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How to make self-affirmation work, based on science

The Washington Post – May 22, 2022

This February, the world’s top athletes will gather in Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics, striving to surpass what’s possible in human performance. While a lifetime of training the body is required

For fans of “Saturday Night Live,” the word affirmation probably triggers memories of a character popular in the 1990s: Stuart Smalley. With his carefully coifed blond hair and light-blue sweater, the host of “Daily Affirmation With Stuart Smalley” (played by comedian Al Franken) would gaze into a mirror and earnestly declare, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” Though the depiction was satirical, viewers could be forgiven for considering the idea of self-affirmation with skepticism or dismissing it as “too woo-woo.”

But psychologists and researchers who have examined self-affirmation say numerous studies have found that affirming yourself can produce wide-ranging benefits, including stress-buffering effects. The trick, they say, is how you affirm yourself — particularly what you focus on.

“I would just jettison all that Stuart Smalley stuff,” said Claude M. Steele, a social psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University who wrote a foundational paper on the psychology of self-affirmation.

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Effective affirmation isn’t thinking, “ ‘I want to pump myself up and find ways to say how much I like myself,’ ” said David Creswell, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University who researches self-affirmation. “It’s more about really identifying, in really concrete ways, the kinds of things about you that you really value.”

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Using broad or generic affirmations probably won’t be helpful and can sometimes backfire, experts said. For instance, repeating “I really like myself” can make you think about yourself in terms of being a good or bad person, and it sets you up to judge yourself, Creswell said. “Even though it’s trying to position it as a positive evaluation, it creates the possibility that maybe you’re not a good person.”

Affirmations also might be ineffective if they don’t align with what you believe about yourself, said Natalie Dattilo, a clinical psychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “This is about accurately and authentically encouraging yourself or using words of encouragement or acknowledgment that are consistent with your truth.”

What’s more, people can mistakenly think affirmations are about “seeking perfection or seeking greatness,” said Chris Cascio, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has studied the practice. Instead, Cascio said, the key concept of affirmations is: “As you are, you are good enough, and you’re valued being you.”

Time to ditch ‘toxic positivity,’ experts say: ‘It’s okay not to be okay’

Understanding how self-affirmations, also known as value affirmations, work requires recognizing that people are made up of “some unique combination of identities or dimensions that we hold ourselves self-evaluatively accountable to,” said Steele, who is credited with coining the term “self-affirmation theory.” The theory, which is laid out in Steele’s 1988 paper, goes on to postulate that people are motivated to maintain views of themselves as morally good and competent.

But we often experience situations in which this self-view might be emotionally or psychologically threatened, such as failing a test or receiving criticism.

Self-affirmations can be “a tool for self-defense” against these threats, Creswell said. Affirming things about yourself that you value can help bolster your overall sense of self and self-worth, and it can improve your ability to cope with destabilizing experiences.

If you have a stronger sense of self, threatening situations might not affect you as negatively, he said. “You’re not going to ruminate as much about them. You’re not going to get caught in them.”

You may, for example, be better able to weather critical feedback at work if you’ve affirmed your abilities as a parent, partner or friend. “You will have these other things you care about, these friendships, these involvements, that will give you a sense of security when you’re threatened in a particular domain,” Steele said.

The benefits of thinking about important personal values before potentially stressful events are supported by research. Studies have shown that doing simple self-affirming exercises, such as writing about core personal values before a test, raised minority student achievement in school, with some evidence of long-lasting effects, according to a 2014 review paper.

Research has also documented some positive effects on stress.

In one small study, participants who affirmed their values had “significantly lower cortisol responses to stress” compared with the control group, researchers wrote, referring to the body’s primary stress hormone. Another small study of college students found that those who did two value-affirming writing exercises ahead of a midterm exam had lower stress levels the day before the test. Self-affirmation can also help improve problem-solving under stress, according to a 2013 study.

Brain studies offer further insight into how self-affirmations might work, experts said.

Affirmations seem to engage regions of the brain associated with positive valuation and self-processing, said Cascio, citing his research findings. He added that his work found that affirmations related to “future-oriented values” — for example, if family is a core value, you could think about time you’re planning to spend with them — were “much more beneficial in terms of the affirmation’s success compared to thinking about the past,” because doing so engaged the value and self-processing regions of the brain to a greater degree.

Other studies show that affirmation activities can activate the brain’s reward system — the same system that responds to sex or drugs, Creswell said.

“There’s a really cool brain basis for these self-affirmation effects,” he said. “They’re really turning on the brain’s reward system, and that reward system is sort of then muffling your stress alarm system in ways that can be helpful.”

If you would like to try self-affirmation, experts offer these suggestions.

Be kinder to yourself. Research shows it could make you healthier.

Prioritize developing a “multidimensional life.” It’s critical to become involved in multiple things that contribute to who you are, such as relationships with family and friends, work or passions, Steele said. That not only gives you more to draw on for your affirmations, but it also offers other psychological benefits.

“I’m vulnerable if I just have one dimension on which my whole self-regard rides,” he said. “I’m going to be a pretty volatile person.”

Identify authentic affirmations. Your affirmations and how you word them should be consistent with values that are important to you and your self-beliefs, Dattilo said.

If you’re struggling to find things about yourself to affirm, Dattilo suggests starting with statements that reflect what you want to believe. I want to believe that I’m capable enough. I’m working toward believing in myself. I’m trying every day to think more positively about myself and my capabilities. “It doesn’t feel inauthentic, and it’s moving you in the direction of what you’d like to do, how you would like to be and how you’d like to feel,” she said.

Dattilo said she also sometimes recommends that her patients write down statements about themselves and rate the believability on a scale of zero to 100. If anything is under 50, discard it or reword it, so it becomes more believable, she said.

Creswell suggests affirming who you are by focusing on what you love, such as: I love being a parent. “You’re giving yourself an opportunity to hold up something you value and cherish and not feel like you need to judge it or have a debate about it in your head or in your writing,” he said. “We live our lives sometimes in a busy multitasking, chaotic way, and we can lose sight of things that we really cherish and that give us a sense of purpose.”

Build a daily habit that relates to affirmation. Although the research shows that it’s helpful to affirm yourself ahead of stressful situations, experts encourage regularly doing affirming activities.

A daily gratitude journal may be a good place to start, Creswell said. Once a day, perhaps at the end of your day, take a couple of minutes to write down at least one thing you’re grateful for. “Most people who try that for two weeks might be really surprised at their experience and how there may be surprising carry-over effects,” he said. “I suspect that something like that is going to result in people spontaneously affirming more.”

Self-affirmation can also be built into meditation or mindfulness practices, Dattilo said.

But keep in mind that your behavior also matters, she added. One way to improve how much you believe an affirmation is by behaving in ways that are consistent with the belief.

“We see ourselves through our behavior better than we see ourselves through our thoughts,” Dattilo said. “When the choices that we make are in line with our values and the things that we want to believe about ourselves, we’re moving further along that believability continuum.”

Video Chats and Ordering in: Coronavirus Quarantine with a Smartphone

Video Chats and Ordering In

The New York Times – Feb 18, 2022

Yardley Wong, captive on the Japanese cruise ship grappling with the coronavirus, captured in a single image the essence of life under quarantine. From inside her tiny cabin, Ms. Wong took a picture of the closed doorway. She posted it to Twitter last week.

“So much wondering through this door,” she wrote.

From the Black Plague to the flu pandemic of 1918 to more recent outbreaks, the history of quarantine and medical isolation shows common emotional threads of those on both sides of such doors — uncertainty, terror, loneliness, separation. But this time, the raw physical barrier is showing cracks, thanks to the smartphone.

“After some emotional breakdown, I find my peace from you all,” Ms. Wong tweeted several days after her post brought messages of support from people around the world. “Thank you for the kindness. Your tweets give me strength.”

While newspapers, radio and television have softened the ordeal of past sequestrations, the coronavirus quarantines of 2020 are unlike any other in human history owing to almost universal digital connection.

Laptops, tablets and smartphones are allowing people in quarantine to work at their jobs remotely, order food, shop on Amazon, chat face-to-face with friends and loved ones, keep up with social media feeds, download movies and music — in short, to stay engaged in the world and fulfill many activities of their regular lives.

Karey Maniscalco, an American real estate agent who was quarantined with her husband, Roger, on the same cruise ship, found isolation surprisingly busy. “The last couple of days, we’ve been just catching up on work online, and doing a lot of Facebooking,” she said in an interview last week, before the U.S. government evacuated most American passengers from the ship and flew them back to the United States, where they will continue to be quarantined. “Our inboxes are constantly full. Keeping up on social media is surprisingly very time consuming.” She started posting TikTok videos to stave off what she said could be “overwhelming” emotion. “I woke up realizing that I’m still here and just started crying.” Engaging on social media, she said, “keeps me too busy to sit and dwell, I guess.”

In China, Isabel Dahm, 22, has been able to see her cats and dog back home in Minnesota through chats with her father, Bob Dahm, using an app, WeChat. She is in Zhejiang province, where she’s been teaching English since November and is now largely relegated to her apartment under semi-quarantine.

“I think if this was happening in the Middle Ages, I would’ve actually gone insane weeks ago,” Ms. Dahm said by email.

She is allowed out of her apartment only every other day, so she is teaching her class online from her computer in her small efficiency apartment. “I have a VPN, a virtual private network, so I’m able to access all of the things I could back in the States, like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube that are normally blocked in China,” she said. She also orders food delivery but the delivery people are not allowed upstairs.

“She’s learned the phrase in Chinese for ‘I’ll meet you at the gate,’” her father said.

More substantively, those under quarantine have had unprecedented access to information about the virus itself. For example, in Shenzhen, in the Guangdong province, which has the highest infection rate outside of Wuhan, Krista Lang Blackwood, a teacher from Kansas City, follows virus updates from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sometimes, she and her family look out their fifth-floor window and wonder if the quiet streets are telling them infection is spreading. Then they check the phone to find out.

In earlier times, Ms. Lang Blackwood noted in an email, people probably would have fretted over how close the nearest case of illness was. “In the 21st century, don’t worry! There’s an app for that!” she wrote.

“You can literally look at your neighborhood and see where each reported case is on a map. We have no idea who runs that app, since it’s all in Chinese, but, on the app, there is no red exclamation point at the apartment complex down the street.”

“It’s an odd combination,” she added, “of glut of information combined with isolation.”

This widespread connectivity appears to be changing the nature of isolation according to experts in two disparate fields — those who study the sociology of technology use and those who study quarantine. In 1918, during the flu pandemic, parts of the United States embraced a strategy called “social distancing” that was explicitly intended to limit interpersonal exposure. Only one-third of households had phones and people were afraid to touch newspapers, fearing the spread of germs.

Research, going back decades, shows specific instances in which new media helped limit isolation. Journal articles from the early days of radio show how radio transmissions lifted the spirits of people in isolation at hospitals. An experiment in the late 1950s in Omaha found that a closed-circuit television signal helped the mood of patients at a mental hospital when they could see and respond to their relatives.

In 1832, when a cholera outbreak struck North America, newspapers carried news of the infection as it spread.

“There is a long history of new media in transforming these moments over time,” said Dr. Jeremy Green, director of the history of medicine department at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The current media seems to combine all that which has come before — letter writing, video, radio and television, and all instantly and everywhere. Referring to the swine flu pandemic of 2009, he said, “Even with H1N1, we didn’t see this particular outcropping of social networking.”

Dr. Jeremy Nobel, an adjunct instructor at the department of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, warned that the widespread ability to communicate comes with the equally powerful ability to manipulate, distort and censor information. As a result, he said, people under quarantine may be left to ponder if governments are telling the truth, creating tension between the comfort of interpersonal communications and discomfort of official ones. “In an era of fake news,” he said, “people might ask: What is fact, and what is truth?”

A Chinese doctor who blew the whistle in late December on the spread of the virus wrote to a chat group in his initial message, “quarantined in the emergency room.” The doctor, Li Wenliang, later died from the infection.

Shirley Lin, an advertising entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, was communicating regularly through a WeChat group with friends and colleagues in China who have family and friends in Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus. Ms. Lin said that when someone posted a video that included criticism of the Chinese government, it often disappeared before it could be seen by everyone in the group.

The surveillance became so worrisome that the group recently abandoned WeChat, which is owned by a Chinese company, in favor of an encrypted mobile phone service, like Telegram or WhatsApp. She said she preferred not to name the precise one to keep it below the government radar.

A small but growing body of scholarship backs up the idea that social interactions can stimulate reward centers of the brain and, in turn, dampen a stress response, and enhance resilience and even physical health. David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who works on that research, said that it stood to reason that smartphones, to the extent they are used to make welcome social connection, could diminish the stress of isolation.

James Katz, a professor of emerging media at Boston University, said: “Without contact, it’s solitary confinement, which is seen as a cruel and unusual punishment. Being socially cut off is a form of death, but a reversible form of death. Having the communication allows people to make the mental adjustment to reality.”

Eimi Yamamitsu in Tokyo contributed reporting.

Matt Richtel is a best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter based in San Francisco. He joined The Times staff in 2000, and his work has focused on science, technology, business and narrative-driven storytelling around these issues.

The Mind’s Edge

Professor David Creswell and Olympian Apolo Ohno

Professor David Creswell and Olympian Apolo Ohno share how mindfulness training helps athletes and others

This February, the world’s top athletes will gather in Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics, striving to surpass what’s possible in human performance. While a lifetime of training the body is required to participate in the games, work by Carnegie Mellon University’s David Creswell shows that preparing the mind is just as important for reaching the Olympic podium and in everyday life. Creswell, a professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, was joined recently by speed skater Apolo Ohno (Creswell and Ohno are pictured at right, in Hawaii in 2013), the most decorated U.S. winter Olympian, in a webinar discussing the duo’s longstanding work to bring mindfulness to Ohno’s craft. Twenty-five years ago, before his two gold, two silver, and four bronze medals, Ohno met Creswell at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. At the time Creswell was an assistant coach and resident advisor with the U.S. Shorttrack Speedskating Team. They began working together to employ new strategies that would change the way Ohno approached competition. “The work that David has dedicated his life toward really was instrumental in not only the preparation, but also the … call it the leveling up, so to speak, of my performance, especially in the Olympic space,” Ohno said. “I carry a lot of those life lessons and skillsets with me today, in terms of how I manage stress and obstacle and change and uncertainty.” Creswell introduced Ohno to a scripted routine of meditation and visualization, creating mental imagery to run through the race and its tactical decisions in advance. They examined the way Ohno self-communicated, the way he used breathing techniques and how he stayed present in the moment. “What’s cool about short track speedskating is the difference between someone winning a gold medal and the person who’s off the podium in fourth place is this difference, like two finger snaps,” Ohno said. “Preparing for these races that are so volatile and unpredictable requires a tremendous amount of preparation psychologically. And that’s where we found this tremendous advantage.”

"Having the ability to harness the inner, deep focus, is a real superpower in today's society."

Apolo Ohno

For Creswell, athletic performance is just one application of his research into mindfulness. More broadly, these techniques have wide-ranging applications that can serve an athlete — or anyone — in leading a more fulfilling life. “The science coming out of my lab shows that learning these equanimity skills, this capacity to be moving with your experience as opposed to reacting to it, can be transformative for people,” Creswell said. “It can improve their happiness, it can lower their loneliness, and significantly reduce their biological stress reactivity over time.” To this point, Creswell and Ohno are two of the originators of a new mindfulness meditation app called Equa, which seeks to create a personalized user experience based on 15 years of research out of CMU’s Health and Human Performance Lab. The app, which was featured in the 2021 cohort of CMU’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship’s VentureBridge Program, is seeking testers, who can join the waitlist on Equa’s website. “We spend so much time in Western culture talking about our bodies and physical training for peak performance, but mental training has been underappreciated,” Creswell said. “No matter what your peak performance goals are, developing a mental training routine can be so helpful … Two or three minutes a day of meditation is going to compound over time. Even just 14 days of training every day produces robust benefits in terms of people’s well-being.” It’s a lesson Ohno has carried with him, long past his days in the rink. “Having the ability to harness the inner, deep focus, is a real superpower in today’s society,” he said. “You guys aren’t trying to run Olympic races … but you are experiencing your own Olympic life. This is your chapter.”

2021 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Equa Health, Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper)

Equa Health
Carnegie Mellon University, Tepper School of Business

Industry: Health & Wellness

Founding Student Name(s): Mathew Polowitz

Brief Description of Solution: Equa is a personalized mindfulness training technology that builds resilience, team cohesion, and peak performance in the workplace.

Funding Dollars: $175K

What led you to launch this venture? We’re seeing a five- to seven-year doubling in the rate of depression among our younger generations. Over 13% of adults are using antidepressants – and this was before the pandemic. I think a lot of people are experiencing loneliness right now, if not low-grade PTSD. And if you haven’t navigated these challenges yourself, it’s probable that someone close to you has. The argument for mental health has been made, and now it’s time to iterate on solutions that will move the needle.

Equa came out of the Health and Human Performance Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, which is a leader in developing evidence-based interventions to build resilience and positive mental health outcomes. We’re launching this venture because we’ve got a solution we’re confident will work. People need real tools to help them feel better about how they’re engaging with their lives, and we want to share the tools that we’ve found to work.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? Our first client. We are working with a group of emergency care workers at a large healthcare provider – and you can imagine the burdens this population has been asked to carry over the past 18 months. They’re a relentless group and having an opportunity to support them with their own well-being has been incredibly rewarding. When you’re building a startup, all of these day-to-day tactical things start to absorb all your attention. Getting this type of affirmation helps you take a step back. It’s always great to see that your solution works, but it’s really special to have those moments where you’re reminded of why you’re doing it in the first place.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? It gave me the space to fail safely. I tried out a number of paths before finding this venture. Design consulting, big tech, running for an office seat I didn’t win… The MBA experience was this pressure cooker of me repeatedly telling myself to “just go for it.” Sure, it was painful at times, but I was in this unique environment where I could pick myself up and the next thing would be right there for me to try. With the benefit of hindsight, I now see exactly how each of those failures created the opportunity for me to work a venture that’s even more aligned to my passions and my personality than anything I had failed at before.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? Stay with me here – Trey Anastasio, founding guitarist of the band Phish. He’s not a businessperson, but at the end of the day, is anyone? We’re all artists honing our craft. He is probably one of the hardest working musicians out there, and his work isn’t just wildly creative — it’s prolific. At any given moment he probably has three or four different musical projects going on. Entrepreneurship isn’t just about a good idea. We all have those. It’s having a vision and committing to doing everything possible to make it a reality. Whenever I’m in need of that extra push, I think of all the music Trey had composed by the time he was my age, and what a positive impact that’s made on music lovers and musicians around the world. It really gets me motivated.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? There’s a string of courses at Tepper that allows you to progressively flesh out your entrepreneurial ideas. It starts with Lean Entrepreneurship, grows through Innovation & Commercialization, and culminates with a semester-long capstone project. These classes were critical because they gave me the opportunity to test things out, collect data, and get the feedback I needed to take the next step with my startup. Entrepreneurship can’t be taught, but it can be learned. You learn by doing it, and the experiential nature of these classes was exactly the environment I needed to get my startup to a place where I was comfortable going all in once my program was complete.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? Where do I start? So many professors in the CMU ecosystem have been instrumental to Equa’s journey, from mentorship to sourcing funding opportunities to entertaining all of my crazy ideas. If I had to pick one, Dave Mawhinney has been there with me every step of the way. He runs the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship. Not only is he an inspiring leader, but he’s incredibly hands-on when you need him to be. He helped me weigh the risks of diving into Equa post-graduation; he has introduced me to anyone and everyone in his network (which is mind-bogglingly huge), and he gives me all of the random advice I need when I hit him up out of the blue. If you’re out there reading this – you rock Dave!

What is your long-term goal with your startup? Equa plans to be the most ubiquitous mindfulness training platform in the world within the next three years. We believe there are better ways to practice mindfulness – ones that don’t leave people feeling confused or feeling like they’re doing it wrong. If we can make a meaningful dent in the exploding mental health epidemic by helping people feel better, I’ll be happy calling it a job well done.

Mapping How the Brain Regulates Stress

Carnegie Mellon University – Jun 5, 2020

As the weeks of self-isolation tick by, people are seeking ways to manage stress in the absence of normal interactions. Previous studies have shown the value of self-affirmation in lowering and managing stress.

A team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University identified possible neural pathways that may explain how self-affirmation works. They found greater neural activity in the reward pathway, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), that subsequently reduces activity in the region focused on identifying threat, the left anterior insula (AI).

The results are available online in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

“Reward is often seen as a positive experience while stress is the opposite,” said Janine M. Dutcher, research scientist and lab director for CMU’s Health and Human Performance Lab and first author on the study. “We know that some behavioral interventions can activate the reward system, but this is the first time we can show that one such intervention also reduces the threat-stress response in the brain.”

Previous studies found stress can trigger the autonomic, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and immune systems as physiological response, while self-affirmation helps to regulate this stress response. To understand how self-affirmation works, the team focused on the correlation between activity in reward structures and threat-stress of the brain.

The team explored the connectivity between ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) and ventral striatum (VS), which regulate rewards, and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and anterior insula (AI), which regulate the threat response. They explored how the two regions interacted when participants practiced self-affirmation compared to control during periods of stress.

The study included 25 college-aged humanities and social science majors who performed complex math problems while being scanned in a functional MRI. The participants who were in the self-affirmation group received self-affirmation messages to reflect on values provided and evaluate their importance in the individual’s life before solving the math problem. The control group was asked to perform an alphabetization task before solving the math problem. The tasks were interspersed such that either a self-affirmation or non-affirmation block preceded each type of math block.

Similar to past studies, the team found self-affirmation led to lower self-reported feelings of stress and enhanced performance in response to the stressful math problems compared to non-affirmation control. Like a seesaw, the reward region of the brain (VMPFC) appeared to enhance activity, while the region that detects threat (AI) appeared to show less activity.

“As you see one activity increase in one region there is a corresponding decrease in another region,” said Dutcher. “This is statistically happening around the same time but we do not yet understand what is controlling this communication.”

According to Dutcher, self-affirmation is accessible to everyone. It has little to no cost, requires no special tools or therapy sessions. It is a practice that a person can engage in spontaneously or with intention.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is creating all sorts of new stresses and challenges due to isolation,” said David Creswell, associate professor of psychology and senior author on the study. “Self-affirmation activities are a simple and powerful evidence-based tools for helping remind us of our values and what we care most about during these difficult times.”

This work did not test whether self-affirmation has differential effects on different types of stressors. In addition, the nature of the cross-talk between the reward and threat regions of the brain remains poorly detailed. However, Dutcher believes self-affirmation might be leading to stress reduction by affecting other processes in the brain that contribute to distress or stress, for example, increasing activity in brain regions associated with coping. Her future studies aim to explore self-affirmation’s stress-buffering effects in the context of a variety of different stressors to further evaluate under which circumstances self-affirmation might be most effective.

Dutcher and Creswell were joined in this study, titled “Neural Mechanisms of Self-Affirmation’s Stress Buffering Effects,” by Naomi I. Eisenberger at University of California, Los Angeles, Hayoung Woo at New York University, William M.P. Klein at the National Cancer Institute, Peter R. Harris at the University of Sussex and John M. Levine at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Mindfulness Skill that is Crucial for Stress

Greater Good Magazine – Oct 28, 2019

A new study suggests that practicing acceptance helps reduce our stress more than simple mindful awareness.

Life can be stressful. Whether it’s the stress that comes with having too much work to do in too little time, fulfilling caregiving obligations, or dealing with a major illness or setback, sometimes it can be hard to cope.

In response to stress, many people today are turning to meditation or mindfulness apps (myself included). But not all mindfulness practice is equally effective for combatting stress, a new study suggests. It’s possible that some of our practices may be missing a vital ingredient: acceptance.

In this study, researchers randomly assigned 137 stressed adults of various ages and ethnicities to one of three programs: an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, where they learned to mindfully pay attention to their present-moment experiences in an accepting, nonjudgmental way; an MBSR course without instructions on acceptance; or no course. The courses included many lessons—for example, how to pay attention to your breath and your body sensations, and how to eat food or take a walk mindfully—as well as practice time outside of class. Before, during, and afterwards, participants reported five times daily about how stressed they felt in the moment and whether they’d experienced a stressful event since their last report.

Though all of the groups experienced less stress and fewer incidents of feeling stressed over time, the people who took the full MBSR course had a significantly steeper improvement than the other two groups.

“Learning how to accept your present-moment experience is really important for reducing stress,” says Emily Lindsay, one of the study’s coauthors. “It seems to be a key element of mindfulness training.”

Mindfulness practices that specifically emphasize acceptance teach us a nonjudgmental attitude toward our experiences—meaning, learning not to label our thoughts, feelings, or experiences as good or bad, and trying not to change or resist them in any way. While many mindfulness courses include instructions in acceptance as par for the course, those that don’t may not be as effective.

This finding fits in with other research on the centrality of acceptance in mindfulness practice, says Lindsay. People who learn to accept and not just notice their experiences become less prone to mind-wandering, which has been tied to well-being, and less reactive to stress—meaning, they show reductions in systolic blood pressure, the stress hormone cortisol, and feelings of stress in a stressful situation. Her recent study adds to these results by monitoring participants daily, helping to show that acceptance makes a difference in everyday life situations and not just in the laboratory.

Why might acceptance be important? Lindsay argues that when people accept difficult experiences (like stress), it allows the experiences to “run their course and dissipate,” while resisting them only makes them stronger. And, she adds, accepting stress helps people to stop focusing only on what’s wrong and to notice other feelings, sensations, and thoughts occurring at the same time, enabling them to see the “bigger picture.”

“Stress diminishes as you take in more of your experience,” she says. “That’s the transformative part.”

Acceptance is not about acquiescing to your fate, though, says Lindsay—like getting a diagnosis of a terminal illness and just accepting that you’re going to die. That kind of “acceptance” leads to worse outcomes, she says. Nor is it about accepting poor treatment from other people. It’s more about accepting your internal experience—your thoughts and feelings—which informs you about how to respond to your external circumstances in a wiser way. For example, if you feel angry and accept your anger in the moment, it may prevent you from lashing out at someone and help you see that your feelings aren’t their fault.

Lindsay allows that some people find it hard to accept their unpleasant thoughts and feelings, but MBSR courses offer techniques that can help. For example, teaching people to name their feelings or thoughts in a calm, gentle tone (“I’m feeling sad and that’s OK”) can promote more acceptance, she says, as can practicing self-compassion.

“Clearly, we need to emphasize acceptance techniques a little more,” says Lindsay. That’s true in formal programs like MBSR, but also in our own individual practice.

I, for one, plan to do just that.

This is why mindfulness isn’t working for you

Mashable – Mar 1, 2019

March Mindfulness is our new series that examines the explosive growth in mindfulness and meditation technology — culminating in Mashable’s groundbreaking meditation bracket contest. Because March shouldn’t be all madness.

In a culture obsessed with self-care, feeling like you’ve failed at the practice of mindfulness can breed unique feelings of frustration, resentment, and even shame.

It seems so simple: Quietly observing your thoughts, you remain open to and curious about the present moment without judging the ideas that ping back and forth in your consciousness. You expect to experience the benefits that research says mindfulness can offer, including reduced stress, increased attentional focus, less emotional volatility, and improved relationship satisfaction.

Except, for some people, that’s not what happens. They might find it hard to stay in the present moment, feel anxious after attempting mindfulness, and abandon their practice. Such frustration is often rooted in a misunderstanding of how mindfulness works, and what it’s meant to do, say experts. People’s expectations of mindfulness are sometimes far higher than what the tool could ever deliver.

“There’s a lot of hype and buzz around mindfulness,” says Alex Haley, assistant professor and mindfulness program lead at the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing. “[People think] everywhere I turn it’s mindfulness-based something. I’m going to have all these expectations that mindfulness is a cure-all, that it’s a panacea. It’s not. There are limits to what it’s able to do.”

Those misconceptions can be cleared up with just a little research. Yet there’s another, more complex reason why some people feel mindfulness isn’t effective. An emerging field of research is exploring how people who’ve experienced trauma may feel significantly worse during or after mindfulness practice. Researchers working to understand that dynamic believe it’s still possible to use mindfulness approaches, just with important modifications.

So before giving up on mindfulness, or feeling ashamed that mindfulness isn’t producing the results you wanted, make sure you’ve considered the following things:

What does mindfulness even mean?

Mindfulness has multiple definitions and those can look different depending on your teacher, or whether you’re getting mindfulness tips or instruction from an app, best-selling book, YouTube channel, Instagram influencer, yoga class, or news stories like this one.

 “Mindful awareness is paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be.”

Perhaps the most widely-known definition of the secular practice of mindfulness comes from researcher and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, who said: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Though Haley uses Kabat-Zinn’s definition, he frequently invokes another one from Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at UCLA Semel Institute’s Mindful Awareness Research Center: “Mindful awareness is paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is.”

J. David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who studies mindfulness, thinks of it as an “open or present attention to your present situation.”

While different from each other, these definitions share a core element: attention to the present. If you embrace one definition over another, just remember that it’s meant to help you understand how to practice mindfulness, and it’s fine to consider what it might leave out. This approach will help guide your practice and refine your expectations.

“It’s not unicorns and rainbows”

Creswell says popular misconceptions of mindfulness portray it as a tool for relaxation or “blissing out.”

“It’s not unicorns and rainbows,” he says. “I liken mindfulness meditation practices to aerobic practices for the brain. [Exercising] hurts, it’s a little unpleasant, but at the same time, it’s building muscle. With mindfulness, you’re building a brain that’s more resilient.”

That mental strength develops over time as you focus the brain’s attention on the present moment and learn how to observe positive, negative, and neutral feelings without being carried away by any of them. This is no easy task for human beings, whose powerful thoughts and feelings can rip them from the present moment and thrust them into a stream of consciousness that’s confusing, exhilarating, fulfilling, or exhausting.

Some people mistake mindfulness as a surefire way to avoid that overwhelming experience, but Creswell says that’s not the case. Developing mindfulness skills can mean, for example, staying observant and curious about what’s happening when you’re having a panic attack. From Creswell’s perspective, the goal is to cultivate “equanimity” in the face of uncomfortable experiences. That objective is why mindfulness is so frequently associated with formal, seated meditation, which can prompt physical discomfort and mental fatigue.

Why should this make me feel better?

Haley believes that mindfulness works because it puts people in a different state of mind, one where they’re actively aware of and paying attention to events happening in the present moment. As they take in that information, they better understand the situation and can make a choice about how to respond. With regular practice, this can create a “positive feedback loop” that leads to more moments of mindfulness, and our resulting choices become wiser and more compassionate, says Haley.

“It allows us to understand our experiences, and most importantly, is the choice to how we respond to the things we’re feeling,” says Haley. “If we notice things that are really challenging, we can say, ‘I want to make a different choice.'”

 “If we notice things that are really challenging, we can say, ‘I want to make a different choice.'”

That sense of agency is empowering, but it’s important to know that mindfulness is a state of mind that comes and goes. Feeling calm and observant one day and at the mercy of your thoughts and emotions the next doesn’t mean you’ve failed at mindfulness. It just presents another opportunity to strengthen your skills or to try again the following day.

Haley says frustration and difficulty with mindfulness can come from overly strict ideas about how to practice it. People commonly believe that mindfulness means you must practice formal, seated meditation, but Haley says that’s just one option. He sometimes recommends people start with movement by observing how their body feels when it’s been moving for long periods of time. Haley also relies on a slight variation of the “STOP” technique in which you slow down, take a breath and extend the exhale, observe what’s happening in the body, and consider the possibilities before proceeding. That approach can shift people into a state of mindfulness and away from being reactive.

What if mindfulness still isn’t working for me?

Despite the clear benefits of mindfulness, science still can’t say who might benefit most or least from the practice. Creswell says it’ll be five or 10 years before researchers can confidently answer that question. In the meantime, some scientists and meditation practitioners who study mindfulness are focusing on the possibility that mindfulness might actually create the possibility of harm for some people who try it, particularly those with a history of trauma.

David Treleavenauthor of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, says that for some people struggling with trauma the basic tenets of mindful meditation practice, including focusing on the breath and remaining still for periods of time, can actually exacerbate trauma symptoms. Paying close attention to anxious or threatening feelings may heighten the body’s fight-or-flight stress response, elicit intrusive thoughts of harm or danger, and prompt flashbacks to traumatic events.

For some, focusing on trauma symptoms because they’re happening in the present moment can lead to physical immobilization akin to freezing in place. Treleaven describes that response as a “deeply wired survival response in humans.”

A meditation teacher unaware of these dynamics might insist that remaining curious and nonjudgmental about these sensations is a necessary part of mindfulness meditation.

 “People feel isolated and ashamed that a practice that seems to be working for so many people isn’t working for them.”

While Treleaven believes that mindfulness can be very beneficial for people who’ve lived through trauma, he disagrees with an approach that diminishes or minimizes their unique experiences.

“People feel isolated and ashamed that a practice that seems to be working for so many people isn’t working for them,” he says. “They end up feeling like, ‘I’m broken beyond a point that even meditation can’t work for me.'”

Treleaven instead advocates for adjustments to mindfulness meditation. He urges people to take breaks as needed instead of pursuing lengthy sessions or weeks-long meditation streaks. He advises teachers against touching students without their explicit permission. If focusing on the breath is anxiety-provoking, Treleaven recommends finding an “object or anchor of attention,” like sounds or the feeling of your bottom touching a cushion or the floor. When sitting for long periods of time is uncomfortable for those who’ve experienced trauma-related freezing, Treleaven suggests mindfulness that incorporates movement.

The goal, he says, is to create a consistent practice that builds mindfulness skills while reducing the risk of harm. He recommends people who’ve experienced trauma look for mindfulness resources, classes, and instructors with a trauma-informed approach.

“It doesn’t need to be a one-size-fits-all practice,” Treleaven says. “We can modify it for people so that it enables them to have a sense of success.”

No matter why you’re struggling to feel the benefits of mindfulness, that flexibility is key to starting, continuing, or pausing a practice. Mindfulness, after all, is never about perfection.

Can teaching mindfulness through smartphones cure America’s loneliness problem?

Philadelphia Inquirer – Feb 12, 2019

When it comes to the growing problem of loneliness in America, many have cited one main culprit: smartphones. They interrupt conversation. Constantly distract us. Decrease face-to-face interaction.

But a new study suggests those same phones, if used the right way, can be a great platform to teach people how to reduce loneliness and social isolation.

The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved 153 adults practicing 20-minute guided meditations on their phone each day for two weeks. By the end of the study, those whose meditations focused on developing acceptance and awareness — key components of mindfulness — felt 22 percent less lonely and had two more social interactions per day.

“Acceptance is the key piece,” said Emily Lindsay, a coauthor of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. Learning to experience feelings without being too critical or pushing them away can help people cope with loneliness.

“Because the people in your life are a really important part of what you pay attention to, it has a huge impact on how others experience you and how you experience others,” Baime said.

What’s surprising, though, is that a technique that has been passed down from teacher to student for thousands of years can be effective through a phone.

“It flies in the face of conventional wisdom and historical precedents that you can do it with a device in your pocket,” Baime said.

In the study, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups.

The first practiced meditations based on awareness. They focused on physical sensations, like the process of breathing and the feel of clothes on their skin.

The second group practiced awareness and acceptance. In addition to recognizing the sensations in their body, they were also told to welcome them, saying “yes” in a gentle tone anytime they noticed something new. A pleasant breeze? Yes. Back pain? Yes.

“Regardless of it being good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, they learned to accept it,” Lindsay said.

The final group served as a control, focusing on free reflection and problem-solving skills without any mindfulness content.

For three days before and after the intervention, participants answered questions on their phones five times a day, noting their stress levels, feelings of loneliness, and number of social interactions.

Individuals in the awareness and acceptance group were the only ones who saw a meaningful change in loneliness.

The researchers found a similar pattern with stress, which is often the reason people turn to mindfulness meditation. Only those in the awareness and acceptance group showed significant decreases in physiological markers of stress.

The finding could be a step toward mitigating a nationwide problem of loneliness. A 2018 study of 20,000 Americans by health insurer Cigna found nearly half sometimes or always feel lonely, and only 53 percent have meaningful in-person interactions, like talking to a friend or spending time with family, on a daily basis.

Research has shown loneliness is one of the strongest predictors of poor health and early death, yet medical professionals are struggling to find ways to alleviate it.

“It’s a serious deficit we’re all feeling,” Baime said. “But we don’t address it because we don’t have a good way to intervene.”

While one study is not enough to prove smartphone-led meditation is the solution, it’s a promising start, he said.

Moving forward, researchers hope to better understand exactly how mindfulness decreases loneliness.

One possibility is that it helps individuals reframe the emotion in a new way, Lindsay said.

“There’s a distress associated with loneliness,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable.” That’s why people often turn to TV or work to avoid it.

“But if you practice staying with that feeling, monitoring it and accepting it without judgment, without ruminating on what it means for your future,” Lindsay said, “that can change.” It can become a feeling of peaceful solitude.

Mindfulness may also reduce loneliness by improving the quality of interactions people have with others, Baime said.

“Mindfulness teaches you to show up here,” he said. “And when you show up, you find there are other people here too.”

Rather than speaking to the cashier at a store with the automatic, “Fine, thanks, how are you,” you might actually look at them. Or instead of coming home and just asking what’s for dinner, you may sit down with your partner for a focused conversation about their day.

It sounds so simple, Baime said, but research has shown that practicing mindfulness over time can actually change the structure of the brain. Scans have shown that the amygdala, which is thought to be where emotions like panic and rage originate, is reined in after eight weeks of mindfulness practice, while neural systems that control attention and emotion regulation become stronger.

“The world isn’t any different,” Baime said. “But mindfulness changes the way we experience the world.”

New Research Suggests Mindfulness Improves Job Satisfaction

Psychology Today – Oct 23, 2018

Mindfulness in the workplace can improve productivity and more.

A new study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology has found that mindfulness training offered in the workplace can improve productivity and work-life balance. The randomized controlled study was conducted in a 60-person marketing firm and compared a 6-week versus half-day seminar on mindfulness.

Mindfulness involves the art of paying attention and being curious about the present moment without judging or being critical. Researchers found that a 6-week mindfulness training program was more helpful than a half-day seminar to improve attention, self-reported job satisfaction, and a positive attitude toward work. These findings are part of a growing body of research suggesting that mindfulness improves job satisfaction, rational thinking, and emotional resilience.

Other researchers have suggested that mindfulness could reduce motivation in employees, potentially neutralizing its positive effect on performance. In a recent study published in the Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, researchers found that mindfulness did not improve performance on tasks. They suggested that mindfulness teaches one to be more accepting and less concerned about the future. People were calmer and more focused, but expected to put in less time and energy into a task.

However, tasks at work vary in scope, timeline, and complexity. Over the long-term, possessing more calmness, patience, and resilience likely helps people more effectively approach and problem-solve challenging tasks over time.

The regular practice of mindfulness has been linked to better stress management and work-life balance as well as long-term mental and physical health. Mindfulness has even been linked to younger, healthier brains in brain imaging studies and slows aging at the genetic level. Mindfulness has also been shown to significantly lower health care costs.

Mindfulness in the workplace is most likely beneficial, whether the end goal is productivity or – more broadly speaking – employee wellness. A 6- to 8-week training program that goes beyond a half-day seminar is more likely to be effective.

If employers are looking for ways to improve job satisfaction, productivity, and potentially lower costs, the practice of mindfulness in the workplace is a worthwhile long-term investment.

How to Harness your Anxiety

The New York Times – Oct 16, 2018

Research shows that we can tame anxiety to use it as a resource.

Anxiety has long been one of the most feared enemies in our emotional canon. We fear its arrival, feel helpless and trapped under its spell, and grant it power to overtake us in new, exciting and challenging situations. But what if we’ve been going about it all wrong?

Research shows that anxiety can actually be a pathway to our best selves. A range of new neuroscience, along with ideas from ancient philosophy, Charles Darwin, early social scientists and positive psychology, have all pointed in this direction.

To be sure, severe anxiety can be debilitating. But for many people who experience it at more moderate levels it can be helpful, if we are open enough to embrace and reframe it.

For example, if anxiety is holding you back from applying for a new job, tell yourself that the feeling of your heart racing, which you thought was the discomfort of anxiety, is actually a crackle of excitement. This can help motivate you to apply for the job rather than shrinking from the opportunity. 

Anxiety has often been linked to the “primitive” part of our brain, an “irrational” remnant left over from our time in the savanna dodging wild animals. This framing can make anxiety doubly problematic: it is seen as both destructive and useless. Most coping strategies based in cognitive behavior therapy likewise assume this view of anxiety and strive to eradicate, or at least quiet, it. And we have learned to fear it.

For a variety of reasons, we are engaged in a feedback loop with anxiety. Fearing it, and in response, trying to avoid it or push it down, is part of what can make it such a problem for us. It feels like an obstacle because we have been treating it as such. But the less we fear anxiety and can embrace it, the more useful and helpful it can be.

A large-scale study from the University of Wisconsin in 2012 demonstrated that how we think about anxiety and stress can change how those feelings impact us. Regardless of actual stress levelsthe less harmful you believe the feeling is, the less harmful it will be. “Our minds aren’t passive observers simply perceiving reality,” the Stanford research scientist Alia Crum explained in a speech at, of all places, the World Economic Forum. “Our minds actually change reality. In other words the reality we will experience tomorrow is in part a product of the mind-sets we hold today.”

Here are three ways to tap into anxiety as a resource.

You don’t have to like the experience of anxiety to use it effectively. It’s designed to be uncomfortable so you pay attention and do what you need to make it stop. Much like a baby’s cry, anxiety lets you know there is an issue that needs addressing. Just as you try to figure out why the baby is in distress and resolve it, you must work to determine what your anxiety is trying to tell you. Once you determine that and start executing solutions, you’ll notice the anxiety begins to dissipate.

Naming anxiety — and then renaming it — allows you to process its message rather than just react to its discomfort. This reduces distress and activates better emotional regulation, problem solving and planning.

Nervous you may have upset someone? Reframe worry into care about a person who matters.

Terrified about going out on that first date? Consider that your heart is beating fast at the possibility of it going well.

How you label your experience is 100 percent in your control. You can then channel anxiety into a resource you can use to your advantage.

A study published in July from the University of Illinois on brain personality traits and brain volume confirmed that a positive attitude can boost our brain’s ability to manage discomfort. When you start to see how anxiety can work for you, you open up more possibilities for how you can channel it.

While an overload of anxiety can be detrimental, it is also problematic to have none (sociopaths, for example, tend not to have any). A moderate amount of anxiety promotes optimal functioning, even if the unexpected energy might throw you off. If you understand what anxiety is trying to do, you don’t have to view — and treat — it as an enemy. Anxiety about meeting a deadline, for example, can fuel the focus and energy we need to meet it, especially when tired and prone to distraction. Anxiety keeps us on our toes and focused. In our noisy, busy lives, it is often simply a call to pay attention to the thing that needs our attention.

Understanding anxiety’s inherent motivation, and being clear about your feelings, can help us thrive, according to a German study published last year. Deciding you can handle your anxiety, even if it’s unwelcome, is one of the most effective things you can do to limit its escalation. Just as fearing anxiety increases it, embracing anxiety dissipates it to a point where it’s useful.

What this new research and approach offers is something we could all use a bit more of when it comes to anxiety: hope. The hope rises from the realization that we are in control. Instead of being overtaken by our anxiety, we can partner with it. Not only can we control how we think about anxiety, we can actually change how we experience it. Taking charge of your mind-set, your emotional labeling and your behavior is how you partner with anxiety and reclaim control.

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