This Invisibilia podcast episode on emotions has two of my favourite things - an unforgettable and deeply moving real-life story, and research that turns your long-held beliefs about something upside down! As discussed in the episode, our emotions often feel like they’re happening to us, outside of our control, and most of us wouldn’t question the idea that some emotions, like sadness and happiness, are universal. However, psychology researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett explains that our emotions are the result of emotional concepts we learn through our experiences. For example, if we’re taught as children that emotions are bad, we’re going to experience emotions differently, or maybe even have different emotions, than someone who is taught to embrace their emotions. Why is this important? If our emotional concepts are learned, we can unlearn them or learn new ones that are more helpful and improve our mental health.
We can all agree that loneliness and social rejection cause emotional suffering. Indeed, an infinite number of songs have been sung about this very topic. Turn on your local country music or top 40 stations for a taste! Often when we describe social rejection, we use words that connote physical pain, like “broken” heart and emotional “scars”. It turns out, as outlined in this article, that social pain may be processed in the same brain regions as physical pain. In other words, social isolation doesn’t just feel bad; it may affect us on a biological and neurological level in the same way as physical pain. Although more research needs to be done on these findings (e.g., Eisenberger, 2015), it’s encouraging to see researchers taking loneliness seriously, as social isolation has been linked to everything from symptoms of depression and anxiety (Cacioppo, Hawkley, & Thisted, 2010), to an increased risk of heart disease (Valtorta, Kanaan, Gilbody, Ronzi, & Hanratty, 2016), to an increased risk of an early death (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris, & Stephenson, 2015). It’s no wonder why in 1999 musician Moby wondered with so much sadness and angst, “Why does my heart feel so bad?” Maybe now we know!
Much research demonstrates that gratitude contributes to our physical and mental health and life satisfaction (Emmons & McCullough, 2003), yet typically we find it difficult to be regularly grateful. Why, despite the many things most of us reading this have to be grateful for, we are likely more focussed on our challenges and obstacles? Are we all just terrible, ungrateful people? In this Freakonomics podcast episode, Why is My Life So Hard?, social psychologists Shai Davidai and Thomas Gilovich discuss their recent research paper (Davidai & Gilovich, 2016) exploring this phenomenon, what is referred to as the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry. They describe how we are more likely to pay attention to barriers because we have to overcome them in some way, whereas we don’t really need to focus on the things that are helping us along, because we can just let them be without much intervention. As a result, we tend to forget about the less visible things that make our lives good, like a free society, the opportunities we have, for many our ability to walk, talk and dance, and more easily notice the barriers, people, bureaucracy, etc. getting in our way. To begin to notice our tailwinds more, the authors suggest, when practicing gratitude, in addition to asking yourself, “What do I have to be grateful for?”, add “What are the ways I’m boosted along? What are the invisible things that are helping me?” For more, check out the interview here!
In this rich discussion of trauma by Maria Popova of Brainpickings, she summarizes and cites the work of psychiatrist and PTSD researcher Van der Kolk, in which he discusses the importance of “engaging the body in healing”. Van der Kolk describes how people who suffer with trauma learn to shut down parts of their brain that are responsible for visceral emotions, including terror, but as a result cut themselves off from a range of emotions and sensations that form the foundation for our sense of self. He then goes on to discuss how an essential part of overcoming trauma is learning how to be more comfortable with our bodies and its sensations. He describes that, “If you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations….you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings, and your self.” A longer article, but well worth the read: The Science of How Our Minds and Our Bodies Converge in the Healing of Trauma.
I found this article, How a Triathlon Helped America Ferrera Defy Her Inner Critic, particularly relatable in that it demonstrated just how stubborn a self-critical voice can be, even for Emmy award winner America Ferrera. Ms. Ferrera was all too aware of her self-critical voice, but even after 8 years of therapy, it was still hard for her to kick it. That is, until it became very clear to her (and others) that self-criticism was getting in the way of something she really wanted - completing a triathlon. She realized that in order to do a triathlon, there was no room for self-criticism. Indeed, positive moods (vs. the negative ones brought on by a self-critical voice, for example) have been found to contribute to better performance (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). Check out the article for more, How a Triathlon Helped America Ferrera Defy Her Inner Critic, and as you’re reading it you might consider how your self-critical voice gets in the way of your goals.
There is no simple or perfectly correct way to confront someone who is making offensive comments. Psychologists (including myself) recommend being assertive and directly and firmly stating your opinion. For example, “That’s offensive. I don’t appreciate that comment.” I firmly stand by the recommendation to be assertive, to stick up for yourself and your values, but I acknowledge that real-world situations are messy. What if it’s your boss making the offensive comment, or someone you know to be verbally aggressive or emotionally volatile? I appreciated this article, Lessons in the Delicate Art of Confronting Offensive Speech, because it gives options for communicating to someone that what they’re saying is not okay. It discusses how to push back in ways that will potentially lead to less defensiveness in the other person (Czopp, Monteith, & Mark, 2006). Their suggestions include changing the subject, nicely and respectfully “correcting” the person’s offensive language, appealing to the value of fairness, and using humour. Check it out here for some tips!
Many of us will have physical ailments in our lifetime that will lead to pain. Fortunately, this pain is usually temporary, but what if it doesn’t go away? In this moving article, author Jodi Ettenberg describes how she copes with chronic pain, the challenges of having an “invisible illness”, the difference between “healing” and “curing”, and how she has found some ways to take back control in her difficult situation, including her attitude towards pain and her self-care. Drawing from the psychological research of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Kristin Neff, she has discovered some behaviours and ways of thinking that have helped her cope, including meditation, acceptance, morning and evening routines, and gratitude. Check out her article, How I learned to cope with chronic pain, for more.
In this short article and podcast, Barry Boyce discusses how mindfulness can be used to help people with trauma - Point of View: When Vulnerability and Trauma Collide (see also Polusny et al., 2015). Boyce talks about how through mindfulness we can learn to connect with our bodies and with what’s going on in our minds in a way that allows us to explore our triggers, our anxious thoughts, our suffering, without piling more pain on top of the pain. In other words, through non-judgmental acceptance, he describes how we can healthily connect with what’s going on inside of us. He also talks about the importance of connecting with others, recognizing that we all are vulnerable and many of us experience traumas, thereby increasing compassion and decreasing social isolation.
If you’ve heard of Burning Man, you may wonder why I’m mentioning it in the context of mental health and psychology. This article highlighted some things I’ve wondered about Burning Man: Overworked America’s obsession with Burning Man is a cry for help. In our everyday lives, do we lack authentic self-expression and deep connection, and is the opportunity to fulfill these needs partly what attracts people to Burning Man? We know that having solid relationships and caring for others are associated with health and happiness, and creativity and spirituality can be pathways to creating meaning in our lives (Baumeister, Vohs, Aaker, & Garbinsky, 2013), all of which are encouraged and promoted at Burning Man. Perhaps Burning Man is more than just an epic party in the desert, but also a way to inject our lives with some much-needed connection and meaning.
Suicide is not an uplifting topic, but as a mental health professional I feel it’s my responsibility to encourage a dialogue about suicide, not to mention inform myself. This article, Five Myths about Suicide, debunks some myths around suicide, and points out how (at least in the US) it is a significantly underfunded leading cause of death. Although there are many well-intentioned programs out there, and we know some of the factors that put people at risk for suicide, much more research needs to be done when it comes to suicide prevention (e.g., Oquendo & Courtet, 2015). In light of the recent suicide crises in Attawapiskat, Ontario and Pimicikamak, Manitoba, it seems there’s no better time than now to better our understanding of suicide.
Have you ever experienced feelings of awe? Maybe you were looking out over a valley after reaching the summit of a mountain, or maybe you’ve been lucky enough to see the northern lights light up the sky in all their glory. Psychologists are becoming increasingly interested in feelings of awe (Keltner & Haidt, 2003) and how these feelings promote a sense of connectedness to something greater than ourselves. The experience of awe has also been linked to an expanded perception of time and a greater wiliness to help others (Rudd, Vohs, & Aaker, 2012). Check out this article, Scientists Are Trying to Solve the Mystery of Awe, which not only discusses the science behind awe but also has some really cool quotes from astronauts viewing Earth from space for the first time.
What exactly do we mean when we say, “I don’t trust you”? Trust is something that is so fundamental to our well-being, yet most of us have difficulty articulating what trust is. In this touching and informative lecture, researcher Brené Brown discusses the anatomy of trust and describes how trust is built on small moments (e.g., Gottman & Silver, 2012). Based on the data, she has come up with an acronym that describes the different components of trust: B.R.A.V.I.N.G. B.R.A.V.I.N.G includes having clear boundaries and respecting others’ boundaries, being reliable and holding yourself accountable to your mistakes, keeping things in the “valt”, demonstrating integrity and acting in line with your values, not judging others when they ask for help, and making generous assumptions about others’ behaviours and intentions. Check out Brené Brown’s SuperSoul Sessions talk, The Anatomy of Trust.
Not everyone who experiences a stressful or traumatic event is negatively affected (Werner, 1989). Researchers have attributed one’s ability to adapt to stressors and “bounce back” from difficult situations to one’s resilience. I found this article helpful because it explains not just what resilience is, but how we can develop it. It turns out the way we think about things can increase our resilience. If we perceive a stressful or traumatic event as an opportunity to learn and grow, we may recover more quickly. Moreover, having an “internal locus of control” (Rotter, 1954); that is, believing we can influence our environments and have some control over our own fate, leads to more resilience. Check out this article for more on how to become resilient!
In this TEDx talk, Steven Hayes, psychologist and founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), shares his personal struggles with Panic Disorder. Like most of us, he initially tried to run from or fight against his anxiety, but after much struggle he came to the realization that what he needed to do was turn toward his experience, and stand with his experience in a kind and loving way. He describes how this psychological flexibility, directing our attention flexibly to our internal experiences (thoughts, feelings, physical sensations), and then choosing to move towards what we think is important, is associated with improved mental health and well-being (Levin, Hildebrandt, Lillis, & Hayes, 2012). Moreover, Hayes emphasizes that bringing love to our experiences and ourselves even when it’s hard opens the door for living a more meaningful and purposeful life.
This article describes how a downright disturbing campaign to shame overweight people is not only cruel, but ineffective. The author points to a study showing that people who experience weight discrimination gained more weight than those we didn’t report weight discrimination (Sutin & Terracciano, 2013), and a survey demonstrating that anti-obesity campaigns with “blaming” messages are perceived as less motivating than ones with more neutral messages or ones that don’t mention obesity or weight at all (Puhl, Peterson, & Luedicke, 2013). Unfortunately, the idea that we should shame people into losing weight is pervasive. I think an overhaul of the ways in which we try to motivate people to lose weight is long overdue.
Throughout history, humans have lauded the benefits of nature. Yet, as stated in this article, “According to research by the Harvard School of Public Health, American adults spend less time outdoors than they do inside vehicles—less than 5 percent of their day.” In an effort to increase our awareness of the benefits of nature, more and more researchers are exploring how nature helps us. Through measurements of stress hormones, respiration, heart rate, and sweating, they are finding that being in nature, or even looking at images of nature, significantly reduces stress, increases concentration and performance and maybe even problem-solving skills. Check out this article to learn more about the mental health wonders of nature!
As a psychologist who treats eating disorders, one of the biggest challenges I find is helping my clients develop a non-distorted and positive view of their bodies. More and more I’m learning that getting to know the body at a sensory level is extremely important for developing a balanced and less distorted view of our bodies. For example, noticing the temperature of your breath as you inhale or exhale, focusing on the sensations of the skin that is covering your feet, etc. This article, drawing from research in neuroscience, discusses how awareness of our bodies at a sensory level, not just at a surface level, is important for a healthy sense of self.
In this podcast, Elizabeth Gilbert discusses how to balance living a creative life while being practical, how to honour and live in line with our values without getting attached to outcomes, and how to balance what the ego wants and what our souls want (wonder, connection, creativity, forgiveness, and empathy), as well as how to foster “epic” self-compassion. Not only did I find this podcast personally inspiring, but it highlights and expands on many important concepts I discuss in my therapy sessions with clients.
When people suggest that you run, does it feel like they’re saying, “Hey, why don’t you climb Mount Everest?” For the majority of my life, I felt this way too. I was that kid in high school who couldn’t make it around the track. With the help of friends, I eventually started running, 2-minutes at a time, and now when I run it no longer feels like someone is repeatedly punching me in the stomach :) This short article and video talks about how even a small amount of running (or walking!) can have positive health benefits. Not to mention the benefits for our mental health.
Although I would argue that it’s a variety of factors - not just cultural messages - that lead to eating disorders, I decided to “pick” this article because I do believe that we often neglect to consider cultural differences in the messages people are given about food, weight, and shape. In this article, women of various cultural backgrounds share their stories and the need for culturally relevant treatments is discussed.
Who doesn’t want more “loving kindness” in their lives?! Meditation teacher and clinical psychologist Tara Brach defines loving kindness as, “embracing ourselves and all beings with a full and tender loving presence.” In this 22 minute loving kindness meditation, Tara Brach helps us cultivate a tender, loving acceptance for and awareness of ourselves and others. Loving kindness is immensely beneficial not only for ourselves, but our relationships and the world around us. Let Tara Brach guide you!
For many of us, feeling consistently good about our bodies is a foreign experience. The founders of Beauty Redefined are passionate, inspiring women who hope to help us do just that. Check out this article for tips on how to feel better about your body and counter the not-so-body-positive messages we are bombarded with every day!
Have you ever found it difficult to describe what you’re feeling? Emotionally Vague is a research project about the body and emotions asking: How do people feel anger, joy, fear, sadness, and love? It turns out, words are not the only way to describe what we’re feeling. Click on “results” to see the multitude of ways people experience and express emotions.
If we only pursued happiness in our lives, would we be satisfied and fulfilled? This article by Emily Esfahani featured in The Atlantic explores what it means to lead a meaningful life and how giving oneself to others, experiencing negative events and suffering, and having a clearly defined purpose contribute to meaning.
This eating disorder monitoring and management app from Recovery Warriors is exceptionally comprehensive and easy-to-use. In addition to a food journal, it’s jam-packed with inspiring content and useful activities and tips, including motivational quotes, mindfulness and body image and other recovery exercises (e.g., thinking about what “recovery” means to you), and tips for what to do in times of distress.
“The real delight in life is what is happening right now” (Chris Hadfield). Check out this short clip featuring retired Canadian astronaut, philosopher, musician, and generally awesome person Chris Hadfield as he discusses how to appreciate the seemingly insignificant moments of our day-to-day lives.
Money has commonly been considered a powerful motivator when it comes to performance. In this short and engaging RSA Animate video, based on Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us, widespread beliefs about motivation are called into question, including the effectiveness of money as a motivator. Using fun and easy-to-understand illustrations, this video describes research showing that autonomy, mastery, and purpose can help us not only perform better at work but feel more fulfilled.