How free will is linked to a positive sense of self

Authenticity can come from having a sense of agency over our lives. (pic copyright: delcreations)

The extent to which we believe in free will can determine our sense of self – how we feel about ourselves, the world, and our place in it. Diminishing our free will can trigger depression, anxiety and lower self-esteem. That’s according to a study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Researchers at Texas A&M University worked with two groups of 300 participants, giving them tests to examine the relationship between free will and sense of self, and between free will and authenticity. They discovered that people with low free will showed “greater feelings of self-alienation and lower self-awareness” as well as lower authenticity compared with the group who had higher free will.

“Our findings suggest that part of being who you are is experiencing a sense of agency and feeling like you are in control over the actions and outcomes in your life,” says lead author Elizabeth Seto from the Department of Psychology at Texas A&M University. “If people are able to experience these feelings, they can become closer to their true or core self.”

My experience of working with clients in therapy bears out these findings. People can feel depressed, depleted and hopeless when they feel they have no choice over aspects of their lives. This can put them in a victim position from which they feel unable to escape. Things get ‘done’ to them, and they have little sense of any agency over their own lives. The process of being in therapy can help identify options, and instil a belief that they are in charge of their own lives. Sometimes that can start with a very small step, and gradually they can make more decisions in alignment with who they truly are – instead of looking to external factors for encouragement or validation.

I will leave the final word on this to Carl Jung: “Freedom of will is the ability to do gladly that which I must do.”

Can seeing green boost your happiness?

davanti counselling green grass heart

Seek out scenes of green to soothe your stress. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Master isolated images)

“When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,

And the dimpling stream runs laughing by;

When the air does laugh with our merry wit,

And the green hill laughs with the noise of it.”

William Blake

The poet William Blake had a strong sense of the power of green for joy and happiness. The colour green is often associated with peace, harmony, growth and balance, and symbolises the colour of the heart. Walking in nature, and enjoying the greenery, is often cited as a natural and effective remedy for alleviating stress and depression.

Yet new research suggests that it’s not just BEING in nature that can help with mood. Even LOOKING at green scenes can help people recover from stress and feel happier.

A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showed the results of research that recorded participants’ stress responses during a series of tasks that asked them to view green and built scenes before and after doing some challenging mental arithmetic.

The researchers concluded: “The findings provide support for greater recovery in participants who viewed green scenes as compared to participants who viewed built scenes. Viewing green scenes may thus be particularly effective in supporting relaxation and recovery after experiencing a stressful period, and thereby could serve as an opportunity for micro-restorative experiences and a promising tool in preventing chronic stress and stress-related diseases.”

So, seek out green if you’ve had a stressful period and would like some respite and recovery.

Daughters may inherit depression from their mothers

davanti counselling mother daughter

Research says the brain structure governing emotion can be passed down from mother to daughter (pic courtesy of nenetus/freedigitalphotos.net)

The structure in the brain that governs emotion – including susceptibility and resistance to depression – is more likely to be passed from mother to daughter than from mother to son, or from fathers to their children, according to new research carried out at the University of California–San Francisco (UCSF).

The study examined MRI scans of the corticolimbic system in the brain, which regulates and processes emotion, and has a part to play in mood disorders such as depression, to examine the relationship between generations. The researchers looked at these brain structures within 35 families, and say that the findings suggest the first evidence that depression can be passed on from mothers to daughters.

Women are statistically more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than men. However, this new study does not say that mothers will automatically pass depression onto their daughters. Lead author Fumiko Hoeft, a UCSF associate professor of psychiatry, said: “The finding does not mean that mothers are necessarily responsible for their daughters’ depression. Many factors play a role in depression: genes that are not inherited from the mother, social environment, and life experiences, to name only three. Mother-daughter transmission is just one piece of it.”

Eating too much bread can trigger depression in older women

Eating too much bread and other refined carbs is linked to depression in postmenopausal women (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/bplanet)

Eating too much bread and other refined carbs is linked to depression in postmenopausal women (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/bplanet)

Tempting though it can be to reach for comfort food to lift your spirits when feeling low, eating too much junk food and refined carbohydrates can have the opposite effect: they can bring on fatigue, mood changes and depression in older women, according to a study from Columbia University Medical Center.

The researchers looked at the types of carbs consumed by 70,000 postmenopausal women and concluded that carbs will increase blood sugar levels to varying degrees: the more refined the carbohydrate, the higher its glycemic index (which measures the amount of sugar in the blood after eating). The research found that high GI foods – such as white bread, white rice and fizzy drinks – would prompt the hormones to reduce blood sugar levels. This in turn could bring on mood swings, tiredness and symptoms of depression in the women tested.

Depression could be triggered by increasing levels of sugar and high GI, even if the women had no previous mental health issues. The antidote to the high GI effect is to eat food with whole grains, fibre and vegetables. The researchers believe the link between what you eat and how you feel could be significant for preventing and treating depression. Something to think about before you next reach for a treat.

Picky eating in kids is linked to depression and anxiety

Making food more fun won't necessarily help to 'cure' children's picky eating (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/marcolm)

Making food more fun won’t necessarily help to ‘cure’ children’s picky eating (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/marcolm)

Food is often one of the first areas of life that kids can take control of. They can kick and scream when served anything green, or refuse to eat anything that isn’t served on their favourite plate. They might complain about the smell, the taste, the texture, and wrinkle their little noses in disgust. That kids mess around with food and sometimes refuse to eat it is not anything new. But rather than waiting for children to ‘grow out of it’, scientists are urging parents to do something about it, because picky eating – or ‘selective eating’ (SE) – has now been linked to mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and social anxiety. And girls are more susceptible than boys.

The research from Duke University among 917 children aged between two and five found that SE was reported by 20.3%, with 17.7% reporting moderate SE (a restricted diet only) and another 3% reporting severe SE (a restricted diet that limited their ability to eat with others). The study found that “moderate and severe levels of SE were associated with psychopathological symptoms (anxiety, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) both concurrently and prospectively”. The more severe the levels of SE, the higher the likelihood of mental conditions. Children with severe cases of picky eating were more than twice as likely to develop depression. Two other significant findings were that high maternal anxiety existed with children who had moderate or severe SE. And severe picky eaters were more likely to be girls than boys.

The researchers even go as far as saying that the term ‘picky eating’ is obsolete when the selective eating is moderate or severe – as the fact that children are eating selectively implies that they need some help. They instead think the condition should be labelled with the diagnosis used by psychiatrists (DSMV) as ‘avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder’. This doesn’t mean parents need to panic if their little one spits out a piece of carrot. It is just a way of remaining vigilant if problems persist or become deeper and more consistent – and seeking further advice and help where needed.

You can check out the full research study here: Psychological and Psychosocial Impairment in Preschoolers With Selective Eating.

Depressed people may hold onto their sadness, claims study

It can be incredibly difficult to step out of the shadow of depression

It can be incredibly difficult to step out of the shadow of depression

People who suffer depression may end up holding onto their sadness rather than following ways to decrease it, according to an academic study.

Researchers from the Hebrew University wanted to find out the direction in which depressed people attempted to regulate their emotions, making the assumption that people with depression would take steps to reduce their sadness. However, in a series of experiments, they discovered that the opposite was true.

Depressed people would look at happy images as much as non-depressed people would. But when shown sad images, the depressed study participants chose to view the sad images again more than non-depressed people did. The same was with choice of music: depressed people were more likely to listen to sad music (62% of depressed people compared with 24% of non-depressed participants chose to listen to the sad music clip). In the third experiment, people were given a cognitive tool to reappraise their emotional response to a stimulus – and again the depressed people increased their sadness by choosing to use reappraisal to increase their emotional reactions to sad images.

Study author Yael Millgram said: “We were surprised that depressed participants made such choices although they were aware of how these types of music would make them feel… Contrary to what we might expect, depressed people sometimes choose to behave in a manner that increases rather than decreases their sadness. This is important because it suggests that depressed individuals may sometimes be unsuccessful in decreasing their sadness in daily life because, in some sense, they hold on to it.”

The next step for the researchers is to discover why and how that is.

Savour positive emotions to boost wellbeing

Appreciating the breathtaking moments of life can help build positivity

Appreciating the breathtaking moments of life, and savouring the emotions associated with them, can help build positivity and boost wellbeing

“Concentrate [yourself] upon the moments of a life that is itself but a moment.” This quote from Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray could have been taken from a modern manual on mindfulness, or an article on positive psychology. It also sums up new research that encourages us to savour the emotions associated with special moments to enhance feelings of wellbeing.

The university study reveals that the it’s not just the response we have to something beautiful or breathtaking or moving, but the ability to keep hold of positive emotions – to savour them – that can boost wellbeing. And the research looked at people who can and people who can’t savour the moments of life, and who are perhaps more inclined to feel depressed.

“It’s important to consider not just how much emotion you experience, but also how long these emotions persist,” said researcher Aaron Heller, University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami. He added: “We’re looking at how one person can savour a great deal from that beautiful sunset or a memorable meal, but how another person who might be susceptible to depression can’t savour that sunset and those positive emotions subside quickly.”

The study looked at how the effect of a positive emotion on neural pathways in the brain, even if it lasts for a few seconds. The research found it could “predict the persistence of a person’s positive emotion minutes and hours later… [leading to] a growing understanding of how mental disorders such as depression might be manifested in the brain”.

The study explored sending frequent prompts sent to people via their smartphones, to help embed positive emotions more regularly and efficiently. The researchers also suggested that meditation, and showing kindness and compassion to others, could impact on an individual’s ability to savour the moments – and the positive emotions – of life.