The lost art of joy – Striking the right chord

In yesterday’s post, we talked about the joy thief of excessive stress, and about finding the right balance to optimise our emotional homeostasis.

Many people assume that if excessive stress leads to no joy, then having a life of no stress would be the opposite and lead to a life of untold happiness. Except, it doesn’t. No stress may feel great in the short term, but a life of absolutely no stress is a different form of malaise, leading to emotional weakness, something which is just as joy-sapping as excessive emotional strain.

As I said yesterday, it’s all about balance.

So how do you know where the optimum is between not enough and too much? The answer to that lies in the humble guitar string.

I really don’t know a lot about guitars, but I do know that when you first put a new string on the guitar, it’s unstretched – there’s no strain on it at all. If all you did was tied the two ends of the string to the tone peg and the tuning peg, the string would remain limp and lifeless. It wouldn’t be able to do anything useful. It certainly wouldn’t play a note. When the tuning peg is twisted a few times, there is some tightness in the wire. The string is now under tension (i.e. stress). It’s now able to play a note of some form, so it can do some work and fulfil some of the function of a guitar string, though the note’s out of tune.

With a small adjustment, the string reaches its optimal tension and can play the correct note! This is the point where the string is fulfilling its designed purpose. Optimal stress equals optimal function.

With further tightening of the string, the perfect pitch is lost, but the string can still produce a sound of some form. With more tension, the string can still make a noise, but it’s off-pitch, and on a microscopic level, the fibres inside the cord are starting to tear. If the string were wound further and further, it would eventually break.

If this ratio of the tension of the string versus the usefulness of the string were to be plotted as a graph, it would look like an upside down “U”. This is the classic stress/productivity curve.

Each of us has our own particular point where we are in tune. When we know where our sweet spot is, we can operate within it, achieving our best in life without doing ourselves harm. This is the first point that we need to identify on our own personal stress/productivity curve. This is the point of maximum productivity.

We also need to understand that a bit more stress is ok. It’s inevitable that we are going to be stressed beyond what we usually cope with at times. Without that challenge, there would be no growth. Challenges usually hurt. You can’t have growth without pain. Our muscles adapt and grow when they are pushed just beyond their optimal load. The key is learning how far we can push ourselves before we start to falter and fail. This is the second point we need to discover on our personal stress/productivity curve. This is the point of maximum growth.

We understand where these points are on our own personal stress-productivity curve when we listen to our inner selves and learn from our mistakes. Once we have found our own note, we can sense when our bodies and minds are starting to stray outside of our optimum performance, to listen when we’re not quite in tune. Joy is much more likely to thrive if we are playing our own notes in tune, striking the right chord.

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The soul, stress, sugar and spin

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Stress and sugar.  In our post-modern society’s orthorexic narrative, these are two of the biggest villains.  So combining them into a diabolical duo reinforces their evil even more.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist, self-titled cognitive neuroscientist and Christian life coach.  In her latest newsletter to her adoring fans, Dr Leaf has accused sugar and stress of mass murder, with our soul’s approach to stress as their accomplice.

I’m sure Dr Leaf means well, but just because she’s not trying to frighten sales out of the gullible and vulnerable doesn’t mean she gets a free pass on the accuracy of her information.

To boil it down, Dr Leaf’s argument goes something like this:

Our choices turn good stress into bad stress
Bad stress releases excess cortisol which leads to disease and death
Therefore our choices to stress causes disease and death

We control our choices through our minds
Therefore, our mind is the key to stress illness
(oh, and sugar …)

The arguments seem plausible on the surface.  Most people have heard enough about stress to know about ‘good’ stress and ‘bad’ stress.  It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to say that ‘bad’ stress is a significant cause of disease and death.  In the middle of her essay, Dr Leaf jumps from stress to sugar with no preceding link, but again, most people have heard that sugar is unhealthy, so they would probably just accept that statement too.

Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, her article has several critical errors which turn her well-meaning educational essay into a science-fiction short story.

To start with, her essay is built on the dysfunctional premise that the mind controls the brain, so each higher argument or premise is fundamentally skewed from the outset, and in doing so, Dr Leaf simply creates a circular argument of distorted factoids.

For example, her opening sentence: “The hypothalamus is a central player in how the mind (soul) controls the body’s reaction to stress and foods.”  The hypothalamus is a part of the limbic system deep in the brain.  It’s the main pathway from the brain to the endocrine system as Dr Leaf goes on to correctly assert, but essentially it runs on auto-pilot, responding automatically to information already being processed at a level beyond the reach of our conscious awareness and control.  For example, the hypothalamus regulates our body temperature, but it does so without our conscious control.  We can not consciously will our body temperature up or down just with our minds.

It’s the same with the stress response – there are many times where people have a subconscious stress response, where their mind feels like there’s nothing to be afraid of, but their hypothalamus is still priming their system for fight or flight.  White coat hypertension is a prime example.  White coat hypertension, or “White Coat Syndrome” is the phenomenon of people having high blood pressure in their doctor’s office but not at home.  Patients will say to me all the time, “I don’t know why my blood pressure is so high in here.  I feel fine.  I know there’s nothing to be afraid of here.”  But while their conscious mind is relaxed, their deeper subconscious brain remembers those injections that hurt, or that one time a doctor stuck the tongue depressor too far down their throat and they felt like they choked on it, and their hypothalamus is preparing them for whatever nastiness the doctor has for them this time.

Dr Leaf’s statement fails because she wrongly equates our brain with our mind, a subtle perversion which doesn’t just invalidate her premise, but significantly skews the essay as a whole.

As a quick aside, Dr Leaf also says that the hypothalamus “integrates signals from the mind and body, sending them throughout our bodies so that we can react in an appropriate and functional manner, ‘so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love’ (Eph. 4:16 NLT)”.  Ephesians 4:16 isn’t talking about the physical body, but about the body of Christ.  You don’t need to be a Biblical scholar to know this, you just have to be able to read.  Here is what the Bible says, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ — from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” (Ephesians 4:11-16, emphasis added).

There’s no subtlety about this misuse of scripture.  Even non-Christians would be able to figure out that this verse has nothing to do with the physical body.  Dr Leaf has demonstrated that she either doesn’t read the Bible or doesn’t understand it.  Either way, this is a shameful indictment on Dr Leaf’s claim that she’s a “Biblical expert”, and should be ringing alarm bells for every pastor that is considering letting her get behind the pulpit of their church.

Dr Leaf rolls on with her list of medical misinformation.  Some of it is subtle (the “stages of stress”, also termed the General Adaptation Model, is an outdated model of the stress response [1], and CRF and ACTH are released during all stages of stress, not just stage 1).  Some of it is outlandish, like her claim that high levels of stress leads to Cushing’s Syndrome (see http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/2233083-overview#a4 for a list of the causes of Cushing’s Syndrome and note that stress isn’t on the list).

Dr Leaf’s also suggested that it was solely our perception of stress that was the key factor in the outcome of stress, making reference to “a study” showing a 43% increase in mortality if you thought stress was bad.  This is an example of cherry-picking at it’s finest, where one study’s findings are misrepresented to try and support one’s pre-existing position.  Dr Leaf didn’t bother to list her references at the end of the article, instead expecting people to find it for themselves, but I’ve previously seen the study she’s referring to.  Keller and colleagues published the study in 2012 [2].  Their survey suggested a correlation between overall mortality and the combination of lots of stress and the belief that stress is bad.  But remember, correlation does not equal causation, a golden rule which Dr Leaf is quick to ignore when the correlation suits her argument.  The Keller study, while interesting, did not control for the impact of neuroticism, the “negative” personality type which is largely genetically determined and is independently associated with a higher mortality [3-9].  It does not prove that thinking about your stress in a better way makes you live longer.

Dr Leaf went on to claim that “the researchers estimated that the 18,200 people who died, died from the belief that stress is bad for you—that is more than two thousand deaths a year.”  Even here, Dr Leaf manages to get her facts wrong.  The authors actually wrote, “Using these cumulative hazards at the end of the study follow-up period under the assumption of causality, it was estimated that the excess deaths attributable to this combination of stress measures over the study period was 182,079 (controlling for all other covariates), or about 20,231 deaths per year (over 9 years).”

Dr Leaf can’t even get her vexatious arguments right.  Not that the number really matters, because notice how the authors described the magic number as an “assumption of causality”.  Basically the authors said, ‘Well, IF this was the cause of death, then these would be the numbers of deaths attributable.’  They NEVER said that anyone actually died because of their beliefs about stress.  Indeed, the results showed that just believing that stress was bad didn’t make any difference to the mortality rate as Dr Leaf suggested – it was the interaction of high stress AND the belief it was bad that was associated with a higher mortality.  But why let pesky issues like methodological rigour get in the way of sensationalist hyperbole.

Then in the penultimate paragraph, Dr Leaf suddenly decides to throw sugar into the mix.  Somehow without justification, stress is bad and therefore sugar is also bad, and they both throw the hypothalamus and the rest of the body into toxicity.

Dr Caroline Leaf is promoted, by herself and by many in the Christian church, as a Biblical and scientific expert, but in one short promotional essay, Dr Leaf makes multiple critical scientific and exegetical errors.  In other words, her errors in discussing scientific findings and basic Biblical text are so massive that they are incongruent with her claim to be an expert.

Something needs to change – either Dr Leaf revises her knowledge and improves her accuracy, or she needs to stop misleading people from pulpits, both virtual and real.

References

[1]        McEwen BS. Stressed or stressed out: what is the difference? Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN 2005 Sep;30(5):315-8.
[2]        Keller A, Litzelman K, Wisk LE, et al. Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychol 2012 Sep;31(5):677-84
[3]        Okbay A, Baselmans BM, De Neve JE, et al. Genetic variants associated with subjective well-being, depressive symptoms, and neuroticism identified through genome-wide analyses. Nature genetics 2016 Apr 18.
[4]        Servaas MN, Riese H, Renken RJ, et al. The effect of criticism on functional brain connectivity and associations with neuroticism. PloS one 2013;8(7):e69606.
[5]        Hansell NK, Wright MJ, Medland SE, et al. Genetic co-morbidity between neuroticism, anxiety/depression and somatic distress in a population sample of adolescent and young adult twins. Psychological medicine 2012 Jun;42(6):1249-60.
[6]        Koelsch S, Enge J, Jentschke S. Cardiac signatures of personality. PloS one 2012;7(2):e31441.
[7]        Vinkhuyzen AA, Pedersen NL, Yang J, et al. Common SNPs explain some of the variation in the personality dimensions of neuroticism and extraversion. Translational psychiatry 2012;2:e102.
[8]        Gonda X, Fountoulakis KN, Juhasz G, et al. Association of the s allele of the 5-HTTLPR with neuroticism-related traits and temperaments in a psychiatrically healthy population. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci 2009 Mar;259(2):106-13.
[9]        Lahey BB. Public health significance of neuroticism. Am Psychol 2009 May-Jun;64(4):241-56.

60 seconds – Dr Leaf and Anxiety

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Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, says that “A chaotic mind filled with rogue thoughts of anxiety and worry sends out the wrong signals and affects you right down to the level of your DNA!” She also says that “Toxic thinking destroys the brain!”

In other words:

Anxiety → Toxic thought → DNA changes +  Brain damage

But that’s not what science says. According to modern research, anxiety disorders are the result of a genetic predisposition to increased vulnerability to early life stress, and to chronic stress [1]. The other way of looking at it is that people who don’t suffer from anxiety disorders have a fully functional capacity for resilience [2,3].

In other words:

DNA changes + External stress → Anxiety

Dr Leaf’s teaching is backwards. Perhaps it’s time she turned it around.

References

[1] Duman EA, Canli T. Influence of life stress, 5-HTTLPR genotype, and SLC6A4 methylation on gene expression and stress response in healthy Caucasian males. Biol Mood Anxiety Disord 2015;5:2
[2] Wu G, Feder A, Cohen H, et al. Understanding resilience. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience 2013;7:10
[3] Russo SJ, Murrough JW, Han M-H, Charney DS, Nestler EJ. Neurobiology of resilience. Nature neuroscience 2012 November;15(11):1475-84

Dr Leaf and Anxiety

MIND CHANGES BRAIN? READ THIS …

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They say that if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen … you just have to believe in it to make it work.  Wish upon a star, believe in yourself, speak positively, think things into being … it’s the sort of magical thinking that forms the backbone of Hollywood scripts and self-help books everywhere.

But that’s not how science works.  In the real world, believing in something doesn’t make it magically happen.  Holding onto a belief and trying to make it work leads to bias and error.  Instead of finding the truth, you end up fooling yourself into believing a lie.

This is the trap that Dr Leaf has fallen into as she continually tries to perpetuate the unscientific notion that the mind changes the brain.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  Her philosophical assumptions start with the concept that the mind is separate from and controls the physical brain, and continue to unravel from there.

The problem is that Dr Leaf can’t (or won’t) take a hint.  I’ve discussed the mind-brain link in other blogs in recent times (here and here), but yet Dr Leaf continues to insist that the mind can change the brain.  It’s as if she believes that if she says it for long enough it might actually come true.

Today, Dr Leaf claimed that “newly published” research from Yale claimed that, “Individuals who hold negative beliefs about aging are more likely to have brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”  Except that this research is not really new since it was published last year, and Dr Leaf tried to draw the same tenuous conclusions then as she’s doing now.

She quoted from the interview that one of the authors did for the PR puff piece that promoted the scientific article:

“We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalize from society that can result in pathological brain changes,” said Levy. “Although the findings are concerning, it is encouraging to realize that these negative beliefs about aging can be mitigated and positive beliefs about aging can be reinforced, so that the adverse impact is not inevitable”.

Well, the issue is clearly settled then, all over bar the shouting.  Except that the promotional article doesn’t go through all of the flaws in the methodology of the study or the alternative explanations to their findings.  Like that the study by Levy, “A Culture-Brain Link: Negative Age Stereotypes Predict Alzheimer’s Disease Biomarkers” [1], only showed a weak correlation between a single historical sample of attitude towards aging and some changes in the brain that are known to be markers for Alzheimer Dementia some three decades later.

They certainly didn’t show that stress, or a person’s attitude to aging, in anyway causes Alzheimer Dementia.  And they didn’t correct for genetics in this study which is the major contributor to the risk of developing Alzheimer’s [2].  So no matter what Dr Leaf or the Yale PR department thinks, the results of the study mean very little.

But why let the lack of ACTUAL EVIDENCE get in the way of a good story.

It’s sad to see someone of the standing of Dr Leaf’s shamelessly demoralise themselves, scrambling to defend the indefensible, hoping beyond hope that what they believe will become the truth if they try hard enough.  It doesn’t matter how much Dr Leaf wants to believe that the mind changes the brain, that’s not what science says, and clutching at straws citing weak single studies and tangential press releases isn’t going to alter that.

References
[1]        Levy BR, Slade MD, Ferrucci L, Zonderman AB, Troncoso J, Resnick SM. A Culture-Brain Link: Negative Age Stereotypes Predict Alzheimer’s Disease Biomarkers. Psychology and Aging 2015;30(4).
[2]        Reitz C, Brayne C, Mayeux R. Epidemiology of Alzheimer disease. Nat Rev Neurol 2011 Mar;7(3):137-52.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the mind-brain revisited again

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Dr Leaf’s theme for the week is the mind-brain link. In the last few days, Dr Leaf has posted memes claiming that the brain is seperate from, and subservient to, the mind. Despite evidence to the contrary, she continued the same theme today.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Her teaching is strongly influenced by one of her foundational philosophical positions; that the mind (the intellect, will and emotions) controls the body, which includes the brain. While this idea may be popular with philosophers, it’s not with neuroscientists.

Not that this bothers Dr Leaf, of course, since she’s not really a neuroscientist.

Today’s meme is more or less exactly the same as what she claimed over the previous couple of days, except today’s version is more verbose.

She said,

“Mind directs what the brain does, with the mind being our intellect, will and emotions (our soul realm). This is an interesting concept posing huge challenges and implications for our lives because what we do with our mind impacts our spirit and our body. We use our mind to pretty much do everything.”

At this point, I’m having a strong and nauseating sense of deja vu.

I know I’m going to be repeating myself, but to reinforce the message, lets go through Dr Leaf’s meme to show that it hasn’t gotten any righter with repetition.

“(The) Mind directs what the brain does” … The relationship of the mind to the brain is like the relationship of music and a musical instrument. Without a musical instrument, there is no music. In the same way, the mind is a product of the brain. It’s not independent from the brain. Without the brain, there is no mind. Indeed, changes to the structure or function of the brain often results in changes to the mind. Yesterday I used the example of medications. Caffeine makes us more alert, alcohol makes us sleepy or disinhibited. Marijuana makes it’s users relaxed and hungry, and sometimes paranoid. Pathological gambling, hypersexuality, and compulsive shopping together sound like a party weekend in Las Vegas, but they’re all side effects linked with Dopamine Agonist Drugs, which are used to treat Parkinson’s disease. If a pill affecting the brain can change the function of the mind, then it’s clear that the mind does not direct what the brain does.

“This is an interesting concept posing huge challenges and implications for our lives because what we do with our mind impacts our spirit and our body” … The relationship between our body, mind and spirit is interesting. I’ve written about this before in an essay on the triune being and dualism. But there are no great challenges here or implications here. If anything, knowing that our thoughts don’t have any real power over us is incredibly freeing. Rather than increasing our psychological distress in trying to suppress or control our thoughts, we can step back and focus on committed actions based on our values.

“We use our mind to pretty much do everything” … Actually, we don’t. Much of what we do, say, and even perceive, is related to functions of our brain that are entirely subconscious. This idea is summed up very nicely by Dr David Eagleman, best-selling author and a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas;

” … take the vast, unconscious, automated processes that run under the hood of conscious awareness. We have discovered that the large majority of the brain’s activity takes place at this low level: the conscious part – the “me” that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning – is only a tiny bit of the operations. This understanding has given us a better understanding of the complex multiplicity that makes a person. A person is not a single entity of a single mind: a human is built of several parts, all of which compete to steer the ship of state. As a consequence, people are nuanced, complicated, contradictory. We act in ways that are sometimes difficult to detect by simple introspection. To know ourselves increasingly requires careful studies of the neural substrate of which we are composed.” https://goo.gl/uFKF47

So no matter which way Dr Leaf says it, it simply isn’t true that the mind controls the brain. As I said in my previous post, this is a fatal flaw for Dr Leaf’s teaching. That she keeps using this trope is entirely her choice and her right, but it certainly doesn’t aid her reputation as a credible neuroscientist.

Running of the Elephants – Why thought suppression doesn’t work

Have you ever found yourself about to give a speech or sit an exam, and one of your friends tries to calm you down by saying, “Stop worrying … just don’t think about it!”  Does that ever work?  Not usually!  The more you try to intentionally block it from your mind, the more it wants to pop up again.

Why is that?  It seems intuitive that if you don’t want to think about something, all you need to do is to take control and block it out of your mind, right?

One of Hollywood’s better movies in recent times was “Inception”.  In one of the key early scenes, Arthur is explaining to Saito why inception is impossible,

Saito: If you can steal an idea, why can’t you plant one there instead?
Arthur: Okay, this is me, planting an idea in your mind. I say: don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about?
Saito: Elephants?”

This is a great little dialogue about thought suppression.  Thought suppression is the process of consciously trying to avoid certain thoughts, either by trying to replace the unwanted thought with another thought, or simply trying to repress the unwanted thought.

Our minds tend to focus on the content of a subject.  If the subject is elephants, no matter what words I put in front of it, your mind will think about elephants.  Like if I say, “I love elephants, or I say “Don’t think about elephants”, your brain hears, “blah blah blah elephants.”  And having been sensitized to the idea of not thinking about elephants, when your mind inevitably brings it up again, you’re primed to pay even more attention to it, “D’oh, I’ve just thought about elephants again … stop thinking about elephants …”.

This phenomenon is even more pronounced if your mind has already been focusing on the subject.  If you’re mind is going over and over a speech you have to give and I say, “Oh, don’t worry about that speech”, all your mind registers is, “blah blah blah SPEECH”.

Although it’s been discussed in the psychological sciences for decades, it’s only been since the late 1980’s that considerable attention has been given to the concept of thought suppression.  Despite our natural tendencies to try it or recommend it to people, the conclusion of nearly all the research is the same: thought suppression doesn’t work.

Wenzlaff and Wegner, two American psychology researchers, looked at all of the different research on thought suppression and came to the following conclusion,

“What has compelled the interest of the scientific and clinical communities is that suppression is not simply an ineffective tactic of mental control; it is counterproductive, helping assure the very state of mind one had hoped to avoid. The problem of thought suppression is aggravated by its intuitive appeal and apparent simplicity, which help mask its false promises.” [1]

I’m not really sure why we naturally gravitate to thought suppression.  Perhaps it’s part of our natural delusion of control.  Perhaps it’s a throwback from the pop-psychology assumptions that we can control our destiny, or the common myth that our mind is in control of our brain.

Whatever the reason, as time has passed, researchers are coming to understand why thought suppression is so unhelpful.  This quote from Magee and his colleagues helps to explain why:

“This shift in focus parallels advances in cognitive theories of intrusive thoughts, which suggest that having intrusive thoughts is a normative phenomenon; instead, the way an individual interprets those thoughts is expected to lead to benign versus serious outcomes … Similarly, having difficulties with thought suppression is a common experience … it is the way an individual interprets that experience that may be key. Previous discussions of thought suppression have frequently implied that people having difficulties with thought suppression often ascribe negative meaning to their difficulties.” [2]

We naturally struggle to suppress intrusive thoughts because intrusive thoughts are normal.  Trying to suppress them is like trying to suppress any other normal biological process.  Try to stop breathing for any length of time and you’ll see what I mean – it’s impossible, and trying is simply counterproductive.

The key is how we react to or feel about our thoughts.  If we feel like our thoughts might be somehow causing us harm, then our failure to stop them from bubbling up to the surface of our consciousness is going to cause us distress.  It’s a double whammy – we’re stressed because we’re expecting the negative consequences of our thoughts, and we’re distressed by our ‘failure’ to stop them.

Since it first started more than a century ago, the death toll from the famous Pamplona event, “Running of the Bulls” currently stands at 13.  Countless others have been gored and trampled.  Who are the people who get injured during the event?  Certainly not the smart ones standing behind the barriers on the edge of the streets, or the ones watching it broadcast on TV?  Only the morons who try to outrun the pack of foot-long bony skewers attached to the half-ton lumps of very cranky steak.

Similarly, the best way to manage our thoughts is to learn not to fight with them in the first place.  By non-judgmentally observing them, we can simply observe our thoughts for what they are … just thoughts.  By stepping back from our thoughts and giving them room, we find that they don’t have any real power over us.  Stepping back away from our thoughts and letting them be is the skill of defusion, one part of the process of psychological acceptance.  It’s the first step in living a life abundant in meaning and significance.

So just remember: don’t try to suppress an unwelcome thought.  Having intrusive thoughts is actually a normal process, not a sign of disease or mental weakness.  They’re not toxic or harmful, they’re just thoughts.  Give them space, like you would a charging angry bull (or elephant!)

References

[1]        Wenzlaff RM, Wegner DM. Thought suppression. Annual review of psychology 2000;51(1):59-91.
[2]        Magee JC, Harden KP, Teachman BA. Psychopathology and thought suppression: a quantitative review. Clinical psychology review 2012 Apr;32(3):189-201.

Does helping others help you?

John Holmes wrote “There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.”

We all know that exercise is good for us, but is the exercise of the heart, “reaching down and lifting people up” just as good for us?

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  Her meme of the day today was a claim that “Helping others can increase your lifespan.”  She explained that “Researchers found a link between serving others, improved health and decreased mortality! See more at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3780662/pdf/AJPH.2012.300876.pdf”.

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The journal she referenced was a 2013 article by Poulin et al in the American Journal of Public Health [1].  Poulin and his colleagues examined data from nearly 850 people in the Detroit area.  At the start of their study, they asked their participants about stressful life events in the last year and whether they provided tangible assistance to friends or family members.  They then followed their participants for five years and analysed the characteristics of who died in that time.

According to the study by Poulin, those who helped others were younger, healthier, more likely to be White, of higher socioeconomic status, and higher in social support and social contact than those who didn’t help, all factors that have been shown to influence mortality.  They also noted that 70% of their cohort didn’t experience any stressful life events.  While they adjusted for these variables, their statistics would still be affected by them.  As it turns out, while their results were significant, their numbers had broad confidence intervals, so the effect they found is very weak.

What about other studies looking at the same question but in a different way?  Well, there are mixed findings.  Roth and colleagues published a study in 2013 in the American Journal of Epidemiology which also showed that care-givers had better life expectancy than matched controls [1] but then a number of other studies show the opposite.  The Caregiver Health Effects Study found that those who were providing care to a disabled spouse and who reported some strain associated with that care had a 63% elevated risk of death compared with non-caregiving spouses [2]. Other studies suggest that caregivers have poorer mental and physical health status than non-caregivers [3], and caregiving has been widely portrayed as a serious public health problem in the professional literature [4, 5].

So while Poulin found a loose association between helping others and decreased mortality, Dr Leaf has taken that a step too far:

> Firstly, correlation does not equal causation.  Just because a study found those who helped others had a decreased mortality doesn’t mean that the reverse, helping others increases your lifespan, necessarily holds.  There may be other explanations.
> Secondly, other studies show conflicting results, so Poulin’s study may be a statistical hiccough.

It’s not clear that helping others is actually good for our health.  That doesn’t mean to say we shouldn’t help others. I think we should, if for no other reason than the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  But we can’t definitively say that helping others will help us directly by making us live longer.  That’s scientifically still up in the air.

References

[1]        Poulin MJ, Brown SL, Dillard AJ, Smith DM. Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. Am J Public Health 2013 Sep;103(9):1649-55.
[2]        Schulz R, Beach SR. Caregiving as a risk factor for mortality: the Caregiver Health Effects Study. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association 1999 Dec 15;282(23):2215-9.
[3]        Pinquart M, Sorensen S. Differences between caregivers and noncaregivers in psychological health and physical health: a meta-analysis. Psychol Aging 2003 Jun;18(2):250-67.
[4]        Talley RC, Crews JE. Framing the public health of caregiving. Am J Public Health 2007 Feb;97(2):224-8.
[5]        Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. Caregiving, A Public Health Priority.  2010, 7 Dec 2010 [cited 2016 Jan 16]; Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/aging/caregiving/index.htm