’ problem drinking.

Experts say the findings suggest that heavy drinking may affect young people’s brains right at the time when they need to be working efficiently.

“You’re learning to drive, you’re getting ready for college. This is a really important time of your life for cognitive development,” Squeglia said.

She noted that all of the study participants were healthy, well-functioning kids. It’s possible that teens with certain disorders — like depression or ADHD — might show greater effects from heavy drinking.

Source: Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs

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