Why bereavement can feel like getting lost in space

Like this astronaut, losing gravity is a powerful metaphor for grief. (pic courtesy of porbital/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Losing gravity is a powerful metaphor for grief. (pic courtesy of porbital/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Anyone who has seen the movie Gravity will know that it wows on two fronts: one, for its special effects, which have won it countless film awards; and two, for the grief metaphor that runs like a slow teardrop down a window pane until it sploshes, with relief, into the credits at the end.

One of the on-screen phrases at the start of Gravity is: ‘Life in space is impossible.’ It can feel beyond a bereaved mind to contemplate how you will never see the person again, and how life will never, ever have the same richness or colour as when the person lost was alive. LIfe, as we’ve known it, will literally never be the same again. Living can feel impossible.

Anyone who has lost anybody close to them will know how tempting it is to (more…)

Stress makes men more self-centred and women more empathic

Men's stress makes them   unable to relate to what's going on around them (pic courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/MasterIsolatedImages)

Men’s stress makes them unable to relate to what’s going on around them (pic courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/MasterIsolatedImages)

Stress makes men shut down, think only of themselves, and makes them unable to empathise with those around them. Women, on the other hand, become worried about other people. More evidence, perhaps, that could explain the difference in gender responses – and how the breakdown in communication and empathy explains why some relationships just don’t work. Or, at least, that’s according to new research from SISSA.

Men become unable to distinguish their own emotions and feelings from those of other people when subjected to stress, says the study. Women become more ‘prosocial’ while men think that everyone else must be feeling the same way they do.

“There is a subtle boundary between the ability to identify with others and take on their perspective and therefore be empathic, and the inability to distinguish between self and other, thus acting egocentrically,” say the researchers. “To be truly empathic and behave pro-socially, it’s important to maintain the ability to distinguish between self and other, and stress appears to play an important role in this.”

Women apply more ‘social strategies’ when stressed – meaning they reach out and ask for help – while men expect everyone else to feel the same way they do.

To work out how to communicate more effectively with your partner, under stress – whether a man looking to become more empathic, or a woman looking at ways to cope with stress – call 07956 823501 or email davanticounselling@gmail.com

Could your stress levels today be picked up from mother when you were a baby?

Infants absorb stress and anxiety from their mothers, says research. (pic courtesy of Serge Betasius Photography/freedigitalimages.net)

Infants absorb stress and anxiety from their mothers, says research. (pic courtesy of Serge Betasius Photography/freedigitalimages.net)

Now and again, a new piece of research comes along that explains so much that my counselling clients are experiencing today. Such pieces of research pretty much sum up the reason why psychotherapy exists: to help heal the wounds of our past and come to terms with what was painful on our childhoods.

The issue with the past, however, is that so much of that early wounding happens in a pre-verbal phase. It’s when we are tiny babies when we don’t have words to express what’s going on that some of those hurts can happen. People may think that babies won’t know the difference. But, as adults having a crisis in later life, feeling unable to cope, we can often feel left with an unease that something isn’t right. We just can’t put it into words. It’s just a feeling that keeps playing out in unhelpful behaviours, situations and cycles that they feel stuck in. And some of those behaviours and feelings may be in response to the nurturing – or otherwise – we experienced as infants.

So, what’s this piece of research that I feel resonates with the wounds in my clients? (more…)

Can spirituality make you more resilient to depression?

Researchers says spiritual beliefs can protect the brain from mood disorders such as depression. (pic: istockphoto.com/Skaya)

Researchers says spiritual beliefs can protect the brain from mood disorders such as depression. (pic: istockphoto.com/Skaya)

Apparently it can. A scientific study has suggested that spirituality gives people who are prone to depression a thicker outer part of the brain – which may offer some protection from depression.

The report studied 103 adults aged 18-54 from a family background of depression, and took MRI scans of their brains. They found a thicker cortex – the part of the brain that processes senses, language and emotion – in the survey participants who said religion or spirituality was important to them, compared with those who didn’t. A thinner cortex is linked with higher risk of depression.

However, being spiritual does not give you a thicker cortex, the researchers reported. Nor does more frequent attendance at church.

Myrna Weissman, professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University and chief of the Clinical-Genetic Epidemiology department at New York State Psychiatric Institute, who worked on the study, said: “Our beliefs and our moods are reflected in our brain, and with new imaging techniques we can begin to see this. A thicker cortex associated with a high importance of religion or spirituality may confer resilience to the development of depressive illness in individuals at high familial risk for major depression.”

What to make of these results? The researchers had previously found a 90% decreased risk of depression among the adult children of parents who were suffering from it. The therapeutic value of these findings is not clear, not even to the scientists, who believe that it’s the start of further research.

Weissman says the body and mind are connected – but how? Does having faith or belief in something beyond the physical here-and-now body help sustain people through difficult times? In an area that must be incredibly difficult to measure, I’ll be interested in what scientists can prove in the future.

Stories with mother help children make sense of their world

Hearing stories with mother helps children develop their own narratives about their lives. (pic: istockphoto.com/GeloKorol)

Hearing stories with mother helps children develop their own narratives about their lives. (pic: istockphoto.com/GeloKorol)

Mums are better than dads at telling stories to their children about past experiences, which helps kids develop their emotional skills.

This was the main finding from a piece of research called Gender Differences in Elaborate Parent-Child Emotion and Play Narratives. The researchers asked parents of children aged between four and five to reminisce about four past emotional experiences: one happy, one sad, a conflict with a peer and a conflict with a parent.

They found that mothers went into more detail when reminiscing with their children than fathers. They also included more emotional terms, which they then talked about with their kids. This helps children understand, develop and articulate their own feelings and point of view on these past experiences.

The researchers concluded: “Mothers appear to be helping children recount and understand their personal past more than fathers, and specifically, in working through difficult emotions that may facilitate emotion regulation skills.” The storytelling helps the children incorporate their own narratives into their lives.

For many adults who didn’t have such nurturing parents, coming to therapy to talk about their past, present and future can help them construct their own narrative and come to terms with what has happened to them. If you’d like to talk to a counsellor to help you make sense of your life, call 07956 823501 or email davanticounselling@gmail.com

Looking at old photographs can cheer you up

anima photographs

Reminiscing over old photographs can soothe your emotions.

Looking through old photographs can be good for your mental health and your memory. Even flicking through your pics and posts on Facebook can boost your wellbeing, according to new research.

The University of Portsmouth found that three-quarters of people they studied looked at their own photos on Facebook when they were feeling low so they could ‘self-soothe’. It can be comforting to reminisce about happier times, she says, and looking at your pics can be “as soothing as a walk in the park”.

Psychologist Dr Clare Wilson from the University of Portsmouth says looking at our photos is a way of connecting with our past selves when our present selves need reassurance. She adds: “When in the grip of a negative mood, it is too easy to forget how good we often feel. Our positive posts can remind us of this.”

This form of ‘reminiscence therapy’ – connecting with old memories to self-soothe and help stop depressive moods getting worse – can be practised anytime, anywhere: the study showed that 70% of people prefer to access their Facebook photos and posts via their phones.

Can venting your anger online make you feel worse?

anima anger online

Ranting online gives short-lived catharsis but can lead to longer-term anger issues. (istockphoto.com/KyKyPy3HuK)

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” Those famous words of Mark Twain have been given a contemporary twist in research carried out to discover the impact of venting anger online. Can the acid of anger come back to harm you?

Psychologists from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay investigated Anger on the internet: the perceived value of rant-sites. They carried out two studies to look at the way people express anger anonymously on blogs, social networks and on rant sites (forums specially created for venting anger), how they feel after ranting, and the emotional impact of reading angry posts. They particularly wanted to find out if venting anger can be cathartic in the short and long term.

All participants in the first study said they felt calm and relaxed immediately after ranting online. But those who vented frequently were found to become angrier rather than calmer. The study found that frequent ranters have higher anger scores and “express their anger in more maladaptive ways than the norm”. They were also found to demonstrate anger ‘offline’ too, averaging one physical fight and two verbal fights per month, and half of them had been told by others that they had an anger problem. As for the emotional impact of reading rants online in study two, people became less happy and sadder after reading the rants.

The researchers concluded: “Reading and writing online rants are likely unhealthy practices as those who do them often are angrier and have more maladaptive expressions styles than others. Likewise, reading and writing online rants are associated with negative shifts in mood for the vast majority of people.”

So, what to make of these results? They are partly in line with catharsis theory, as emotional release can be healing. But, importantly, only if it is directed in an appropriate way. Unlike expressive writing, where you’re encouraged to spill your feelings onto the page as a way of working through emotional problems, venting is “void of any structure” and doesn’t have an end in mind other than letting off steam (which then causes more anger in the long term). But through the  process of expressive writing, the person spilling their stresses on the page learns to face and ‘own’ their issues.

But in the online-venting study, there were some revealing responses from participants:

  • 67% appreciated other people commenting on their posts.
  • 42% wanted validation for their feelings.
  • 29% would prefer to talk to someone.

It seems that angry people want to be listened to, acknowledged, and validated. They want their feelings to be seen, heard and understood. Perhaps their reason for venting anger online anonymously is a fear that their anger cannot be tolerated by the person or thing they’re angry about, and they’re afraid of repercussions? And perhaps they’d secretly love to trade the bitterness of their acid for the milk of human kindness?