How To Stress Out Less And Reduce Worrying

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Eric Barker  -  
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Nobody likes stressing and worrying. And, no, even if you think it keeps you sharp it’s not good for you. It can cause all sorts of health problems over time, including messing up your memory and ability to pay attention:

The authors report the first direct assessment of working memory capacity when people engage in worry. High and low worriers performed a random key-press task while thinking about a current worry or a positive personally relevant topic. High (but not low) worriers showed more evidence of restricted capacity during worry than when thinking about a positive topic. These findings suggest that high worriers have less residual working memory capacity when worrying than when thinking about other topics and, thus, have fewer attentional resources available to redirect their thoughts away from worry.

Source: “Restriction of working memory capacity during worry.” from Journal of Abnormal Psychology

“GAH! Now I’m worried about my worrying! What do I do?!”

Other than worry about it some more? Worrying seems largely to be a problem of attention:

Research suggests that individuals with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) show an attention bias for threat-relevant information. However, few studies have examined the causal role of attention bias in the maintenance of anxiety and whether modification of such biases may reduce pathological anxiety symptoms. In the present article, the authors tested the hypothesis that an 8-session attention modification program would (a) decrease attention bias to threat and (b) reduce symptoms of GAD. Participants completed a probe detection task by identifying letters (E or F) replacing one member of a pair of words. The authors trained attention by including a contingency between the location of the probe and the nonthreat word in one group (Attention Modification Program; AMP) and not in the other (attention control condition; ACC). Participants in the AMP showed change in attention bias and a decrease in anxiety, as indicated by both self-report and interviewer measures. These effects were not present in the ACC group. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that attention plays a causal role in the maintenance of GAD and suggest that altering attention mechanisms may effectively reduce anxiety.

Source: “Attention modification program in individuals with generalized anxiety disorder.” from Journal of Abnormal Psychology

Nobody can really stop paying attention, our brains don’t work like that. What you can do is shift your attention. Focusing on the possible benign outcomes of whatever you’re worrying about has been shown to help:

This research investigated whether increasing access to benign outcomes of ambiguous events decreases excessive worry. Participants reporting high levels of worry were assigned either to practice in accessing benign meanings of threat-related homographs and emotionally ambiguous scenarios or to a control condition in which threatening or benign meanings were accessed with equal frequency. Results were assessed by use of a breathing focus task that involved categorizing the valence of thought intrusions before and after an instructed worry period and a test of working memory capacity available to participants while worrying. In comparison with the control group, the benign group reported fewer negative thought intrusions (as rated by both participants and an assessor) and less anxiety during the breathing focus task and showed greater residual working memory capacity while worrying. These findings suggest that enhancing access to benign outcomes is an effective method of reducing both the persistence of worry and its detrimental consequences.

Source: “Looking on the bright side: Accessing benign meanings reduces worry.” from Journal of Abnormal Psychology

I’m not a doctor, and this isn’t a replacement for real treatment if you’re experiencing serious problems, but if you find yourself just worrying a little too much, the above might get you back on the right track or at least give you a better understanding of what’s going on.

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How to make yourself happier in just a few seconds:

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Imagine an important positive event in your life (like meeting your spouse) never happened.

Mentally subtracting cherished moments from your life makes you appreciate them more, makes you grateful and makes you happier:

The authors hypothesized that thinking about the absence of a positive event from one’s life would improve affective states more than thinking about the presence of a positive event but that people would not predict this when making affective forecasts. In Studies 1 and 2, college students wrote about the ways in which a positive event might never have happened and was surprising or how it became part of their life and was unsurprising. As predicted, people in the former condition reported more positive affective states. In Study 3, college student forecasters failed to anticipate this effect. In Study 4, Internet respondents and university staff members who wrote about how they might never have met their romantic partner were more satisfied with their relationship than were those who wrote about how they did meet their partner. The authors discuss the implications of these findings for the literatures on gratitude induction and counterfactual reasoning.

Source: “It’s a wonderful life: Mentally subtracting positive events improves people’s affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts.” from Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

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Will you be able to cope when tragedy strikes?

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No, I’m not selling insurance. You may wonder about your ability to deal with extreme adversity — or even extremely positive events. Turns out we can usually anticipate major events and quickly adapt. Chances are, you’ll be fine:

This paper addresses the question of when and to what extent individuals are affected by major positive and negative life events, including changes in financial situation, marital status, death of child or spouse and being a victim of crime. The key advantage of our data is that we are able to identify these events on a quarterly basis rather than on the yearly basis used by previous studies. We find evidence that life events are not randomly distributed, that individuals to a large extent anticipate major events and that they quickly adapt. These effects have important implications for the calculation of monetary values needed to compensate individuals for life events such as crime or death of spouse. We find that our new valuation methodology that incorporates these dynamic factors produces considerably smaller compensation valuations than those calculated using the standard approach.

Source: “Happiness Dynamics with Quarterly Life Event Data” from Social Norms and Social Capital

The anticipation of difficult events is almost always far worse than the events are. Your mind can often be your own worst enemy.

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Can living like you’re young prevent aging?

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At some point we all wish we could turn back the clock. But is it as easy as merely acting as if you were still younger? To a good degree, the answer may be yes.

Via BBC:

Prof Langer recruited a group of elderly men all in their late 70s or 80s for what she described as a “week of reminiscence”. They were not told they were taking part in a study into ageing, an experiment that would transport them 20 years back in time.

The psychologist wanted to know if she could put the mind back 20 years would the body show any changes.

The men were split into two groups. They would both be spending a week at a retreat outside of Boston.

But while the first group, the control, really would be reminiscing about life in the 50s, the other half would be in a timewarp. Surrounded by props from the 50s the experimental group would be asked to act as if it was actually 1959.

They watched films, listened to music from the time and had discussions about Castro marching on Havana and the latest Nasa satellite launch – all in the present tense.

Dr Langer believed she could reconnect their minds with their younger and more vigorous selves by placing them in an environment connected with their own past lives.

And she was determined to remove any prompt for them to behave as anything but healthy individuals. The retreat was not equipped with rails or any gadgets that would help older people. Right from the off she was determined to ensure they looked after themselves.

One man discarded his walking stick

When they got off the bus at the retreat, Prof Langer did not help the men carry their suitcases in. “I told them they could move them an inch at a time, they could unpack them right at the bus and take up a shirt at a time.”

The men were entirely immersed in an era when they were 20 years younger.

Understandably, Prof Langer herself had doubts. “You have to understand, when these people came to see if they could be in the study and they were walking down the hall to get to my office, they looked like they were on their last legs, so much so that I said to my students ‘why are we doing this? It’s too risky’.”

But soon the men were making their own meals. They were making their own choices. They weren’t being treated as incompetent or sick.

Pretty soon she could see a difference. Over the days, Prof Langer began to notice that they were walking faster and their confidence had improved. By the final morning one man had even decided he could do without his walking stick.

As they waited for the bus to return them to Boston, Prof Langer asked one of the men if he would like to play a game of catch, within a few minutes it had turned into an impromptu game of “touch” American football.

Obviously this kind of anecdotal evidence does not count for much in a study.

But Prof Langer took physiological measurements both before and after the week and found the men improved across the board. Their gait, dexterity, arthritis, speed of movement, cognitive abilities and their memory was all measurably improved.

Their blood pressure dropped and, even more surprisingly, their eyesight and hearing got better. Both groups showed improvements, but the experimental group improved the most.

Prof Langer believes that by encouraging the men’s minds to think younger their bodies followed and actually became “younger”.


Is there a way to easily counteract loneliness — by yourself?

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Turns out merely being nostalgic has notable affects on making you feel less lonely:

Four studies tested whether nostalgia can counteract reductions in perceived social support caused by loneliness. Loneliness reduced perceptions of social support but increased nostalgia. Nostalgia, in turn, increased perceptions of social support. Thus, loneliness affected perceived social support in two distinct ways. Whereas the direct effect of loneliness was to reduce perceived social support, the indirect effect of loneliness was to increase perceived social support via nostalgia. This restorative function of nostalgia was particularly apparent among resilient persons. Nostalgia is a psychological resource that protects and fosters mental health.

Source: “Counteracting Loneliness: On the Restorative Function of Nostalgia” in the journal “Psychological Science”

More on the power of nostalgia (and how it can make you happier) here.

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