Can arguing lead to a happier relationship?

Pick your battles wisely when arguing with your partner.

Happy couples don’t shy away from arguments, but it’s what they argue about – and how they argue – that differentiates them from unhappy couples, says a study from the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

The researchers studied two samples of 121 couples who said they were happy in their relationship. The first were in their 30s and had been married on average nine years. The second were in their 70s and married on average 42 years.

They were asked to rank the issues that were most and less serious for them. The most serious issues for both age groups were: intimacy, leisure, household, communication, and money. Their least serious issues were: jealousy, religion, and family. Health was also an issue for the older couples.

The researchers noted that when happy couples argue, it will be about an issue they can find a solution to – instead of rowing about an ongoing, difficult-to-solve issue, which can undermine a partner’s confidence in the relationship. So for a happier relationship, the advice is to focus on arguing about solvable problems. This can build up both partners’ sense of security in the relationship – rather than creating an ‘I-win-you-lose’ dynamic that can cause shame and embarrassment, and that gradually erodes a partnership and causes further conflict.

“Happy couples tend to take a solution-oriented approach to conflict, and this is clear even in the topics that they choose to discuss,” said study lead author Amy Rauer. “If couples feel that they can work together to resolve their issues, it may give them the confidence to move on to tackling the more difficult issues.”

The moral of the story, then, is to have rows to clear the air but not to fuel resentments. And pick your battles wisely: row about things you can find a solution to. Don’t use the argument to undermine your partner or to prove a point.

How woodland sounds can soothe your stress

The sounds of nature can boost your wellbeing.

A walk in woodlands can make strong strides with your stress levels and can boost your overall wellbeing, according to a new study.

The National Trust research aimed to compare the impact on stress and anxiety of listening to woodland sounds compared to listening to an audio recording of a relaxing meditation.

Findings showed that listening to woodland sounds – including birds singing, leaves crunching underfoot, and the trickle of a stream – increased relaxation levels by 30%. They also reduced stress levels by 24%, and there was a 19% downturn in anxiety. Comparing this with the voiced meditation app: relaxation levels showed no change, but feelings of stress reduced by 39% and feelings of anxiety reduced by 47%. The research concluded that the environment can impact on how you feel.

Dr Eleanor Ratcliffe, Lecturer in Environmental Psychology at the University of Surrey, said: ‘There is a large body of scientific evidence demonstrating that experience of nature can benefit health and wellbeing, including recovery from everyday psychological stress. Much of this research has focused on visual experiences, but more recent work has shown that the sounds of the outdoors, such as birdsong, wind, and water, can also improve mood and reduce stress.’

Stress management techniques often focus on breathing, meditation, exercise and managing your negative thoughts. Yet this latest study shows that attuning to your senses and listening to calming sounds can help too. If woodland sounds work for you, then think about other ways you can soothe your stress through your ears – maybe by making a play list of your favourite relaxing music to accompany you back to a calmer place when you feel your stress levels rising.

Why trying to relax can trigger your anxiety

Trying not to worry can bring on its own anxiety. (pic credit: Aleksandra Sabelskaia)

The headline of this post sounds like a paradox. Why would efforts to achieve relaxation end up bringing on more anxiety?

Yet research from Penn State shows that if you’re suffering from anxiety then you may strategically choose worrying over relaxing. Researchers found that people with anxiety can actively resist relaxation for fear that the gap between relaxing and anxiety may be too severe should something bad happen. It feels safer to continue worrying.

The study looked at people with and without generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) to measure how sensitive they were to changes in their emotional state, and took them through some relaxation exercises before asking them to watch a video that would elicit fear or sadness.

The researchers found that people with GAD were more likely to be sensitive to sharp spikes in emotion, and this sensitivity was linked to feeling anxious during sessions intended to induce relaxation. It is as though they are making themselves anxious on purpose as a way to protect themselves from the letdown if something bad happened.

They fear their anxiety will spike suddenly after they choose to relax, and so prefer instead to maintain a constant state of low-level worry. That is preferable to giving way to relaxing activities, which can bring on Relaxation Induced Anxiety (RIA). It may explain why people who experience anxiety aren’t able to respond to typical anxiety-reducing techniques such as mindfulness, visualisation and deep breathing. They can instead experience a spike in their anxiety while trying to relax.

I’m imagining that anyone reading this post who hasn’t experienced anxiety will be wondering why anxious people can’t switch off their worry. And a person with anxiety reading this post might identify for the first time with the phenomenon I’m describing.

Advice from Michelle Newman, professor of psychology, is as follows: “People may be staying anxious to prevent a large shift in anxiety, but it’s actually healthier to let yourself experience those shifts. The more you do it, the more you realise you can do it and it’s better to allow yourself to be relaxed at times. Mindfulness training and other interventions can help people let go and live in the moment.”

Or, if you find that you really can’t switch off with intentional relaxation exercises, try other activities that absorb your mind and body. Doing things that put you in flow – such as puzzles, knitting, gardening, cooking, painting, reading etc – can all help give you some respite from your anxiety.

The full research, The paradox of relation training: Relaxation induced anxiety and mediation effects of negative contrast sensitivity in generalised anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder, is published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Want to regulate your emotions? Try bringing them to life, says study

Making your emotion into a character or person can help you detach from the emotion. (pic credit :Andrii Shevchuk)

I often recommend watching the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out to people who feel overcome by their emotions or have trouble regulating them. The movie largely takes place inside the head of an 11-year-old girl who moves cities with her parents. She experiences a range of emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust – that are depicted as characters. Joy was originally in the driving seat when the girl was born, but other characters/emotions take over at different stages of the story – with comic and dramatic effect.

Story aside, I regard Inside Out as a helpful metaphor for mental health. It shows that we can experience a range of emotions without having to become any of them. It also shows that we can have a relationship with all of our emotions, and it’s not necessary for us to identify with any one in particular. You can change your language to say that you’re having an angry moment (when Anger is in the driving seat, for example) rather than saying that you’re an angry person. That can feel liberating.

A new study takes this one step further and suggests that the act of making your emotions into a character or person, just as Inside Out did, can help you regulate and detach from the emotions (especially the negative ones). Researchers at the University of Texas Austin found that ‘anthropomorphic thinking’ – which means bringing an emotion to life, or thinking of an emotion as a person – can help you regulate that emotion.

They tested out anthropomorphic thinking by asking survey participants to write about a time when they felt very sad, with one group asked to bring sadness into life as if it were a person. They were then asked to rate their levels of sadness on a scale of one to seven. Findings showed lower levels of sadness the group that wrote about the emotion as a person. The effects were heightened if the emotion-as-a-person was perceived to be a completely separate, independent person.

The researchers said: “Based on research on emotion regulation and the psychological process of detachment, we show that individuals instructed to anthropomorphise sadness (i.e., think of sadness as a person) report less experienced sadness afterwards. We argue that this reduction of emotion occurs because anthropomorphic thinking increases the perceived distance between the self and the anthropomorphised emotion, thereby creating a feeling of detachment.”

So, the next time you feel overwhelmed by an emotion, try picking up a pen and writing a character sketch of this emotion to help you detach from it. But maybe stick to negative emotions: the strategy works in the same way for happy ones, too. So, if Joy is in your driving seat today, you may want to keep her close and let her be.

The research article When Sadness Comes Alive, Will It be Less Painful? The Effects of Anthropomorphic Thinking on Sadness Regulation and Consumption is published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

A summary of the research is published in Science Daily.

How being by the seaside is good for mental health

Coastal living can reduce the chances of suffering from depression and anxiety.

Living close to the seaside has a swell of benefits for mental health, especially for people on lower incomes, according to a study from the University of Exeter.

The research, which looked at the link between coastal proximity and self-reported mental health using data from 26,000 adults living in England, was published in the Health and Place journal. The findings show that people living less than a kilometre had “significantly lower odds” of suffering from a common mental health disorder (CMD) compared those living 50km away. This difference was more marked in those from low-income households.

In England, an estimated one in six adults (17 %) surveyed were suffering symptoms of a common mental disorder, such as anxiety or depression. However, this survey is the latest in a series of studies that shows how exposure to natural environments – green as well as blue spaces – can support mental health and wellbeing.

Those benefits can include more opportunities for social contact and physical activity, reduced stress, improved air quality and immune functioning, lower levels of psychological distress, and a greater chance to feeling psychologically restored after a trip to the seaside.

Dr Mathew White, environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter, is calling on leaders to ensure more people have access to ‘blue spaces’ such as sea, lakes and rivers, because of the reported uplift to physical and mental wellbeing. He said: “This kind of research into blue health is vital to convincing governments to protect, create and encourage the use of coastal spaces. We need to help policy makers understand how to maximise the wellbeing benefits of ‘blue’ spaces in towns and cities and ensure that access is fair and inclusive for everyone, while not damaging our fragile coastal environments.”

This latest survey adds to a body of evidence collated by Blue Health that points to the benefits of blue spaces to physical activity, emotional wellbeing and mental health.

Five self-help tips to support your mental health

World Mental Health Day is an awareness-raising day that promotes discussion and understanding of mental illness, and gives us the opportunity to stop and reflect and consider ways we can improve our mental health.

One of the key definitions of good mental health, by the World Health Organization, is the ability “to cope with the normal stresses of life”. So much of life can feel like a drain, and you can feel worn down by all the demands put upon you. Yet I would add to this definition that it’s vital to know what stressors you can change – and which ones you can’t. You won’t be able to change what other people say and how they behave. But you do have the choice over whether to let things bother you. You also have the power to change the way you respond to people.

If you’d like to find some ways to feel better mentally and emotionally, but you’re not sure where to start, then here I suggest some practical self-help tips that can help build your resilience to cope with the “normal stresses” of life…

  1. Stop comparing yourself with others

Comparing yourself with others – whether favourably or unfavourably – in itself can imply that at heart you don’t feel enough. Perhaps not tall enough, pretty enough, rich enough. Social media makes it so easy to follow the lives of others – celebrities, friends, family, distant acquaintances – that life can easily become full of likes, retweets and photo-edited posts. Research has shown that too much social media – especially comparing your life with others – can lower mood and self-esteem and basically leave you feeling bad about yourself. You might fear you’re missing out, or that other people are simply having a better time than you. A first step towards self-acceptance, and therefore less stress, is to catch yourself when you compare yourself to others. Swap the ‘less than’ thoughts with a mantra: “I am enough.” Over time you may come to believe it.

  1. Tune into how you talk to yourself

We can be incredibly cruel to ourselves when we allow an inner critical voice to have its say.

  • “You stupid idiot.”
  • “You’re so clumsy.”
  • “You should be way better than this.”
  • “You’re useless. Give up now as you’ll never get the hang of it.”

If we spoke to others in the same way we speak to ourselves, we wouldn’t have many friends left. If you fear you may speak in a derogatory way like this, I’d encourage you to tune into this self-talk. Note how you speak to yourself. For every critical word, find a kinder phrase to balance it out. Try replacing ‘should’ with ‘could’, and ‘must’ with ‘might’, and see how differently you feel.

  1. Allow yourself some ‘down time’

Having time off doesn’t mean being lazy or selfish or a waste of time. The always-on culture means your life is likely to be spent clutching your phone, checking emails so you’re on top of things, and rushing between meetings. Home0time becomes work-preparation time instead of the opportunity to relax and unwind. Yet that lack of space in your life can lead to overwhelm and burnout. No one can thrive on the perpetual stress we put ourselves under. Try reframing down time as the opportunity to enjoy time, and see relaxation and reflection as a change to invest in your mental health.

  1. Express how you really feel

There’s nothing like speaking your truth to make you feel better. Expressing how you really feel – and having your truth heard and acknowledged – can be uplifting and a relief. Not speaking your truth can leave you frazzled and resentful, and can lead to behaviours that you don’t really mean to do, but end up coming out that way because your truth is trapped inside. I’m not suggesting you spout everything that comes into your head, but if there is something important you need to say then find a way to say it. Journaling can be a way of checking in with your true feelings, and gives you an opportunity to express your thoughts in a way that won’t be judged or thrown back at you. Using your journal can be an outlet to support you through daily stresses.

  1. Complete a task

Yes, any task will do. Whether it’s tidying up a drawer, signing off a document, booking a holiday, cleaning the bathroom. Completion is the antidote to chaos. Life can feel overwhelming to the point that home, work, family, friends, relationship all need something from you. Lots of loose ends – from unfinished projects to unmanageable clutter at home – can leave you feeling depleted. Give yourself back a sense of agency and purpose by picking a task that you can complete and tick off your list. Note how much better you’ll feel when you do.

Swimming has buoyant benefits for mental health, says study

Regular trips to the pool can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to research.
(pic credit: scusi)

A major study into swimming and mental health has revealed that regular trips to the pool can make life feel more manageable – and can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The YouGov research, on behalf of Swim England, shows that 1.4million people have reported improved mental wellbeing thanks to swimming. These improvements for nearly half a million people include fewer visits to their GP for mental health reasons, and a reduction in (or no further need for) their mental health medication.

Of the 3.3million UK adults with mental health problems who swim at least once every couple of weeks, when questioned how swimming impacts their everyday life, responded:

  • 43% say swimming makes them happier.
  • 26% are more motivated to complete daily tasks.
  • 15% believe life feels more manageable.

Ian Cumming, chair of the Swimming and Health Commission, said: “Physical activity in any form can have a positive impact on a person’s mental health, but swimming is unique because the buoyancy of water ensures everyone is able to take part at a pace that suits them. Research shows that simply being in water can be restorative, particularly swimming outside.”

The benefits of any exercise whatsoever have been shown to benefit mental health. Swimming is said to offer versatility, whether you want a leisurely lane swim or to set yourself time and distance targets. All the while being supported by the water.

Hayley Jarvis, head of physical activity at the Mind mental health charity, added: “We all know that doing physical activities like swimming is good for our bodies. But our physical health and mental health are closely linked and being physically active can also be very beneficial for our mental health too. If you’re more active there’s good evidence to suggest that, at most ages, there’s a trend towards lower rates of depression. One study has found that by increasing your activity levels from doing nothing, to exercising at least three times a week, you can reduce your risk of depression by up to 30%.”

Perhaps worth digging out your costume and heading to the local pool.