Why reading a good book is good for you and your relationships

Reading a good book for pleasure, not because you have to, can improve your empathy with others (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/imagery majestic)

Reading a good book for pleasure, not because you have to, can improve your empathy with others (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/imagery majestic)

Pick up a good book, lose yourself in its story, its history, its education, and you’ll feel the benefits of increased empathy for others, a boost to your relationships, and an enhanced sense of wellbeing. At least, that’s the results of a study from The Reading Agency, which – by living up to its name and reason for being – is promoting the benefits of reading. They would say that, wouldn’t they? But look beyond the headlines and the benefits of reading for pleasure aren’t just lofty claims to support a promotional message. The benefits have been identified by studying more than 50 studies and reports over the last 10 years, and across a range of age and cultural groups.

For children the benefits of reading touch on social skills. For adults, it can help improve relationships and confidence levels. For parents, it helps them to communicate better with their kids. And for older adults, reading for pleasure can help reduce symptoms of depression and dementia. Importantly, engaging in a book can help you engage more fully in other relationships, and become more empathic towards the ways other people live their lives.

The key point, however, is not to rock up and read a book because you have to, out of endurance. It’s about truly enjoying the pleasure of reading. Only then can you have have the opportunity to reap the benefits identified by the study.

I’ve enthused about this topic before, in my post on Why reading a good book can be therapeutic. I think you can’t beat reading a good book where you can lose yourself in time and space, and enter into a new world, for helping you relax, de-stress, and gain fresh perspective on the world you inhabit.

However, I’ll leave the last word on this topic to an expert. Author Phillip Pullman, President of the Society of Authors, which is involved in this project, said: “I agree wholeheartedly with what this report is saying about the importance of reading for pleasure. When I write a story I hope to beguile, to enchant, to bewitch, to perform an act of magic on and with my readers’ imaginations. [This quote] remains true: ‘The true aim of writing is to enable to reader to better able to enjoy life, or better to endure 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.

Write at twilight to keep a stronger hold on your memories

You'll have easier access to your memories if you record them in a journal in the evening (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/blackzheep)

You’ll have easier access to your memories if you record them in a journal in the evening (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/blackzheep)

Do you like to write your diary in the evening, reflecting on the day’s events, and capturing your thoughts and feelings about what’s happened to you? Or are you into morning journaling, wanting to share your thoughts with the page before you go about your day? Well, a study shows that people who write down autobiographical memories at night are more likely to remember them a month down the line than people who scribble down their life events when they wake up.

A diary after dinner: how the time of event recording influences later accessibility of diary events is a piece of research, published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, that looks at the best time of day for recording events to enable them to be remembered at a later time. “Improvements in long-term accessibility” of memories recorded in a diary were greater at night than in the morning. “Participants [in the study] who recorded their memories in the evening before sleep had best memory performance,” according to the research findings. The study explained this as memories becoming more consolidated during sleep, whereas other interference and distractions during the day could affect this process for people who journal in the mornings.

In conclusion, I’m reminded of this quote by Norbet Platt: “The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought. This in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium.” So putting pen to paper at night helps embed those thoughts even more deeply.

Your ‘weekend effect’ could depend on how happy you are in your job

Happiness levels in your job will depict how much you enjoy your weekends (pic courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos/net/Mr Lightman)

Happiness levels in your job will define how much you enjoy your weekends (pic courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos/net/Mr Lightman)

Do you live for the weekend, counting down the hours and minutes until clock-out time from work on Friday? Or is the weekend merely a continuation of a socially complete, happy lifestyle? The answer to that will depend on how satisfied you are with your job, how well you get on with your boss, and how much social interaction you have during the week with colleagues and friends outside work.

At least, that’s the conclusion from analysis of the ‘weekend effect’ on seven emotions – happiness, sadness, enjoyment, laughter, worry, anger and stress – of thousands of US workers in the Gallup/Healthways daily poll 2008-2012, carried out by John F. Helliwell and Shun Wang and published in an NBER paper.

They found that while stress levels were lower all round, there was no significant ‘weekend effect’ in terms of happiness or laughter for people who felt satisfied in life and work during the week. Their happiness remained pretty much constant across the span of seven days.

However, there was a marked difference in happiness levels for people who were miserable in their jobs, especially for those with micro-managing bosses and an environment where there was little trust. Their happiness levels were three times higher compared with people who had fulfilling work lives.

If five days out of seven are making you miserable, it could be time to look at why, and what you can do about it. If there’s a payoff for you at weekends, then fine. But if deep down you know you’re not living your potential or achieving what you’d always set out to achieve, then it might be time to explore some options that might just make you happier.

Sugar, spice… and all things stressed

Scientists have proved the link between stress, sweets and emotions - and the impact that can have (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/rakratchada torsap)

Scientists have proved the link between stress, sweets and emotions – and the impact that can have (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/rakratchada torsap)

If you find yourself reaching for the biscuit tin, searching in the treats cupboard, or raiding the kiddies’ sweetie stash when you come home from work feeling stressed – and need to find an antidote that calms you down, quickly! –  it will come as little surprise that researchers have found that eating sugar is one of the best stress relievers around.

You can read on ‘Women’s Doctor’ that sweets relieve stress – but you can of course try to substitute sugar for healthier alternatives. However, the answer may not be as simple as that. Body fat can have an effect on the way the brain responds to stress and metabolism, according to a University of Florida study.

The research found that: “Stress causes a desire to eat more, which can lead to obesity. And too much extra fat can impair the body’s ability to send a signal to the brain to shut off the stress response.” So, stress isn’t just in the brain after all.

This is a new finding in this field, where stress was generally thought to be an emotional response. Now that the ‘fat to brain pathway’ has been detected, researchers are going to look at those signals that prompt overeating in response to stress, and work out how those links can be recognised and broken – both ways.

Further articles on the link between stress, diet and emotion include:

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.

Can stress really be friend not foe?

Don't fight stress and it can point you in the right direction, say US psychologists. (pic courtesy of Stuart Miles/freedigitalphotos.net)

Don’t fight stress and it can point you in the right direction, say US psychologists. (pic courtesy of Stuart Miles/freedigitalphotos.net)

Relying on coping strategies to avoid stress – rather than embracing stress as a natural and welcome part of our everyday lives – could be causing us more problems in the short and long term, according to US psychologists from Stanford. They argue that stress can be more helpful than harmful, if you only change your stress mindset.

That might initially seem like an upside-down concept, particularly given the rise in recent years of mindfulness-based stress reduction courses and other stress management techniques to help quieten the mind, calm the breathing, and tame the anxious thoughts. But the Stanford research proposes that resisting stress through avoidance or procrastination, or amplifying it through catastrophic or destructive thinking, can increase instances of depression, divorce, job loss etc. In other words, all the consequences the stressed-out person is desperately seeking to avoid.

How I interpret the research is that the psychologists are suggesting we come to view stress as a way to help us meet our challenges rather than be defeated or victimised by them. Yes, they acknowledge that stress is responsible for some rather unpleasant physical and emotional consequences. Yet they argue that stress (or the response to adrenalin in fight or flight mode) is there to help us stand up to our difficulties rather than feel we need to run from them. Importantly, we don’t need to feel crushed by the weight of life’s injustices, or fear that our stress levels are another sign that we’re weak and unable to cope.

Here are three further key points from the research that I believe provide insight: (more…)

What are you planting today to help you believe in tomorrow?

How does your psychological garden grow?

How does your psychological garden grow?

“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” This is one of the most memorable quotes from one of the world’s most iconic women, Audrey Hepburn, whose 86th birthday would have been today. It’s a quote about inspiration, and about trusting that the seeds you sow today will one day blossom into something beautiful and meaningful.

While Audrey Hepburn’s quote has been related to the humanitarian work she did for children, from a psychotherapy perspective all kinds of shoots can spring forth from this rich metaphor. Some I have in mind are these:

  • What types of thoughts are taking root in your mind? Benign, helpful ones that will later bud into positive beliefs – or negative, destructive thoughts that will build resentment and breed rot in your flowerbeds?
  • Are you eyeing up your neighbour’s flowers – as spring breathes life into gardens across your neighbourhood – wishing you could have what they have? Or do you want to trample on them in the spirit of envy because the grass isn’t greener in your life?
  • Are your entrenched behaviours beginning to stifle the significant others in your life, like ivy around a tree?
  • Is your prickliness spreading like a bramble, ready to trip people up?
  • Are you primped and prepared for everyday weathers? Or are you wild and unwieldy like an overgrown garden?

Do you wish you could bloom like a peony, rather than twist like a thorn  – but don’t know how? Are you ready to dig around in your psyche for clues as to how your life can change, and plant something more positive for your future? Then psychotherapy could be for you.

To take the first steps in helping your psychological garden to grow, call 07956 823501 or email davanticounselling@gmail.com

Only the lonely? Five strategies to help tackle social isolation

Life is so short. Share your heart and spend time with people who count. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/StuartMiles)

Life is so short. Share your heart and spend time with people who count. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/StuartMiles)

Ever had that moment when you’re in a group of people you don’t particularly connect with, and you’ve never felt more alone? Find yourself retreating to your bedroom more and more, so you can avoid social situations and be on our own? Or just prefer your own company to other people’s?

These scenarios can happen to anyone. Yet while planning some ‘me’ time in your diary can help you build resilience and feel emotionally robust, it’s when these tendencies for ‘alone time’ overshadow the impetus to socialise that issues can emerge. Increasing feelings of isolation when surrounded by friends or acquaintances – or a bigger preference to be on your own, to the exclusion of other people – can lead to bigger problems down the line. Even health problems, according to a recent study. Loneliness can be a bigger killer than obesity or smoking 20 a day. And don’t believe that feelings of social isolation are just for the elderly, either.

Research from Brigham Young University highlights the health worries for people who are lonely or socially isolated – and that means anyone of any age, size, culture or disposition. The obvious but often seemingly unachievable antidote to loneliness is to reach out to to others. Lead study author Julianne Holt-Lunstad says: “We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously.”

But how to reach out socially when you feel unable or unwilling to do so? Here are my five tips for starting to combat loneliness: (more…)