Anxiety: Stop censoring yourself… and learn to lose

By Olivia Remes

Anxiety disorders are some of the most common mental health problems today. In fact, four out of every 100 people around the world have one, and research my colleagues and I were involved in at the University of Cambridge has shown that women and young people under the age of 39 are most affected.

Anxiety disorders reportedly cost the healthcare system and employers over US$42 billion each year in the US alone, and if left untreated or unattended, can lead to depression, substance use, and suicide.

There is a difference between normal anxiety, which all of us experience, and an anxiety disorder. Normal anxiety is a feeling which serves to motivate you, mobilise you for action, and protect you. In the modern world, anxiety makes you feel energised as you are trying to meet an imminent deadline or a rush if you find out that someone close to you has been in an accident. But if these feelings start arising in situations which don’t pose a real threat, that’s when you might have an anxiety disorder.

There are different types of anxiety disorders, and some of the most common are panic disorder and generalised anxiety disorder. If you have panic disorder, you feel intense spikes of anxiety arising out of the blue – your heart starts beating fast, and you feel dizzy and out of breath. You might even think that you’re about to have a heart attack or die.

If you have generalised anxiety disorder, you tend to worry about everything happening in your life and you find it very difficult to shift attention from your worries onto something else. The worries can be so intrusive that they can make you want to skip school, work, or important life events.

Anxiety leaves no marks, scars or bruises on your body, but can be more debilitating even than some serious physical illnesses, such as cancer or diabetes.

There is medication, but relapse is common and some people don’t experience improvement in symptoms. There is also cognitive behavioural therapy, but waiting times to get an appointment can be long and not all therapists are well-suited for everyone. But whatever options you choose, you can also help yourself using some simple methods based on science.

Stop censoring yourself

People with anxiety often edit what they’re about to say in their minds, because they don’t want to offend anyone; they try to find the perfect moment to bring up something; and they worry about the impact that they have on other people. In general, they tend to assume the worst and worry about all the things that might go wrong.

Because people with anxiety are afraid to voice their ideas, they often feel unassertive and that others take advantage of them. So the solution is to stop censoring what you say or do. Even though it might seem hard at first, it’s important to start doing it. Start with the people you feel most comfortable with and extend it to others around you, one by one. As soon as you begin to do this, you will feel a sense of ease and see yourself as an independent thinker. And this is a skill that can be developed with practice.

Live in the now

First, only think about what you’re doing right now. Do you think a lot about what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow? This could mean you’re not living in the present. And if you’re not living in the present, you’re more likely to experience anxiety.

But there is a way out. Whenever you have upsetting thoughts, don’t feed them with energy. Instead, try to focus as much as possible on what you’re doing in the present moment. Next time you’re drinking a warm beverage, for example, try to become immersed in the experience. See how holding the hot mug feels against your skin and smell the aroma.

When you become immersed in the present moment, your body relaxes and your mind becomes peaceful. This type of mindfulness meditation has been shown to lower anxiety in many research studies.

Learn to lose

Because people with anxiety sometimes have a harder time forging connections with others, they feel as if they must do everything in their power to maintain the relationships they have. This can make them needy and dependent.

But to preserve your mental health, it is important to learn to lose. If you upset someone and can see that they don’t want your friendship anymore, let it go. This is better for your dignity and, ironically, can build your sense of security as you begin to feel more reliant on yourself.

As the ancient Buddhist monks used to say: “When you let go of clinging, you can experience something else.” When you stop thinking about situations which can’t be changed, your mind automatically starts thinking about possibilities for the future. And this can be exhilarating and energising. In fact, learning to lose isn’t just about relationships, it can apply to anything in life. Give it a try.

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Source Material and Acknowledgements: The author of this article is Olivia Remes, who is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge The article was first published on 31st July, 2018 in the online academic discussion journal, The Conversation and is reproduced here under CC licence provisions. The original article, which includes active links to references can be found here.

When emotional memories intrude, focusing on context helps

By Liz Ahlberg Touchstone

When negative memories intrude, focusing on the contextual details of the incident rather than the emotional fallout could help minimize cognitive disruption and redirect the brain’s resources to the task at hand, suggests a new study by psychologists at the University of Illinois.

“Everyone has encountered something distressing either in the recent past or the remote past. These memories can pop into our minds and distract from whatever we are doing,” said study leader Florin Dolcos, a professor of psychology at Illinois. “Understanding what we can do to stay focused is important, not only for people in extreme cases where such memories can lead to difficulties in daily living – such as those with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression – but for everyone.”

In a paper published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, the researchers examined how brain activity and performance on a memory task changed when the participants were told to focus on the emotional or contextual aspects of triggered memories.

Thirty-three study participants completed detailed, lengthy surveys asking about a variety of events in their lives. One to two weeks later, participants performed cognitive memory tasks during a functional MRI scan, which is used to monitor activity in the brain. The researchers chose descriptions of negative events that the participants had written about, from sporting defeats to personal losses, and used them to trigger those memories during the tasks.

“They provided the cues themselves, so when we presented those cues in the scanner, we were sure we were triggering specific memories,” said Sanda Dolcos, a professor of psychology and co-author of the study. “When they filled out the questionnaire, they did not know that we would trigger those memories when they came to do the task.”

For half of the triggered memories, the participants were instructed to focus on the emotional aspects of their memories; for the other half, the participants were instructed to shift their focus away from the emotion and toward the contextual details of the memory, such as where the incident happened, who they were with, what they were wearing and other details.

“When subjects focused on the emotional aspect of their memories – how they felt, including the physical sensations – their cognitive performance was lower relative to their control tasks,” said Alexandru Iordan, the first author of the paper who recently graduated from Dolcos’ group with a Ph.D. and is now at the University of Michigan. “But when they were focusing on the nonemotional, contextual aspects, then their working memory performance was not impacted. They had better task performance and less negative effects when focusing on context than when focusing on emotion.”

The fMRI also found changes in brain activity. When participants focused on emotion, there was increased activity in regions of the brain involving emotional processing, but reduced activity in regions involved in executive function, such as reasoning and memory. However, when the participants focused on contextual details of their memories, there was a dampening in the regions involved in distraction and emotional processing and an increase in both activity and communication among regions associated with executive function and attention.

“When regions in the brain that are involved in processing emotion are stimulated, it takes resources away from regions that are helping you stay focused on the task at hand,” Florin Dolcos said. “With this shift in focus from emotion to context, you’re putting resources back into the regions that are processing the task.”

The researchers say the technique of focusing on context could help those who struggle with intrusive or distracting emotional memories to have a quick response ready so that when those memories are triggered, they can focus on the task at hand and then later process the memories more deeply with other techniques, such as cognitive reappraisal.

“This is important because another emotional strategy that people employ against such memories is suppression, which means bottling up your emotions. Suppression is actually associated with such clinical conditions as anxiety and depression, and it is not healthy,” Florin Dolcos said. “Instead of suppressing or stifling those emotional memories, we simply shift the focus and bring to life some other aspects of the same memory. That leads to a reduction in how much those memories interfere with whatever we’re doing.”

The researchers are working with subjects with depression and PTSD to evaluate the effectiveness of their technique over time.

“We are also working on interventions to help people learn these strategies and apply them on a day-to-day basis,” Sanda Dolcos said. “The beauty of this strategy is that it both reduces the emotional response of the intrusive memory and doesn’t affect cognitive performance. Anyone can use it at any time.”

Explore Further:

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Source Material and Acknowledgements:

The author of this article is Liz Ahlberg Touchstone, who is Biomedical Sciences Editor with the University of Illinois News Bureau. The article was first published by the University of Illinois research news update service on 14th June, 2018. It is reproduced here with permission. You may view the original article here.  The University of Illinois funded this research. Florin and Sanda Dolcos are also affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois. The paper “Brain activity and network interactions in the impact of internal emotional distraction” DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhy129 is available online and may be viewehere.

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Five unscientific methods used by sports coaches


By Adam R Nicholls  

Sports coaches are often under pressure to maximise the performance of their athletes and teams. With good intentions, they often turn to the latest hyped psychological techniques and ideas – many of which are not well supported by scientific evidence.

The following five techniques are widely used by sports coaches. None have robust evidence to back them up.

1. Learning styles

Learning styles assumes that people have an innate preference for how they are coached, and it influences their learning. For example, the theory claims that some people will learn best by watching a skill or technique (visual learning), others by listening to the description of a particular skill (auditory learning), and some by practising the movement or skill (kinaesthetic learning).

According to this theory, one athlete might best learn how to serve in tennis by watching a coach hit a serve, while others might best learn by listening to a description of how to hit a serve. Others still may best learn by practising the actions.

This is a widely held belief, often promoted by sport governing bodies. My recent study found that most coaches believe that athletes have their own preferred learning style. However, there is no evidence that learning is improved via visual, auditory or kinaesthetic coaching styles, compared with instruction that does not focus on the senses.

2. Neuro-linguistic programming

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) practitioners claim that eye movements reveal thoughts. For example, if a person is looking up to the left or to the right, he or she is trying to visualise something, such as a new skill, but if a person looks down to the right, he or she is thinking about feelings.

Coaches, it is argued, could use this information to identify what an athlete is thinking about and so help to change those thoughts. If an athlete is thinking about his or her feelings immediately before a competition starts – as revealed by eye movements – this could compromise their performance. As such, the coach could ask the athlete to focus on tactics or specific thoughts related to the upcoming competition and then monitor the athlete’s eye movement to see if it has been successful.

NLP claims that the behaviour and thoughts of elite athletes can be modelled to help other athletes improve. Coaches then use this model to help their own athletes. For example, if the best golfers reveal that they focus on the target and flight of the ball when preparing for a shot in golf, coaches might use NLP to teach their golfers to up their game by doing likewise.

NLP advocates offer many anecdotes about how it has transformed the performance or lives of individuals, but there is no convincing empirical evidence to support these claims.

3. Brain Gym

Brain Gym comprises a series of simple movements, such as touching your left heel with your right hand and then your right heel with your left hand, or placing a thumb and index finger either side of the chest bone, while your other hand rubs your stomach. The aim of these movements is to improve coordination and make movements more efficient.

Advocates for this method also claim that performing these movements increases motivation, concentration and focus. All of these outcomes could, potentially, benefit athletes. But the evidence for these claims is questionable.

Jeremy Paxman’s interview with Paul Dennison, the founder of Brain Gym.

4. Myers-Briggs type indicator

Many sports organisations use Myers-Briggs, a questionnaire that assesses personality type, to decide whether to recruit an athlete for their team or programme. Coaches also use Myers-Briggs to help them understand how their players behave and make decisions, so they can communicate more effectively with their athletes or players.

Although the technique is popular, some experts have voiced concerns about it. The most significant problem is that it classifies people into broad categories, such as introvert or extrovert. But this approach is too simplistic and does not fully capture the complexity of personality.

Since personality remains relatively stable throughout a person’s life, a person’s “indicator” should be the same if the questionnaire is completed by the same person a week, a month or six months later. Yet studies show that Myers-Briggs indicators change, which raises questions about whether it reliably assesses personality.

5. ActionTypes

ActionTypes is a combination of learning styles, practices to boost the brain and movement styles that are similar to Brain Gym. This method boasts high-profile advocates, including elite sports coaches who say it helps them to understand their players better and enables players to understand their own bodies better. But since information about this approach is hard to come by, and there have been no published studies, we have to conclude that ActionTypes is not a credible method for coaches.

Coaches should rely on the best available evidence-based ideas and practices to inform their work, but my latest research shows that this isn’t always the case.

Many coaches use unscientific methods (such as those listed above), and many of these questionable methods are delivered during coach-education programmes, which are created by national sport governing bodies. This is a worrying trend that could have a negative impact on the performance of current and future sporting stars.

Explore Further:

If you’d like to explore our range of fitness and physical therapy products, please see here. For products designed to support peak performance, including mental preparation, see here. To see our complete range of medication-free health and well-being products, please start at our home page, which is here

Source Material and Acknowledgements:

The authors of this article is Adam R Nicholls, who is Professor of Psychology and Coaching,  at the University of Hull.

Their article was first published on 9th July, 2018 in the online academic discussion journal, The Conversation and is reproduced here under CC licensing provisions. The original article, which includes all active links to references can be found here