It’s World Mental Health Day on the 10th October. So let’s talk about mental health.[caption id="attachment_52801" align="alignnone" width="2075"] Infographic about mental health #WMHD[/caption]
England Wales last Saturday night was a true exhibition of what Test rugby can be all about. Coaches and teams will rarely say that one single moment of a game decides a match and that it is rather the cumulative that decides it. But in some incidents they can, and in hindsight, on Saturday the decision in the dying minutes made by the English captain Chris Robshaw certainly seemed to.
England had looked to be in control for the majority of the game, but heroically the battered and bruised Welsh, bereft with injuries, toughed it out and fought tooth and nail. The World Cup Hosts England went into the final 10 minutes with a 7 point lead. The English throughout the game had let their discipline slide and man of the match Dan Biggar duly and accurately chipped away at England’s lead. A moment of magic and brilliance by Lloyd Williams saw Davies run in for a try to bring Wales level at 25-25. Another penalty at the 75th minute against England and Dan Biggar slotted a monstrous kick from the half-way, giving the visitors the 28-25 lead.
With minutes to go, a penalty was awarded to the hosts. Strangely, Chris Robshaw, rather than kick for 3 points to secure a draw, opted to go for the corner in the hope of scoring a try and the coveted win.
The gamble didn’t pay off and now they are in a worrying position for qualifying.
Take a step back
We all know what exhaustion does to our brains and bodies. Have you ever had the feeling that your brain is wading through muck trying to come up with the answer to a simple problem? After a particularly hard day have you found it hard to even decide what to have for dinner? Our brains are incredibly sophisticated and complex systems but like any process, things can go wrong when they are overloaded. When mental fatigue sets in we are more likely to make mistakes and to take chances that we might not otherwise take. When you have been overtaxed mentally, such as completing a particularly difficult task at work, your ability to process information and the consistency with which you make risky decisions changes for the worse .
Physical Vs Mental fatigue
But what happens when your job involves both mental and physical tasks? For most of us physical fatigue is not something we experience during the day. Athletes, on the other hand, have to contend with both mental and physical demands on them in the course of their work. Mistakes at the end of a big game are often blamed on fatigue and resulting poor decisions. But is this the case? Does physical fatigue have any effect on athletes’ mental abilities or decision making?
A surprising answer to the question of fatigue’s effect on decision making
There are some surprising answers to this question. A number of researchers have tried to find out by taking teams of athletes, making them fatigued and seeing what happens to their decision making abilities and to their performance. One group looked at water polo players. They made them progressively more fatigued to simulate what would happen in a game and then tested their decision making abilities, their technical performance and their accuracy in taking shots. By the end of the fatiguing task the players’ technical performance had got worse but their accuracy was unchanged. Very surprisingly their decision making abilities had actually improved ! Another study tested this in experienced and inexperienced soccer players. They found that the accuracy of decisions didn’t change when players were fatigued but the speed with which they made those decisions did increase . Another group found exactly the same improvement in decision making abilities in basketball players . These results seem to go against common sense. How can fatigue improve decision making abilities?
Some researchers reason that these highly skilled and highly trained athletes are actually bringing more resources to the table in situations of fatigue. As the exercise intensity increases they up their attention and self-monitoring skills in order to have the resources to meet the challenge . They theorise that it is only when an athlete’s body can no longer cope with the demands being put on them that their decision making abilities decline . One group of researchers found that when athletes were fatigued to their maximal capacity the speed with which they made decisions increased but the accuracy of those decisions decreased . But this was only on a task that was not sports-relevant and that was new to them. It seems that when a situation is familiar to an athlete, such as plays that have been practiced multiple times at training, and sports-relevant their decision making abilities improve with fatigue. When a situation is novel and not sports-relevant their decision making abilities get worse.
All of this seems to mean that highly trained athletes who have practiced game situations in training multiple times can overcome fatigue and maintain their ability to make accurate and speedy decisions even at the end of the game.
Stress – the possible cause
But if it’s not fatigue then what does cause those critical mistakes we often see? One possible cause is stress. Psychological stress is known to affect the ability to make good decisions . One group of researchers looked at what happened to basketball players in critical and stressful situations during a game. They found that the more critical it was to maintain possession of the ball the worse the quality of decision making became . In other words when more was riding on the outcome and when the players were consequently more stressed the worse they became at making good decisions.
In those dying minutes of the match on Saturday there was a lot riding on that decision to be made by Chris Robshaw. Both England and Wales were so close to victory and those last few minutes were critical. The English team had the added motivation and pressure from being hosts for the competition and desperately wanting to win. There are many, many factors that contributed to what the outcome was but perhaps in that game, as in others, the mental stress of the game affected Chris Robshaw’s decision even more than the physical fatigue he obviously experienced.
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- Royal, K.A., et al., The effects of fatigue on decision making and shooting skill performance in water polo players. Journal of Sports Sciences, 2006. 24(8): p. 807-815.
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- ESTEVES, P., D. ARAÚJO, and H. BARRETO, The influence of fatigue on decision making in junior basketball players. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 2007. 4: p. 126-128.
- Thomson, K., A.P. Watt, and J. Liukkonen, Differences in ball sports athletes speed discrimination skills before and after exercise induced fatigue. Journal of sports science & medicine, 2009. 8(2): p. 259.
- Anshel, M.H., A. Porter, and J.-J. Quek, Coping with acute stress in sport as a function of gender: An exploratory study. Journal of sport behavior, 1998. 21(4): p. 363.
- Bar-Eli, M. and N. Tractinsky, Criticality of game situations and decision making in basketball: an application of performance crisis perspective. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 2000. 1(1): p. 27-39.
It’s September and the lovely summer vacation you had may seem like a thing of the very distant past. Are you feeling a bit down about being back in the office, workplace or on family duty? All of us can suffer from temporary post-vacation blues. Here we talk about the cycle of negative mood and give you some tips to avoid the post-vacation dip.
Stop and listen closely for a second. Notice all of the noises and sights around you. If you are in your office you may hear the air conditioning unit, the sound of your computer fan, the faint roar of traffic outside… But you only became aware of all of these noises because you stopped and listened. If you were focusing on your work (before you started to read this blog that is) then you were probably deaf to those distracting sounds. This is because in order to survive in a busy world, the brain has to choose what to focus on. If we were to attend to everything all of the time we would never complete tasks because the huge sum of distractions would be too great. Our brains focus on what seems important in the moment making us essentially blind and deaf to other distractions. This is called selective attention.
A lot of different factors drive what we attend to at any one moment. It could be the environment we’re in, the people we’re with and how important it is to focus on the task at hand. But another factor that strongly predicts what we attend to is mood. When you feel sad you unconsciously focus your attention on other things that are sad. When you are happy you unconsciously focus on other things that are happy. One group of researchers showed this by making one half of a group of people happy and the other half sad. They then set them a boring computer task to do in which they had to count balls moving around a screen. Halfway through the task one of the balls suddenly turned into either a happy or a sad face. After the computer task was over the researchers asked them if they had seen anything strange during the trial. People who were sad were more likely to have noticed the strange face if it was a sad face. They were less likely to have even noticed that a face had appeared it if it was a happy face .
This is called an attentional bias.
If you’re back from holiday or the vacation period is a thing of the past and you’re feeling a bit down, your attention may be unconsciously drawn to negative things that match your mood. Are you focusing on how much work you missed while you were away and how much you have to catch up on? Did you mistake a colleague’s frown of concentration for a frown of annoyance? Most of the time attentional bias is completely unconscious. For example, when people look at a normal list of words when they’re feeling down they will be more likely to remember words that have negative connotations than positive . Feeling blue like this can result in a vicious cycle of negative thinking that is hard to escape from: The lower you feel the more your attention is drawn towards negative things. The more negative things you notice the worse you feel. So how do we turn this around?
Well just as low mood drives your attention towards negative things so too does positive mood drive your attention towards happier things. If you can give your mood a little positive boost it will help you to break out of the cycle of negative thinking. Here are some ideas to boost your mood on return from vacation:
1) Welcome yourself home.
Make being home pleasant by using little treats. Have your favourite music ready for listening, stop off at the grocery store to pick up ingredients for a meal you really like or go for a walk around a part of your neighbourhood that makes you feel happy. Research shows that simple activities such as these can boost your mood enough to change your unconscious attentional bias to focus on positive things. Even better, positive mood causes your brain to focus on things that are rewarding meaning that once you give yourself one little treat you may be more likely to think of other activities that will also make you feel good .
2) Give yourself time to recover.
Take time to relax and enjoy being home. Research has shown that the beneficial effects of vacations fade relatively quickly after returning home but this can be delayed if time is taken to relax between the vacation and going back to work . Sit in your local park, go for a stroll or why not take out the Pip and spend 5 minutes bringing yourself into a relaxed and calm state before you have to jump back into your regular routine.
3) Plan something nice.
We don’t mean plan your next vacation as soon as you are in the door from the last one but plan something nice to do during the week or the weekend. Make plans to meet with a friend for a catch-up, plan a trip to the cinema or find a way to incorporate something new that you learnt on your vacation into your daily life – maybe you did some yoga classes, took up painting or started to learn a new language. Research shows that merely anticipating doing something pleasurable activates the reward systems of the brain giving you a nice little boost of dopamine and a more positive outlook .
You may feel disappointed that the vacation period is over but don’t let the post-vacation blues bite too hard. Try our tips or formulate your own plans to make that transition between vacation and home a positive experience.
- Becker, M.W. and M. Leinenger, Attentional selection is biased toward mood-congruent stimuli. Emotion, 2011. 11(5): p. 1248.
- Koster, E.H., et al., Mood-congruent attention and memory bias in dysphoria: exploring the coherence among information-processing biases. Behaviour research and therapy, 2010. 48(3): p. 219-225.
- Tamir, M. and M.D. Robinson, The happy spotlight: Positive mood and selective attention to rewarding information. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2007. 33(8): p. 1124-1136.
- Kühnel, J. and S. Sonnentag, How long do you benefit from vacation? A closer look at the fade‐out of vacation effects. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 2011. 32(1): p. 125-143.
- O’Doherty, J.P., et al., Neural responses during anticipation of a primary taste reward. Neuron, 2002. 33(5): p. 815-826.
John is just out of college and has landed his dream job. It is demanding, rewarding and he is buzzing at the end of every day. The better he gets at his job the more work he is given and the more he demands of himself. At first he is happy with the challenge but soon he starts to work late into the evening. As every big project finishes a new one begins and he no longer feels the satisfaction of a job well done. He stops seeing his friends, he can’t switch off at the end of the day and if he’s not working at the weekend he’s catching up on sleep. Gradually he begins to feel more and more exhausted. He has to drag himself into a workplace that he is starting to resent. He sleeps and works, sleeps and works. He is a walking zombie.
Have you felt like this or do you know someone who has? “Burnout” is an often-used phrase to describe a state of chronic exhaustion combined with depleted enthusiasm, most often for a job. John is an extreme example of someone with chronic stress and burnout. Many of us have described ourselves as ‘burnt out’ at one time or another after a bout of heavy work but we quickly bounce back when we take time to relax. Stress is a natural and normal part of everyday life, we all experience stress and it’s not always a bad thing. But chronic stress, when not managed, can lead to burnout. John may end up doing poorly in his job and maybe even quitting. He is likely to be an irritable colleague and friend and his stress levels may even affect his health . Today’s blog is going to focus on what burnout is and, more importantly, what you can do to prevent it.
What is burnout?
Psychologists tend to describe three main symptoms of burnout :
- Exhaustion – feeling overextended and depleted of energy.
- Detachment – feeling detached and negative about other people and the job.
- Lack of Accomplishment – feeling unproductive and hopeless about work.
These symptoms don’t appear in a flash but may build up slowly over a number of months. People who are burnt out may have worse sleep, more headaches, feel unable to concentrate and be generally fatigued .
Burnout also affects how your body works in response to stress. We’ve written about the HPA axis in a previous blog post. It is the circuit in our bodies that reacts to a stressful situation by releasing stress hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. This is the ‘fight or flight’ response that we are all familiar with.
The system is designed for short bursts of stress like escaping from a tiger or fighting an opponent so it switches on for the duration of the danger and then switches off when we are safe. Short bursts of stress and cortisol can be good for us . But when we are chronically stressed the HPA axis doesn’t know how to respond. A healthy HPA axis releases cortisol in the morning and then releases less over the course of the day. When something during the day is stressful we may have a temporary spike in cortisol levels but they soon return to normal. We therefore see a healthy curve of cortisol production in most people.
But when the HPA axis is constantly releasing cortisol because people are chronically stressed it too becomes ‘burnt out’ . In other words, we don’t see the normal increase and decrease in cortisol throughout the day, instead we see a flatter line of cortisol output.
What does burnout do to the body?
Too high or too low levels of cortisol can make you less well able to concentrate and remember things [3, 4]. Too high or too low levels of cortisol also affect the immune system. Cortisol usually helps the immune system by telling it when to switch on and when to switch off. Chronic stress and ‘flatter’ cortisol curves stops the body from knowing when to switch on and when to switch off so the immune system remains constantly semi-on . Although we need the immune system to be on when we are under attack by disease we also need it to switch off before it starts to damage our own healthy cells and make us sick .
How can we prevent burnout?
As with many things in life stress is good in moderation. Too little and we are not challenged, too much and we are overwhelmed. The good news is that stress is manageable and it is possible to stay in the healthy zone and avoid burnout . Feeling stressed doesn’t necessarily mean that you are burnt out but feeling stressed all of the time can sometimes lead to burnout. The most important way to prevent burnout is to manage your stress in whatever way works for you. Here are 6 ideas to help reduce your risk of burnout:
Take a vacation
Play some music!
Who cares if you sing like a canary or grunt like a gorilla, it’s all about the participation. One study found that a group of employees who joined in a drumming session for an hour each week had lower levels of burnout in the following weeks .
Move your body
Whether it’s yoga, the gym or going for a stroll both exercise and muscle relaxation help reduce stress and the risk of burnout .
Take a course in mindfulness
Research shows that a structured mindfulness based stress reduction course can reduce burnout for up to 3 months .
Be a good boss
If you’re the boss you can reduce burnout in your employees by changing the management style and workplace habits of your organisation. Most interventions focus on 6 areas of work: workload, control, reward, community, fairness and values along with training programmes to help employees deal with stress. Studies have shown a success rate of 80% for interventions aimed at reducing burnout and the most successful are those that combine individual changes with organizational changes .
Enjoy the challenge work brings but try to switch off at the end of the day and you’ll find your own Goldilocks zone of stress.
- Maslach, C., W.B. Schaufeli, and M.P. Leiter, Job burnout. Annual review of psychology, 2001. 52(1): p. 397-422.
- Pruessner, J.C., D.H. Hellhammer, and C. Kirschbaum, Burnout, perceived stress, and cortisol responses to awakening. Psychosomatic medicine, 1999. 61(2): p. 197-204.
- Lupien, S., et al., Stress-Induced Declarative Memory Impairment in Healthy Elderly Subjects: Relationship to Cortisol Reactivity 1. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 1997. 82(7): p. 2070-2075.
- Mackenzie, C.S., et al., Cognitive functioning under stress: Evidence from informal caregivers of palliative patients. Journal of palliative medicine, 2007. 10(3): p. 749-758.
- Miller, G.E., S. Cohen, and A.K. Ritchey, Chronic psychological stress and the regulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines: a glucocorticoid-resistance model. Health Psychology, 2002. 21(6): p. 531.
- Awa, W.L., M. Plaumann, and U. Walter, Burnout prevention: A review of intervention programs. Patient education and counseling, 2010. 78(2): p. 184-190.
- Etzion, D., Annual vacation: Duration of relief from job stressors and burnout. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 2003. 16(2): p. 213-226.
- Bittman, B., et al., Recreational music-making: a cost-effective group interdisciplinary strategy for reducing burnout and improving mood states in long-term care workers. Advances in Mind Body Medicine, 2003. 19(3/4): p. 4-15.
- Van Rhenen, W., et al., The effect of a cognitive and a physical stress-reducing programme on psychological complaints. International archives of occupational and environmental health, 2005. 78(2): p. 139-148.
- Cohen-Katz, J., et al., The Effects of Mindfulness‐based Stress Reduction on Nurse Stress and Burnout, Part II: A Quantitative and Qualitative Study. Holistic nursing practice, 2005. 19(1): p. 26-35.
The long days of summer are drawing to a close and a new chapter is about to begin. September is the start of a new school semester and with that comes excitement, nerves and probably some stress and anxiety. If you are the parent of a child starting a new school semester the to-do lists are endless and back-to-school anxieties can surface. But change can be exciting and a new semester brings with it new possibilities and many things to look forward to. Don’t let stress override excitement. Take a look at our tips to help reduce back-to-school stress:
Organisation is key: Having too many things flying about your head is a recipe for stress and panic. When we have a huge list of things to do our brain constantly frets over the tasks we haven’t done and actually interferes with our abilities to plan tasks . Just like an app running in the background of your smartphone drains the battery this constant mulling over of uncompleted tasks takes over our attentional abilities leaving us unable to focus on the tasks we can do now. One way to trick your brain into switching off this over-activity is to write down what you are going to do and when you are going to do it . Don’t just write a list of tasks to do over the next month, write down what task you will do each week. The simple act of planning exactly when you will do something turns off that background fretting and leaves our facilities free to enjoy other activities and calmly tick-off that to-do list.
Give them some control: Feeling in control of your life is hugely important for your health and happiness. When adults feel that they don’t have control over what is happening to them they have higher levels of stress and a greater risk of getting sick . Children and adolescents don’t have much control over the big things in their lives but you can give your child control over the small things. Let them choose what pencil case they want for the year or what healthy lunch they want on the first day back. This will not only leave them excited about using their new things, and therefore about going to school to try them, but it will also give them some sense of control over a big change in their lives.
Avoid absolutes: Try to avoid telling your children that they are naturally good at one subject or not good at another. An important predictor of how children do at school is whether they have an entity or an incremental view of intelligence. This means whether they believe that intelligence is fixed (entity) or can be changed (incremental). Children who have incremental view of their abilities – those who believe that if they study they will get better at a subject – do better in school than those with an entity view . The reason for this is that children with an entity view of intelligence think that they have no control over how well they do in the school as the result is predestined. For example, if a child thinks that they are bad at maths (even if they are good at other things) they won’t have the confidence or motivation to try harder in maths class and, every time they do badly as a result, their belief that they are bad at maths will be reinforced. On the other hand, if a child thinks that they are good at maths not because they work hard but just because they are then they won’t have the abilities to cope with a situation in which they do poorly in a test because they can’t explain why. Children with incremental views of intelligence don’t balance everything on the results of a test but instead believe that if they work a bit harder on a difficult topic they will do better. This leaves them less stressed and better able to cope with failure. If your child is anxious about their school abilities talk to them about how much they progressed last year in a subject they initially found difficult. Try to avoid phrases such as ‘you’re not good at maths but you are good at English’. Instead use phrases such as ‘look how much better you did in maths at the end of last year compared to at the start, you really worked hard’. Looking back on past difficulties can give a sense of control and help to put new worries into perspective.
Adjust to regular bedtimes: Sleep is important for everyone but it is particularly crucial for children and adolescents. Children up to the age of 12 can need as much as 10-12 hours of sleep per night and teenagers need 8-9 hours. When children don’t get enough good quality sleep they are not able to concentrate and do poorly in school . Children need a lot of sleep for a number of reasons. Firstly, when children are in school they are learning huge amounts of new information every day and the brain needs sleep in order to process and retain those memories . Secondly the brain is still forming and developing right through childhood and adolescence. One part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, is not fully developed until as late as the early twenties. Children need a lot of sleep to help their development and to allow them to properly process information in these still-developing parts of the brain. Sleep disruption is more harmful to children’s concentration levels than to adults’ because of their still-changing brains . If you are finding it difficult to get to bed or to help your child sleep check out our blog on sleep. Start earlier bed times a few days before they go back to school to help children adjust to a new schedule after a summer of freedom. This will avoid sleepy tears on the first day back and help them to enjoy their first day back with all of their friends.
Children are very attune to emotions and can pick up on your stresses and anxieties without you realising so don’t forget to look after yourself as well. Take some time out to relax amidst all of the organisation and enjoy the last days of summer as you calmly prepare for a new school term.
- Masicampo, E. and R.F. Baumeister, Unfulfilled goals interfere with tasks that require executive functions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2011. 47(2): p. 300-311.
- Masicampo, E. and R.F. Baumeister, Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011. 101(4): p. 667.
- Lachman, M.E., S.D. Neupert, and S. Agrigoroaei, The relevance of control beliefs for health and aging. Handbook of the psychology of aging, 2010: p. 175-190.
- Blackwell, L.S., K.H. Trzesniewski, and C.S. Dweck, Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child development, 2007. 78(1): p. 246-263.
- Dewald, J.F., et al., The influence of sleep quality, sleep duration and sleepiness on school performance in children and adolescents: a meta-analytic review. Sleep medicine reviews, 2010. 14(3): p. 179-189.
- Payne, J.D., et al., Memory for semantically related and unrelated declarative information: the benefit of sleep, the cost of wake. PloS one, 2012. 7(3): p. e33079.
We’ve already written about the importance of vacations as a means of looking after your physical and mental health (click here to read more). Today we’re going to talk about some of the effects a vacation and novelty may have on your brain.
Close your eyes and think back to the best vacation you ever had. Concentrate on all of the sights, smells, sounds and tastes. Do you feel as though you are experiencing it all again? Can you almost smell that busy marketplace/the beach/the city fumes just by remembering?
Chances are that many of you are remembering a vacation that was in some way novel. It might be the first time you had travelled to that location, the first time you travelled at all or the first time you experienced a familiar place in a new way. This is because our brains love novelty and when something is novel we pay attention. If you measure brain activity in humans or animals while viewing something familiar and then while viewing something novel there is a huge spike in activity for the novel object compared to the familiar [1, 2]. From an evolutionary point of view this makes sense because anything new in the environment is a potential threat. Our primate ancestors who immediately noticed a dark, crouching shadow behind the tree they lived in were more likely to survive than those who carried on unperturbed by the new intrusion. Of course, being aware of changes to our immediate environment is still a good survival tactic but recent research has shown that the effects of novelty on the brain may be even more interesting thanks to knock-on effects on two areas: the memory centre and the reward centre.
Novelty is one key to keeping your mind interested and your brain healthy..
Novelty boosts memory.
Exploring a novel environment causes changes to the brain that enhance learning. This doesn’t just mean that you are more likely to remember an unusual experience because it was unusual but that your brain is more likely to remember unrelated information too. One study put some human participants in a virtual reality environment which was familiar to them and other participants in an environment which was new to them. They then gave them a list of words to remember. Those who had been exploring the novel environment had better memories than those who had been walking around the familiar environment . Animal studies have shown that when rats explore novel environments it changes to the neurons in their memory centres helping them to remember more . So your strong memories of that great vacation may have been helped along by a nice dose of novelty that strengthened the memory centre of your brain. It’s not only memory that is helped along by novelty, however, but also the reward system.
Novelty rewards us.
When we view something new the reward centres of our brain are activated and a big dose of dopamine, the reward drug of the brain, is released . This isn’t simply because we are happy to see something new, however, instead the dopamine motivates us to continue exploring in search of new rewards . Studies have shown that the mere anticipation of novelty can release dopamine which is why just thinking about that upcoming vacation when you’re sitting in a rainy office gives you a nice warm glow. The interaction between novelty and the reward system is called the ‘exploration bonus’ or the ‘novelty bonus’ by researchers . It’s likely an adaptive evolutionary response because species that have a drive to explore new environments and opportunities will be better able to survive adversity. Indeed even in today’s world curious older (human) adults live longer than non-curious adults !#
So whether you’re off on an adrenaline-inducing adventure or merely eagerly anticipating trying out that new bar in a familiar town, novelty is one key to keeping your mind interested and your brain healthy while on vacation.
- Li, L., E.K. Miller, and R. Desimone, The representation of stimulus familiarity in anterior inferior temporal cortex. Journal of neurophysiology, 1993. 69(6): p. 1918-1929.
- Tulving, E., et al., Novelty encoding networks in the human brain: positron emission tomography data. NeuroReport, 1994. 5(18): p. 2525-2528.
- Schomaker, J., M.L. van Bronkhorst, and M. Meeter, Exploring a novel environment improves motivation and promotes recall of words. Frontiers in psychology, 2014. 5.
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7. Swan, G.E. and D. Carmelli, Curiosity and mortality in aging adults: A 5-year follow-up of the Western Collaborative Group Study. Psychology and Aging, 1996. 11(3): p. 449.
The modern miracle of human flight is a spectacle to behold in itself. Journeys that once would last a lifetime, now can be notched off in a day. Without doubt, we’ve come a long way. While some of us enjoy some of the exciting aspects of flying, there are just some things that can leave us feeling, frazzled, depleted and downright irritated.
So, we’ve listed the top 4 stresses when flying and our top 12 tips on how to handle them, to make sure your next flight experience is as stress free as possible.
Rushing to the Airport
The one guaranteed way to compound the stress of flying is to let yourself run late and have to rush. It’s never fun when you know you’re cutting it close to missing your flight.
- Be organized – pack all your luggage/hand luggage the night before. Weigh out your luggage if you can too, it can help save headaches at the check-in desk. If you have kids, make sure they have their bags and their necessities packed the night before too.
- Arrive with plenty of time to spare – nowadays most airports boast a healthy selection of shops and restaurants to choose from. Who cares if you’re early for your flight, you can rest assured that you can relax that little more and if you’re feeling good you can have a quick look about the shops.
- When booking your flights, try and see if you can fly around midday instead of early mornings – generally speaking afternoons are a less hectic time for flying.
It’s safe to say, when flying you’re most certainly going to have to deal with the dreaded queues. If it’s checking in baggage, preparing to go through security or lining up to get on or off the plane, they can make us all feel a little like herded cattle at times and can all test the best of our patience.
- Arrive with plenty of time to spare – like above, being early will help you avoid fretting in the queue
- Check in online/Carry hand luggage only – thanks to the ability to check in online, dropping off your luggage at the airport is as quick as ever. But for some of us it can be too much of a hassle. Nowadays airlines have much more generous hand luggage policies. So try checking in online and only carrying hand luggage, you’ll be surprised how little you need/much you can fit.
- Know what not to pack to breeze past security – apart from being ready for when it’s your turn to go through the security scanners, ensuring you don’t have any banned items in your hand luggage can also help avoid any hassle and save some time.
- Fast track security queue – Many airports now offer a fast track security queue service for a small price. Can help you save a bunch of time.
You’ve arrived early, have flown through the queue (pardon the pun) and you’re at the gate, and over the intercom you hear that your flight has been delayed. Not to worry, here are some simple ideas to help pass the time.
- Come prepared – The smart thing here is to have something to keep you or your children occupied. Time killers like books, music, ipads can go a long way. Want some recommendations on music? Here’s our youtube playlist for July to help kill some time.
- Accept delays and queues to be part of the whole experience – Yes it may be frustrating to hear you’re going to be delayed by a few more hours, but think about how gifted we are to be able to experience this luxury of travel in comparison to how long it used to take to travel these huge distances!
For many, the act of flying itself can be quite a nerve wracking prospect, not even to mention the feeling of being frazzled after all the hustle and bustle of the airport experience. Here are some ways to help you relax and unwind before or during your flight.
- Exercise the morning of flying – we’ve talked a lot on this blog about the benefits of exercise. Working up a sweat the morning of your flight, or even the night before, can help tucker your busy mind out just enough to help calm some jittery nerves during your flight.
- Try use the Pip – a quick session with the Loom and its’ new levels could help put you in that calm state of mind and help clear your head of the clutter from flying.
Remember summer holidays as a kid? Being released from school and seeing nothing but weeks of freedom, sunshine and sandy sandwiches lying ahead?…
It’s easy to forget that feeling as a working adult when heavy workloads and stress threaten to eat into our precious vacation days. Most people are owed a minimum number of vacation days a year but a lot of us don’t take them. In the US in 2014, for example, workers only took 51% of the small number of vacation days they were allowed and 15% of people took no time off at all . Many said that they were worried about falling behind in their work while others worried that they would lose their edge on the competition for promotions. But this reasoning may be flawed.
Research shows that not only are vacations good for you but that they may also increase productivity meaning they’re good for the workplace and for your career as well.
Here we’ve listed some of the benefits of taking a break for both you and your work:
Vacations make you happier.
Yes it may be an obvious one but it can be easy to forget in the face of a heavy workload when going on a vacation seems like another task on the to-do list. Research has found that after taking a vacation workers are less tense and stressed, they are more likely to be in a good mood and to have higher levels of energy . Better yet, people who come back from vacation are more satisfied with their lives in general when they return . Doesn’t a calmer, energised, happier you or a more satisfied, de-stressed employee sound like a good outcome?
Vacations are good for your health.
We’ve blogged before about the effects of stress on health. Chronic stress puts a strain on your body and puts you at risk of ill health. Although we all need some periods of stress in our lives it’s also important to know where to draw the line and how to take time out. A vacation offers a chance for your body to turn off the stress systems, to recuperate and to repair. Research has shown that people on holiday immediately feel healthier, have less physical complaints and even have a reduction in cholesterol levels on their return [2, 4]
Vacations increased productivity.
We’ve covered why vacations are good for the individual but are they also good for the workplace? The research seems to say yes. Employees who take a vacation have lower levels of job stress and burnout . Researchers also showed that at a company level there were lower levels of absenteeism for reasons other than ill health after employees had taken a vacation compared to before . In addition, employees who have had a vacation see the tasks they have to complete as part of their job as less effortful compared to before they took time off .
All of this indicates the benefits of spending time away from work. But there’s an important catch to remember if you want to see these benefits – a vacation should not just involve time spent out of the office but time off work as well. 61% of US workers in 2014 admitted to working while on vacation and this is something which can negate many of the good effects of a vacation . Studies have shown that people who spend a lot of time thinking negatively about work while on vacation actually had higher levels of exhaustion and disengagement from work when they returned . People who felt that their holiday was highly recuperative, meanwhile, experienced enhanced effects when they went back to work . They were happier and more satisfied with their lives even in the face of a heavy workload on their return.
This shows that it’s not enough just to leave the office, you also need to switch off when you take time off. Try not to think about all of things that annoy you in work, don’t log into your email unless absolutely necessary and limit your use of electronic devices. One PIP team member tried just this on her own vacation and lists the benefits of digital detox in another blog (Link coming soon!). So don’t feel guilty about taking the time off you’re entitled to. Vacations are important for a healthier you, a happier office and a more productive workplace.
- Glassdoor, Q1 2014 Employment Confidence Survey. 2014.
- de Bloom, J., et al., Effects of vacation from work on health and well-being: Lots of fun, quickly gone. Work & Stress, 2010. 24(2): p. 196-216.
- Strauss-Blasche, G., C. Ekmekcioglu, and W. Marktl, Moderating effects of vacation on reactions to work and domestic stress. Leisure Sciences, 2002. 24(2): p. 237-249.
- Strauss-Blasche, G., C. Ekmekcioglu, and W. Marktl, Serum lipids responses to a respite from occupational and domestic demands in subjects with varying levels of stress. Journal of psychosomatic research, 2003. 55(6): p. 521-524.
- Etzion, D., Annual vacation: Duration of relief from job stressors and burnout. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 2003. 16(2): p. 213-226.
- Westman, M. and D. Etzion, The impact of vacation and job stress on burnout and absenteeism. Psychology & Health, 2001. 16(5): p. 595-606.
- Fritz, C. and S. Sonnentag, Recovery, well-being, and performance-related outcomes: the role of workload and vacation experiences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 2006. 91(4): p. 936.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Every time you learn something, experience something new or practice a skill you physically change your brain. This is called neuroplasticity and it is defined as the brain’s ability to mould and to shape itself in response to thoughts, experiences, emotions and movement.
The brain is made up of billions of tiny cells called neurons, connected together in a dense network. Just like turning on a light switch activates the electrical current in one room but not in all of the other rooms in the house, different neurons will be activated depending on what you are doing at any one point in time.
If you are listening to music, the neurons in the auditory system of your brain will be activated. If you are looking at a beautiful view, the neurons in the visual system will be activated.
More often than not, however, two systems can be active at the same time. Do you remember the last time you learned a new skill?
Let’s go back to when you first learned to drive. You probably sat in the front seat staring in bewilderment at all of the levers buttons and pedals that you had to push and pull at different times. Meanwhile you were listening to the driving instructor’s advice and trying to remember everything they said.
Now, however, driving seems easy and you can barely remember why it was so difficult in the first place. This is because the neuronal activation between seeing something and knowing what to do (for example seeing a red light and moving down a gear in preparation) has become an automatic association. The neurons in your visual system activate in response to seeing the red light and the neurons in your motor, or movement, system activate your leg muscles to push the clutch. The message system between these two sets of neurons has become highly efficient due to the many times you did this as you practiced for your driving test.
Q. Why is Neuroplasticity important?
- A. Used correctly, it gives us a strong and healthy brain.
One of the most fascinating things that recent neuroscience has discovered, is that not only do the networks of neurons become more efficient the more you practice, they also increase in size. This is because learning grows the grey matter in the brain.
One group of researchers who showed this looked at the size of German medical students’ brains before they did a set of exams, while they were studying for their exams and 3 months later .Much like doing weight lifting builds muscle, this group of researchers found that the memory centre of the students’ brains was built up after they had studied for their exams.
You don’t have to study to be a doctor to build your brain though. The same group of researchers found that learning how to juggle over 3 months also grew the grey matter of the brain .
But why should we care about the size of our grey matter?
After all it’s not as though we can show off a 6-pack in our brain…
One reason is that maintaining the grey matter in our brains is important for all of those abilities that we take for granted but which are so important for every day function – our ability to remember, to plan, to reason and to carry out complex tasks.
Yet some things in life can decrease grey matter and temporarily hinder these abilities. Long term stress is one of these threats. Short bursts of stress actually improve memory and learning allowing us to focus and perform better. Chronic, or long-term stress, however, hinders our ability to learn and can reduce neuroplasticity and grey matter in the memory centres of the brain.
Keep our brains supple and in good shape
Education, learning new skills and enjoying new experiences may actually be important for protecting our brains and these abilities .
The good news is that studying for exams or learning to juggle are not the only things which increase grey matter. Researchers have also found that stress management programmes such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction can decrease stress, improve the efficiency of our brains and also build up grey matter [4-6].
So try out a new skill, go somewhere new, be open to experience and try some stress-management programmes. You might just be building up the muscle of your brain…
- Draganski, B., et al., Temporal and spatial dynamics of brain structure changes during extensive learning. The Journal of Neuroscience, 2006. 26(23): p. 6314-6317.
- Draganski, B., et al., Neuroplasticity: changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature, 2004. 427(6972): p. 311-312.
- Robertson, I.H., A noradrenergic theory of cognitive reserve: implications for Alzheimer’s disease. Neurobiology of aging, 2013. 34(1): p. 298-308.
- Hölzel, B.K., et al., Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 2009: p. nsp034.
- Hölzel, B.K., et al., Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011. 191(1): p. 36-43.
- Kilpatrick, L.A., et al., Impact of mindfulness-based stress reduction training on intrinsic brain connectivity. Neuroimage, 2011. 56(1): p. 290-298.
We’re delighted to announce the launch of our latest App – 4 Steps to Mindfulness.
This App has been created in conjunction with Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a world leading expert in self-directed neuroplasticity, the science of retraining your brain. It is a complete training programme to learn to practice mindfulness. It can be used by anyone who wants to use mindfulness to change bad habits, end unhealthy thinking and improve their life.
The app contains helpful video tutorials with Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz that introduce his Four Steps Process and Breath Awareness Technique. Together they will help you learn to focus your attention on the present moment. The App incorporates the Loom, which you can use to practice these exercises, showing you how effective you are at refocusing your mind.
Click here to start the 4 steps to mindfulness
Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz is a research psychiatrist at the School of Medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles and has been involved in academic psychiatry for over 40 years. He is the author of over 100 scientific papers and co authored the best-selling book You Are Not Your Brain. His Four Steps process will help you learn to unlock the power of mindfulness.
‘The Four Steps: Relabel, Reframe, Refocus, Revalue – will help you change bad habits, end unhealthy thinking and take control of your life. The 4 Steps are really good for everybody because they’re really a form of applied mindfulness’