Why uncertainty creates the worst kind of stress

davanti counselling uncertainty

Not knowing what will happen is more stressful than inevitable pain. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/dream designs)

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

So Alfred Hitchcock famously said, in relation to the suspense in his movies. And yet this quote has tremendous resonance for those of us living with the terror of uncertainty. Not knowing what will happen, or if something will happen, is far worse than knowing pain is on its way and having to deal with it. This is backed by research from University College London (UCL) proving that “uncertainty can cause more stress than inevitable pain”.

The researchers asked 45 participants to play a computer game that involved turning over rocks that might or might not have snakes underneath them. The volunteers received a mild electric shock on the hand every time there was a snake. The rocks changed each time, to increase levels of uncertainty. The study measured how stressed participants would be from getting shocks, and also the stress caused by the uncertainty around when or if they would get the shocks. The conclusion was that uncertainty causes more stress than knowing what’s going to happen to you.

Study lead author Archy de Berker, from UCL’s Institute of Neurology, says: “Our experiment allows us to draw conclusions about the effect of uncertainty on stress. It turns out that it’s much worse not knowing you are going to get a shock than knowing you definitely will or won’t.”

Co-author Dr Robb Rutledge adds: “The most stressful scenario is when you really don’t know. It’s the uncertainty that makes us anxious. The same is likely to apply in many familiar situations, whether it’s waiting for medical results or information on train delays.”

How writing a poem can make you feel better

davanti counselling rhyme and resilience

Writing down your emotions can be a route to healing. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/surasakiStock)

Today is World Poetry Day, set up by UNESCO to “recognise the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind”. You don’t have to be a poet to write a poem. You can just sit down and let fragments of thought and feeling tumble onto the page. Writing a poem is a unique way of connecting to feeling, and can boost your wellbeing. Research has shown that the act of writing about emotional experiences has physiological and psychological benefits. Here’s how writing a poem can help you feel better:

  • Giving emotions to the page can release you from them. The page can hold the feeling so you don’t have to.
  • The structure and discipline of poetry can offer containment for overwhelming emotions.
  • Putting your feelings onto paper or screen is like having your own personal therapist whenever you need to be heard and understood.
  • Writing about your experience can help make meaning from chaos.
  • Writing can help you understand and reconstruct the part of you that’s been hurt, shamed, stressed or depressed.
  • A metaphor can work with difficult feelings without re-traumatising.
  • If you feel stuck, write about your stuckness to release the energy.
  • Writing things down helps you dis-identify from your emotions: you can HAVE emotions but don’t need to BE them.
  • Having a piece of writing to look back on reminds you of the distance you’ve travelled between now and when the pain was experienced.

Happy World Poetry Day!

Related articles:

How to express your true feelings in words on World Poetry Day

How to use a poem to contain overwhelming emotions

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.

Anxiety can affect your ability to make good decisions

davanti counselling anxiety and decisions

The part of the brain responsible for flexible decision making is affected by anxiety. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/StuartMiles)

Anxiety is known for its impact on our emotions, especially its connection with fear, but new research suggests that anxiety can also affect the brain’s ability to make good decisions.

Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh did a study into a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is said to be “critical for flexible decision making”. They monitored this region of the brain in anxious rats who had to make decisions how to get a reward. The rats completed the task – as people living with anxiety would also complete tasks – but they made more mistakes in their decision making than the non-anxious rats “when the correct choice involved ignoring distracting information”. The scientists concluded that anxiety leads to bad decisions when there are distractions going on. And bad decisions made under anxiety would numb and weaken the PFC neurons responsible for making choices – which seems to be creating an anxious loop.

“We’ve had a simplistic approach to studying and treating anxiety. We have equated it with fear and have mostly assumed that it over-engages entire brain circuits,” said study author Bita Moghaddam, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience. “But this study shows that anxiety disengages brain cells in a highly specialised manner. Human anxiety is devastating, not merely because of how the person feels, but also because it can interfere with nearly all aspects of daily life, including decision-making.”

My conclusion from this is that we will all suffer anxious moments, and even periods of distressing anxiety. The key is not to identify with the anxiety, and not to act from those anxious feelings. Take time for the anxiety to subside, and then take stock and make a choice from there.

Are you ready to transform “winter’s dreams into summer’s magic”?

davanti counselling st patricks day

What can the festival of ‘green’ inspire you to achieve as winter disappears? (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Rattikankeawpun)

One of the prettiest quotes for St Patrick’s Day, 17th March, is this one attributed to Adrienne Cook: “St. Patrick’s Day is an enchanted time – a day to begin transforming winter’s dreams into summer’s magic.”

Stepping beyond the leprechauns, four-leaved clovers and jaunty hats that have come to characterise St Patrick’s Day, I’m wondering whether the “wearing of the green” could have more symbolic significance, given that winter is about to tip into spring? Here’s my metaphorical take on the day:

Snakes: St Patrick was legendarily attributed to have chased all the snakes away from Ireland (though an impossibility, reportedly, that there were any snakes, given the climate), and yet the timing of the feast day could represent an opportunity to chase away the snakes from your life. What is lurking in your life, sliding insidiously and hissing at your efforts? Could it be time to shed an old skin and allow a new, truer you to emerge?

Green: Symbol of rebirth, transformation, growth. Taken metaphorically, wearing green can help you focus on your heart’s desire. You can work on cutting away the weeds that are strangling your roots and preventing your potential from coming to bloom. Focus on green to sow the seeds of hope and harmony in your life.

Luck: The four-leaved clover may be a one-in-a-10,000 find, and yet some of us still hold out hope that we will find that rarity – while ignoring what we have around us. What are the gifts staring you in the face that you may not be appreciating? What are you searching, yearning for in the future that may leave you depleted in the present? Stay in the now and feel gratitude for what you have.

And those dreams into magic? It’s the time of year when New Year’s Resolutions may be a faded, embarrassed promise, and the clocks going forward represent renewed chances and more daylight to achieve something. If the timing of St Patrick’s Day really does represent an “enchanted time”, then take today as an opportunity to kick-start something you’ve been dreaming about for some time. Have you been hibernating in thought during darker hours? Promising yourself that you’ll shake yourself out of something? Today could be the time to grasp the energy of green and bring some wakefulness into your own dreams.

Happy St Patrick’s Day!

How anxious people perceive the world differently

davanti counselling anxiety over generalisation

Anxious people tend to over-generalise in their response to emotional experiences. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/StuartMiles)

If you suffer anxiety, chances are you’re more highly attuned to threats, and find it difficult to manage heightened emotion when you feel unsafe. New research shows that anxious people don’t just follow the “better safe than sorry” rule. It’s the way their brains work when it comes to discriminating between what’s threatening and what’s safe that’s the issue. In short, they ‘overgeneralise’

Researchers from the Weizzman Institute of Science in Israel asked people with anxiety to associate three different sound tones with three different outcomes. One was money loss, one money gain, and one was no consequence. They then heard new tones and had to decide if they’d heard the tone before. If correct, they won money. Anxious people were more likely to believe they’d heard one of the new tones earlier – and were more likely to mistake that tone for one associated with money loss or gain. No participant had a hearing issue, and so the difference in perception was due to linking differently to an emotional experience. In the real world, this means that anxious people don’t or can’t differentiate between new and old stimuli, and they can over-generalise an emotional experience whether it is new, old or threatening.

Study lead Rony Paz said: “Anxiety patients respond emotionally to such new stimuli as well, resulting in anxiety even in apparently irrelevant new situations. Importantly, they cannot control this, as it is a perceptual inability to discriminate.”

The study was reported on Science Daily from the full report published by Cell Press journal Current Biology.

How reading for pleasure promotes wellbeing

World Book Day

World Book Day 2016: celebrating everything good about reading

If you like reading a good book for pleasure then you’ll know all about the joy and wellbeing that brings – as celebrated by World Book Day every year. Now research is backing up the benefits of reading for pleasure, and promoting the power of books to inspire, calm us down, and empower us to make positive changes in our lives.

The Reading Agency has recently produced two studies showing the “remarkable and untold benefits of reading on our everyday lives”. The first study, Galaxy Quick Reads: The Untold Power of the Book, produced in partnership with Josie Billington at the University of Liverpool, shows that reading for pleasure can make us more empathic and encourage us to change our lives for the better. Half of the UK adults in the study said that reading could help make them more sympathetic to other people’s situations. Other results showing heightened wellbeing are:

  • 38% of people choose reading as their ultimate stress remedy.
  • 35% reach for a book for comfort when feeling down (compared with 31% who pour themselves a glass of wine, and 10% who run themselves a bath).
  • 41% say reading is a better cure for their worries than a night out with friends.
  • 27% feel empowered to make major life changes, such as end a bad relationship or search for a new job.
  • 20% feel more motivated to look after their health after reading a good book.
  • 17% say books inspired them to stay calm during a disagreement (compared with 5% of people who never read).

Interestingly, the research showed that readers who prefer characters who demonstrated that it’s OK to be flawed – and drew comfort from that. So, 23% prefer to read about someone who is makes mistakes, or someone who is funny (20%), more than a character who is brave (19%), loyal (17%), or kind (11%). However, it was more than a third (35%) of respondents who claimed they would love to read more but were distracted by their phones or the TV.

The second study, The impact of reading for pleasure and empowerment, in conjunction with BOP Consulting, and funded by the Peter Sowerby Foundation shows more evidence that reading for pleasure can reduce symptoms of depression, lower the risk of dementia, improve relationships, and generally boost wellbeing.

Commenting on the findings, author and president of the Society of Authors, Phillip Pullman, said: “I agree whole-heartedly with what this report is saying about the importance of reading for pleasure. The writer Samuel Johnson apparently didn’t say this, but someone did, and it remains true: ‘The true aim of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it’.”

Couples: why your partner needs to feel loved AND understood

davanti counselling loved and understood copy

Relationship conflict can be healthy if you understand your partner’s point of view (pic courtesy of niamwhan/freedigitalphotos.net)

Couples following Oscar Wilde’s advice that “women are meant to be loved, not to be understood” could be missing a trick. OK, so you can substitute ‘men’ or ‘partners’ in place of ‘women’ to make Wilde’s quote relevant to your own relationship. But the point is that just loving someone isn’t always enough for a successful, enduring relationship – especially when it comes to managing conflict.

This concept is highlighted in a Quartz article on how to make conflicts in relationships healthy. It draws on a study from the University of California at Berkeley, ‘Do you get where I’m coming from?’ that examines the perception of being understood in the context of relationship conflict. Researchers Amie M. Gordon and Serena Chen carried out seven studies to test “whether conflict in close relationships is only detrimental when people do not feel their thoughts, feelings, and point-of-view are understood by their relationship partners”.

Conflicts can become toxic when partners descend into behaviours such as blaming, withdrawing, making the other party feel guilty, or dragging up past misdemeanours and misunderstandings. The antidote to that toxicity is understanding your partner – and showing him or her that you understand, even while you’re disagreeing.

Gordon and Chen concluded: “Feeling understood during conflict may buffer against reduced relationship satisfaction in part because it strengthens the relationship and signals that one’s partner is invested. Overall, these studies suggest that perceived understanding may be a critical buffer against the potentially detrimental effects of relationship conflict.”

From the perspective of a couples counsellor, this research has huge resonance. Couples often come to therapy with both partners holding an entrenched position: that to compromise would mean ‘giving in’. They’re both holding out for the other person to change.

I find that the process of couples counselling is to help partners understand where the other is coming from. In other words, to ‘get’ each other. This may mean appreciating that one is an introvert, the other an extrovert. One may need closeness, the other may need more time alone. One may need to do all the planning, the other prefers to ‘wing it’. Neither is right or wrong. They are individuals in a relationship. Both, ideally, just need to be understood.

Couples counselling can facilitate that understanding so couples can be kinder to each other, for who they are and how they respond.

If you can identify patterns of conflict within your relationship that you’d like to resolve, and if you feel you’d like to try couples counselling, call Karen on 07956 823501, or email davanticounselling@gmail.com to book an appointment.

Why too many Instagram selfies can ruin your relationships

davanti selfie

Limit the number of selfies you post on Instagram if this causes conflict with your partner (image courtesy of stockimages/freedigitalphotos.net)

Post too many selfies on Instagram and it can have a negative effect on your relationships. The more selfies you post showing how happy you are with your body, the worse those effects will be. That’s according to recent research into the ‘dark side’ of Instagram use by Florida State University.

To investigate the consequences on relationships of posting selfies on Instagram, the researchers carried out an online survey of 420 people aged 18 to 62. One of the findings was that people with higher body image satisfaction (the mental image they have of their physical selves) were more likely to post Instagram selfies. While the selfie-lovers may be happy with how they look, there was a correlation between frequent posting and conflict in their relationships. This conflict manifested as jealousy and arguments – and, in worst cases, break-up, separation and divorce.

These negative relationship outcomes can arise from jealous partners becoming hyper-vigilant about Instagram use. The researchers explain: “We speculate that Instagram-related conflict might arise when users begin to monitor their partner’s Instagram selfie posting behaviours. Excessive online monitoring may then result in verbal disputes between romantic partners [who] may experience jealousy given the amount of likes and comments a selfie has accumulated on Instagram. It is also possible that Instagram selfie posts may capture other users’ attention, resulting in the development of online relationships with other Instagram users.” This can ultimately lead to relationship breakdown.

The researchers recommend limiting the number of selfies you post if it’s causing conflict with your partner. They also suggest exploring Instagram and social media use in couples counselling, especially where trust and betrayal are key issues.

The full research is ‘Instagram Unfiltered: Exploring Associations of Body Image Satisfaction, Instagram #Selfie Posting, and Negative Romantic Relationship Outcomes.’

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.”