Category Archives: Body & Mind

Is Dancing Good For You? Can It Make You Smarter!?

Absolutely! Get out and shake that booty!

FROM NEJM: “Among leisure activities, reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments, and dancing were associated with a reduced risk of dementia.”

Discussed here.

I will be dancing this weekend!

boyler room

Improving Health Outcomes among Head and Neck Cancer Patients

Tomorrow (2.17.12) – Free lecture/Seminar at Temple University

Improving Health Outcomes among Head and Neck Cancer Patients

Carolyn Y. Fang, PhD
Associate Professor and Co-Leader of the Cancer Prevention & Control Program
Fox Chase Cancer Center
941 Ritter Annex (Public Health Conference Room)
February 17, 12-1 pm

Studies of head and neck cancer patients have noted that the social environment may be associated with various cancer outcomes, including survival. To date, the potential mechanisms that may underlie such associations have not been well-studied in this population. This seminar will present data from our studies that highlight key pathways linking the social environment with biological processes that may impact cancer outcomes in this patient population. In addition, directions for future interventions designed to enhance survivorship will be discussed.

Sponsored by the Social & Behavioral Health Interventions (SBHI) lab and the Department of Public Health, Temple University

Honesty–Humility: New Correlate of Job Performance

Arrogance + Humility
A new study of job performance indicates that beyond the Big 5 Personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) honesty and humility are unique predictors of job performance.

I came across the article today, just as I myself experienced the benefits of being humble and honest in a work situation. But a better example comes from some wisdom shared with by my friend Léo Walton:

Upon entering the Neuroscience PhD program at the University of Wisconsin Léo mentioned that at first he felt like he was expected to know everything. Soon he realized that he could contribute more and be more successful in the program by admitting what he DID NOT know (which certainly takes honesty and humility). He was able to receive more valuable feedback and job-related information. Those around you, peers and supervisors alike, when they have a clearer picture of where you are coming from, are more likely to provide information that is useful to you, meets you at your current level of understanding, allowing you to then do a better job and be more effective and targeted in your work.

I think this is an incredibly powerful personality trait, especially in fields where collaboration is required.
But, I would imagine that this attribute could be important in many areas of life besides work. For example, we are told that in our social and romantic relationships honesty is crucial. How true.

I think the take-away message from this article can be summed up nicely by this quote from Malcolm X; “Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.

In other words, you can’t know everything, and admitting what you don’t know only puts you in a position to be more successful in the future.

Psychoneuroimmunological Pathways: Social Stress & Inflammation

Alexy Grey art

A recent study from researchers at the UCLA Cousin’s Center for Psychoneuroimmunology revealed a connection between brain activity in the regions that respond to stress and anxiety in social situations and inflammatory immune responses. This lends support to the mind-body (psychology-physiology) connection in the exacerbation of diseases like asthma, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and depression. I was excited to blog about these findings because they are relevant to my ongoing research “Life Stress, Social Problem Solving and Asthma”.

Essentially, I am hypothesizing that asthma patients who can more effectively cope with and adapt to stressful life situations will have better control over their asthma and have a better quality of life. The pathways that I suggest in my model are behavioral (i.e. medication adherence, seeking follow-up care, environmental asthma management strategies, etc), psychological (i.e. more effective coping and problem solving results in less anxiety and stress) and biological (i.e. anxiety and stress are associated with changes in immunology/inflammation and airway physiology).

The findings of the UCLA researchers are looking at the biological pathways from a very direct angle; measuring brain activity and inflammation in concert. While these findings are interesting and support the mind-body connection on a new level, there is still something lacking in terms of payback. That is to say, even if we can understand the tendencies and mechanics of the mind-body connection what good will come of it?

Perhaps my training has skewed my perspective but I suggest that the good will come from psychology and the science of health behavior. We can teach people coping skills and encourage them to engage in more adaptive life strategies. This can change their perception of their abilities to cope, changing their experience of stress, improving their disease self-management and, as this study suggests, support balance in the immune system.

School-based obesity intervention also increased math performance

University of Miami researchers implemented a 2-year multidimensional obesity intervention that included food service personnel, teachers, parents, community-based nutrition educators, and the children. They found that in the children who receive school-provided lunches that more students who received the intervention stayed within the healthy body mass index (p=.02) AND improved their math performance (p<.001) in comparison to student who did not receive the intervention.

Not actual lunch from the study

While the researchers could not identify exactly why the academic scores improved, their results suggest that improving nutrition may be an investment with returns in many areas. It seems that the First Lady and her efforts to reduce and prevent obesity may do more than just improve the health of our nation. It may also represent a much needed adjustment to the education system as well!

The body-mind connection will not be denied!

Yoga reduces general inflammation

yoga_bio

A newly published study has found that the regular practice of yoga can lower the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the blood stream. Cytokines are signalling molecules that regulate the various cellular components of inflammation, an immune-based response to threat (physical or psychological). Long-term inflammation contributes to many health conditions including cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, and asthma.

In this study conditions of stress were implemented through tasks such as holding their bare foot in very cold water, or solving increasingly difficult math problems without a calculator. The researchers also found that those who practiced yoga had less dramatic responses (less increase in cytokine activity, less self-reported anxiety and stress) to the stressors.

The results of this study speak to the wide-ranging benefits of yoga, and other relaxation techniques. This study also highlights the fact that we can train ourselves to have less severe reactions to stressors in our lives. Over time these benefits can really add up, resulting in long-term improvements in physical and mental health.

Is STRESS getting a bad rap?

Stress research is a huge and growing field of science. Stress can trigger and exacerbate many types if physical (heart disease, diabetes, asthma, obesity, etc) and mental disorders (anxiety, depression, etc). Stress has also been shown to negatively impact the immune system on a cellular level. It’s no wonder we hear so much about how stress is bad.

But, what most reports fail to highlight is that we only really need to worry about chronic stress. Chronic stress, as mentioned in the pre-requisite entry, is more dangerous because of the long-term health effects posed by an elongated stress response. So, why is stress getting a bad rap (or why do I think so)? Two reasons: 1. Failure to differentiate between chronic stress and acute stress/normal stress. 2. Failure to recognize that some (acute) stress is good for you! That’s right, I said it. Some stress is good for you! Let’s take an example that everyone can relate to: TAXES!

Most people would agree that doing taxes is stressful. I concur. But let’s break down the experience. Tax time comes around, and you start to feel the tension, the worry, the pressure. Why do you feel those things? It could be a number of things, but most likely you have that reaction because doing taxes is unpleasant, and could cost you time and money. The idea of taxes is also unpleasant because it’s something we must do. If we don’t there are potentially major repercussions (i.e. audit, jail time). Taxes also have potential to affects our financial security and even potentially affect our home life and relationships. The actual tasks associated with taxes are also unpleasant; the forms and language are confusing, the mathematical calculations, etc. Essentially everyone finds these experiences unpleasant. The big questions are “How do you deal with the unpleasantness? How do you cope?” Some people suck it up, gather the appropriate forms, envelopes, stamps, software, whatever is needed, put aside some time, and file their taxes, on time. Other people avoid filing their taxes, either through procrastination, or by failing to file entirely.

If you avoid your taxes (or dealing with any stressor), you are setting yourself up to experience stress over a longer period of time, whether you put it off until the last minute, or you don’t do them at all, in either case you are going to worry about your taxes more and for a longer period of time, thus welcoming and contributing to chronic stress in your life. Not good.

If you approach your taxes, engage the process, and take the steps necessary to complete the task, then you will successfully remove the stressor, sooner rather than later. Good for you!

So what’s the real difference in these two reactions? Everyone experiences some initial stress associated with doing taxes, but some people, over the long-term experience less stress associated with taxes (or with their job, relationship, bills, whatever). The major difference is that individuals who engage the process of doing these taxes used the initial feelings of stress to inform and guide their behaviors. Individuals who avoided doing their taxes did not gain anything from the experience of stress.

Stress is part of our physiology (and psychology) for good reasons. Stress can be very informative. It tells us when something is wrong, when we are in danger, or something in our life needs attention. Stress acts like a signal system that tells us to take action (whether it be run from the hungry lion, or deal with our taxes, or whatever the source of stress may be). Acute stress is not something to be avoided, it is meant help us recognize how and when there opportunities to reduce long-term experiences of stress. Problems arise when we ignore and avoid responding to our stress, or do so lackadaisically, or irrationally.

Let’s go back to the question at hand: Is stress getting a bad rap?

Yes, I think so. Current societal trends encourage eliminating all stress from our lives. Instead of eliminating or avoiding all stress, we should engage it. We should be listening to the stress our lives. Use it to inform our decisions, guide our actions, help us prioritize and be a source of motivation. As it stands, based on our current conceptualization of stress, I suggest that we are missing an opportunity to live more productive and efficient lives and live with less chronic stress.

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*The ideas from this post stem from various pre-existing theories of stress, namely Social Problem Solving Theory (see D’Zurilla & Goldfreid, 1971; D’Zurilla & Nezu, 1982). Social Problem Solving (SPS) Theory is part of my current asthma research and will be discussed in more detail in its own entry. Stay tuned!