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.

How to use a poem to contain overwhelming emotions

Writing a structured poem can help contain overwhelming emotions.

Writing a structured poem can help emotions feel more contained.

Writing things down, especially negative thoughts, feelings and emotions, can make us feel better. Just picking up a pen and writing what comes to mind can be incredibly cathartic and therapeutic, and can help you put into words what you really feel.

To get into the spirit of National Poetry Day, how about attempting to express your feelings in a poem? The structure and discipline of poetry can offer containment to difficult or overwhelming emotion, and can provide a tremendous feeling of release and satisfaction. It can help provide meaning on the page from the chaos in your mind.

There is a poem structure called the acrostic poem. Here’s how to make it work for you:

  • Identify an emotion you’re feeling, or have felt.
  • Pick one word that sums up that emotion.
  • Write the letters of that word vertically down a page of A4 paper.
  • Allow all the thoughts, feelings, ideas, memories and images you associate with that emotion to spill onto a separate page.
  • Place some of those words and phrases next to the letters of your emotion.
  • Fill in the other letters with phrases that fit your emotion, as you’re feeling it right now.

Here’s an example, with the emotion ANXIETY:

ANXIETY

And here I am again.

No closer to the reassurance I need:

X-raying all my closest

Interactions to see if they can

Ever be any better.

Truly tired of being inside my head.

Yearning for some peace instead.

The poem will help to ‘ground’ the emotion you’re feeling through the structured engagement with the initial letters of the word. Writing about an emotion in this way names it, captures it, and takes it power away.

A cognitive ‘cure’ for road rage..?

Not taking everything personally is the first step to challenging rage on the road. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Salvatore Vuono)

Not taking everything personally is the first step to tackling feelings of road rage. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Salvatore Vuono)

Another day, another road-rage incident – or so it seems. In the news we’re always hearing about the latest road rage episode, where someone is outraged by another person’s driving and takes revenge. Road rage can go beyond daily snarling behind the wheel, and far too frequently leads to dangerous behaviours – from spitting and swearing to angry gestures, physical attacks and even use of weapons.

Psychologists have looked long and hard at road rage and its causes, and have concluded that it is the distortion in drivers’ thinking that causes many crashes, cut-ups and collisions. The latest research into road rage, from the Free University of Brussels seems to suggest that tackling this distorted thinking in drivers – and getting them to challenge their angry and destructive thoughts – can help to reduce the rage that’s provoked by other drivers’ behaviour on the road.

Basically, if a driver thinks the other person has cut him up on purpose, he may feel that it’s a personal attack on him. He may respond aggressively, and believe the other driver needs to be ‘taught a lesson’. This is an all-too-familiar situation in traffic-heavy roads in busy, urban environments where everyone is in a total rush.

In a psychological experiment, 40 male drivers were asked to challenge their distorted thinking when someone else on the road did something that could trigger their own aggressive driving. Some of the participants were asked to devise an ‘antidote’ to the thoughts that would automatically pop into their head when someone cut them up, didn’t indicate, or overtook inappropriately. These antidotes were phrases, in their own words, which countered the belief that the aggressive/bad drivers were out to get them.

In psychological speak, these phrases were “inoculations” against the distorted thinking that could lead drivers to retaliate against people they perceived to be bad drivers who had in in for them.

The ‘control’ group in the psychology experiment (not inoculated) had discussions about hostile driving, but didn’t come up with their own phrases to counter their negative thinking. In subsequent tests, the people who had inoculated themselves had far fewer accidents (in simulated driving tests) than people who hadn’t.

The key learning from this experiment, in my opinion, is not to take every single daily ‘offence’ against you as something personal. Find an alternative way of distancing yourself from the perceived slight. Whether you’re behind the wheel or otherwise.

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.

Talking about miscarriage: a therapist’s perspective

Can discussing miscarriage publicly help to break taboos? (Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Can discussing miscarriage publicly help to break taboos? (Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The response to Facebook CEO’s Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that he and his wife are to have a baby girl – after three miscarriages – has been astounding. Not only is someone talking openly and publicly about miscarriage – but that someone is a man, a famous man. To start a discussion about miscarriage, says Zuckerberg: “Brings us together. It creates understanding and tolerance, and it gives us hope.” The alternative – not talking about miscarriage at all – leaves couples struggling in silence. “Most people don’t discuss miscarriages because you worry your problems will distance you or reflect upon you – as if you’re defective or did something to cause this. So you struggle on your own,” adds Zuckerberg.

The fact someone so well-known has come out and spoken about his losses has already sparked debate about how hidden the topic of miscarriage is – and why it shouldn’t remain a taboo any longer. While an estimated one in five pregnancies will end in miscarriage, couples who have lost their baby during early to mid pregnancy rarely talk about it. The rule is that no one announces a pregnancy until the crucial 12-week scan, and so many early miscarriages are never known, revealed or discussed.

Zuckerberg is right when he says that discussing the topic can “distance you or reflect upon you – as if you’re defective or have done something to cause it”. As a counsellor working with women – and men – affected by miscarriage, a core theme to their loss is that other people really don’t want to know. They may show empathy at the start, when they discover the news, but will often feel awkward about it. The person who has miscarried frequently finds herself taking care of the feelings of others around her, because pregnancy loss is a difficult concept to understand or accept.

The tacit expectation is often that the couple are meant to “get over it” quickly because it “wasn’t an actual baby anyway”. Yet that little bundle of cells that became an embryo and started bringing symptoms of morning sickness – and then suddenly lost its heartbeat – contained the hopes and dreams of a couple planning for a real, live, actual human being to become part of their lives.

Therapists like me hear the stories of dozens of people affected by miscarriage, often because no one else around them (friends and sometimes family) wants to listen. Miscarriage is one of my specialist areas as a counsellor and psychotherapist. What I’ve learned is that ‘the world’ doesn’t/can’t/won’t understand that a miscarriage is a major loss and requires a process of grieving in order to come to terms with it. (more…)

The ‘dark side’ of perfectionism can cause stress and burnout

Worrying about meeting standards, and fear of failure are two aspects of the darker side of perfectionism, which can lead to burnout (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Marcus74id)

Fear of failure and worrying about meeting standards are two aspects of the darker side of perfectionism, which can lead to burnout (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Marcus74id)

Think of a perfectionist, and you’ll picture someone conscientious who goes the extra mile to produce top-notch work. Someone with extremely high standards who is motivated and energised to achieve them. That’s the ‘light’ or positive side of perfectionism, according to researchers, who say that these qualities and attributes can contribute to a strong sense of achievement.

But there is also a darker side to perfectionism, which is when people “constantly worry about making mistakes, letting others down, or not measuring up to their own impossibly high standards”, according to lead researcher Andrew Hill, associate professor of sport psychology at York St. John University in England, whose findings were published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review. People who become consumed by perfectionism are more likely to achieve the opposite, by sabotaging their success in relationships, on the sports field, and especially in the workplace.

The results from this current study came from an analysis of 43 other studies over the last 20 years. The dark side of perfectionism – or ‘perfectionistic concerns’ can lead to people fearing they’re not being good enough, of berating themselves every time they make a mistake. Instead of feeling good about their achievements after all the work they’ve put in, sometimes a lack of support or acknowledgement in the workplace can turn perfectionism into cynicism, and the darker aspects can turn in on themselves – sometimes leading to mental health concerns, such as stress, anxiety and depression. Not to mention self-criticism and the voice of the inner bully/critic, mercilessly tormenting the perfectionist who feels that nothing will ever be good enough.

The antidote to dark perfectionism is compassion and forgiveness (not always easy for a perfectionist), and seeking out environments and people where mistakes are not only tolerated but encouraged as an opportunity to grow and learn. Admittedly, this isn’t always easy. Hill added: “People need to learn to challenge the irrational beliefs that underlie perfectionistic concerns by setting realistic goals, accepting failure as a learning opportunity, and forgiving themselves when they fail. Creating environments where creativity, effort and perseverance are valued also would help.”

Related articles: