Tuesday, February 15, 2022

The Part of the Brain That Stops Anxiety and How to Use It.

Peer-Reviewed Publication + eurekalert.org

Parapluie. That's the French word for umbrella. Para means against. Pluie means rain. A parapluie keeps a rainstorm from getting you soaking wet.

Parasympathetic. That is the name of the system that calms you. Para, again, means against and sympathetic refers to the sympathetic nervous system, the system that revs you up when stress hormones are released. The parasympathetic nervous system is designed by nature to oppose the sympathetic nervous system and keep it from causing hyperarousal.

Just as your parapluie can protect you from a rain shower, your parasympathetic system can protect you from a deluge of stress hormones anywhere. But only if you open it. For example, when a plane drops in turbulence, everyone's amygdala releases stress hormones. Passengers who have their parasympathetic system open aren't bothered. But passengers with their parasympathetic system closed feel troubled. If their parasympathetic system remains closed as one downward movement after another releases one shot of stress hormones after another, hyperarousal develops, which causes an urge to escape. Since escape is impossible, panic may result.

Few of us would walk around in a rainstorm with a closed umbrella. But we do something similar emotionally. We carry around a closed parasympathetic system while getting showered with stress hormones. We do that because of two things. 

a - We do not know we have an anti-stress system, and focus on limiting or avoiding stress.

b - We know we have a parasympathetic system, and activate it using breathing exercises. Though exhaling activates the parasympathetic system, inhaling deactivates it. It's like opening and closing your parapluie repeatedly in a rainstorm as a way to stay dry.

Neurological researcher Stephen Porges found a way to keep the parasympathetic open for an extended period of time. He calls his discovery the social engagement system. The parasympathetic opens—and stays open—when another person's face, voice, or touch signals you that you are safe in their presence.

When a child is securely attached, their parent's calming face, voice, and touch become associated with the stressors the child encounters. The child carries these parasympathetic-opening connections with them into adulthood. When faced with uncertainty or stress, though the parent is not physically present, the psychologically present parent opens the parasympathetic.

If we weren't fortunate enough to develop these connections during childhood, we can acquire them now. Working with fearful fliers, I found their anxiety could be controlled by connecting the challenging moments of flight to a memory of saying wedding vows or of getting engaged.

I didn't know why these experiences controlled anxiety until I ran across Porges' research that the presence of a physically and emotionally safe person—or the memory of such a person—activates the parasympathetic system. Wedding vows and engagement, moments in which two people signal complete acceptance and mutual safety, fully activate the parasympathetic system. By linking this experience of full parasympathetic opening to flight, anxiety was controlled during flight.

This discovery makes opening the parasympathetic simple. All we need to do is link a physically and emotionally safe friend's face, voice, and touch/body-language to our emotional challenges. We do this two ways:

a - We link the parasympathetic-opening person to the feeling of getting revved up so that when we start getting revved up, the parasympathetic opens and keeps the sympathetic from going too far.

b - We pre-link emotionally challenging situations to the calming person's presence. We wouldn’t go to McDonald’s, order a Big Mac, and swallow it whole. Similarly, we break the challenging situation down into bite-size bits and link each bit, one by one, to the parasympathetic-opening person.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Breathing to Manage Your Stress - science and practice behind the powerful RSA breathing technique.

The role of the breath in meditation and stress management programs is well established. As a meditation strategy, focusing on the breath is primarily a tool for concentration, a place to focus the mind. As a stress management technique, slowing the breath, “belly breathing,” and focusing on the exhalation are all common (and effective) approaches to shifting the nervous system out of a state of hyperarousal.

In this post, I want to explore the science and practice of RSA breathing, a specific, well-researched strategy that may be the most powerful technique for reducing stress and anxiety that I know. This simple technique quickly changes your heart, your hormones, and your brain.

What is RSA?

RSA stands for Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia. Despite the very medical-sounding name, RSA is just a technical way of describing a pattern of breathing in which your heart rate and your breath become synchronized. When you are breathing at a specific rate, your heart rate increases as you inhale and decreases as you exhale. Your bodily systems become synchronized, and all sorts of interesting, “magical” things begin to happen.

For example, when you breathe at your RSA rate for 10-15 minutes, stress hormones (cortisol) decrease, and DHEA (restoration) hormones increase (McCraty et al., 1998). Breathing at your RSA rate also quiets down the brain regions involved in the stress response (Sherlin et al., 2010) and maximizes your heart rate variability—a measure of nervous system balance. So, when you breathe at your RSA, you are changing your entire system.

How to do RSA breathing

Learning to breathe at your resonant frequency is often a step-wise process. First, it is important to learn to relax the breathing such that the belly expands and contracts much more than the chest. This type of breathing is often called “belly breathing” or “diaphragmatic breathing.”

The second step is to attend to the quality of the breath, allowing it to become quiet, slow, long, relaxed, gentle, and natural. For many people, these two steps are enough to significantly shift feelings of stress and anxiety as well as change physiological responses associated with anxiety. If you need or want to take it to the next level, then you can begin applying the above breathing practices at a slow and consistent rate (usually around 6 breath cycles per minute), at which point it becomes RSA breathing.

Finding your precise RSA breathing rate is a little bit of an individual process and requires some physiological monitoring equipment, typically a pneumograph (breathing monitor) and something to measure heart rate variability. However, the vast majority of people have their RSA right around 6 breaths per minute. Some people are a little slower, some a little faster, but almost everyone is between 5 and 7 breaths per minute. This is pretty slow, given that the average breathing rate for adults is somewhere between 12 and 15 breaths per minute.

To breathe at 6 breaths per minute, you would complete one breath cycle (inhalation and exhalation) every 10 seconds; 5 seconds in, 5 seconds out. For most people, shifting from 12-15 breaths per minute to 6 is not a terribly smooth transition. Consequently, it is often best to begin lengthening the breath in a comfortable and gradual way, perhaps beginning at 8 breaths per minute and then slowing it down when it feels natural.

RSA and breath pacers

BreathCoach: A smart in-home breathing training system with bio-feedback

Without a great deal of practice, it is often challenging to breathe at this rate without some form of feedback or method to help you track and pace the speed of your breathing. Fortunately, there are numerous breath pacer tools available, many of which are free through the play store on your smart device. Simply type “breath pacer” into the search bar, and you will have many options.

While each specific breath pacer differs in appearance and settings, they all offer animations and/or sound patterns prompting you to inhale and exhale at a specified rate. You can choose the breathing rate on these programs, in some cases with great specificity, allowing you to choose the length of time for each component of the breath cycle (inhalation, pause, exhalation, pause).

RSA breathing with (or without) a breath pacer can also become a powerful meditation practice tool, providing a visual focus for your breath-focused meditation that simultaneously reduces stress and anxiety. Try doing this practice twice each day for 3-5 minutes each time, and see what you notice! 

This post is adapted from the book, Meditation Interventions to Rewire the Brain by Jeff Tarrant.


McCraty, R., Barrios-Choplin, B., Rozman, D., Atkinson, M., Watkins, A.D. (1998). The impact of a new emotional self-management program on stress, emotions, heart rate variability, DHEA and cortisol. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science. 33(2), 151-170.

Sherlin, L., Muench, F., Wyckoff, S. (2010). Respiratory sinus arrhythmia feedback in a stressed population exposed to a brief stressor demonstrated by quantitative EEG and sLORETA. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 35(3), 219-28. doi: 10.1007/s10484-010-9132-z

Tarrant, J. (2017). Meditation interventions to rewire the brain: Integrating Neuroscience Strategies for ADHD, anxiety, depression and PTSD. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing and Media.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

An unexpected way to be repaired relationship

Peer-Reviewed Publication

January 6, 2015 - Breaking up is truly hard to do. And recovery from a breakup can be even harder. Your friends may consul you to put the whole thing out of your mind. But new research suggests that repeatedly reflecting on a break-up - even through participation in a research study - actually speeds emotional recovery.

"Breakups are ubiquitous - most adults have experienced at least one in their life - and are typically very distressing," says Grace Larson of Northwestern University. After studying divorce and breakups for years using longitudinal, multi-method designs, Larson and her then-adviser David Sbarra of the University of Arizona wanted to study whether these research techniques on their own were affecting participants.

One concern they had was that the studies could be harming participants, Larson says. "At first glance, it might seem like repeatedly reminding participants that they had just broken up - and asking them to describe the breakup over and over - might delay recovery," she explains. Indeed, in their new study, the researchers discussed with participants possible downsides to participating in the study, such as emotional distress, rather than benefits. They were surprised to find the opposite effect.

In the study, they split participants into two conditions: with one group, using a suite of methods for observing coping and emotions (such as questionnaires, psychophysiological measurements like heart rate monitoring, an an interview-like task); and with the second group, only asking them to complete initial and final questionnaires. All the participants had experienced a non-marital breakup within the previous 6 months.

As published today in Social Psychological and Personality Science, those who completed the more intensive set of tasks and measures four times over 9 weeks had better overall recovery from their breakups. The researchers specifically looked at "self-concept reorganization," the process of seeing and defining yourself separate from your ex and from the relationship. Asking the participants to reflect on their relationships helped the participants "build a stronger sense of who they were as single people," Larson says.

The work, she says, fits in well with studies showing how profoundly romantic relationships impact our self-concept. For example, she cites work by Art Aron and colleagues showing that in close relationships, people begin to feel as though they overlap with the person they are close to. "The process of becoming psychologically intertwined with the partner is painful to have to undo," she says. "Our study provides additional evidence that self-concept repair actually causes improvements in well-being."

The study is one of the first to look at whether the methods used in typical observational studies of well-being and coping can in and of themselves affect well-being. The researchers do not yet know exactly which aspects of the study caused these changes but they suspect it relates to participants thinking about their breakups from a distanced perspective. Or, Larson says, "it might be simply the effect of repeatedly reflecting on one's experience and crafting a narrative - especially a narrative that includes the part of the story where one recovers."

Another factor, she says, is that in the measurement-intensive condition, participants privately spoke about their breakups (into a voice recorder) four times. While the speaking task was not structured like a typical expressive writing exercise, having the ability to be emotionally expressive may have given the participants the well-documented benefits of expressive writing.

Larson recognizes that most people experiencing recent breakups will not have the option of participating in a scientific study but suggests finding other ways to regularly reflect on the recovery progress. "For instance, a person could complete weekly check-ins related to his or her emotions and reactions to the breakup and record them in a journal," she says, or write repeatedly about the process of the breakup "as though he or she were talking to a stranger about it."

"The recovery of a clear and independent self-concept seems to be a big force driving the positive effects of this study, so I would encourage a person who recently experienced a breakup to consider who he or she is, apart from the relationship," Larson says. "If that person can reflect on the aspects of him- or herself that he or she may have neglected during the relationship but can now nurture once again, this might be particularly helpful." 

One of the primary problems in relationships arises from how we envision our relationships. Conventional advice on relationships and intimacy often reads like a how-to manual or a “Six Steps to a Happy Relationship” workshop.

Relationships are not machines, nor are they electronic devices. A mechanical approach looks at relationships not as an art form to be cultivated but as a series of steps to master, as though we were assembling a device. Such a way of thinking about our relationships contributes mightily to our struggles.

Can you save our marriage?

People often ask me if their relationship is “salvageable.” That very question points to the problem—insufficient expectations. We shouldn’t be seeking a repair job or a salvage operation—again the language of machinery — but deep gratification and fulfillment. In its ideal form, a relationship is a creative, evolving, and beautifully raw experience in which two individuals craft their particular way of communing with each other.

Cultivating the relationship is an art form that requires sensitivity to the complexity and nuances of two people engaged in a most important dance of life. The deep fundamental change in how we view relationships begins with how we conceptualize uncertainty. Two individuals, committed to their individual process of becoming—the commitment to perpetual growth and self-awareness—can create the opportunity for joyful partnering.

Dancing together

A relationship is a co-participatory dance that embraces uncertainty as it spirals into deeper and more complex levels of understanding and experience. Just as each person must engage in their own growth, they need to expect the same of the relationship. The union needs to be seen as a vibrant and dynamic experience, not as a dormant and unchanging structure. “I’m in a relationship” sounds like you’re stuck inside a container. This may sound awkward, but imagine thinking instead, “I’m committed to the engagement and process of my relationship.”

Uncertainty is the essence of romance

Oscar Wilde wrote, “The very essence of romance is uncertainty.” If this is accurate, then predictability must be its downfall. Our inclination toward the predictable routine and formatting of our unions is counter to an emotionally vibrant and intimate experience.

The experience of falling in love was likely bathed in uncertainty. The absence of certainty required us to be present and stay attuned. Yet, once the romance has been secured, we replace uncertainty with predictability, and so we experience a loss of passion.

I’m not proposing that couples seek an unsafe, volatile experience but that they try to welcome currents of uncertainty and change, which can propel their individual growth and usher in a corresponding growth in the relationship. Embracing some degree of uncertainty is necessary to keep the relationship afloat. One person’s crisis or challenge inevitably provokes opportunity for growth in their partner. We are on this ride together.

Frequently in couples sessions, I’ve noticed that as one person begins to express himself, the other begins to react, even if non-verbally. In the midst of a session, Hank began to share some of his perceptions about his wife, Julia. Although he was talking in a non-adversarial way, I noticed Julia’s face tighten. I gently interrupted Hank to ask Julia what she was experiencing. She said, “I know what he’s going to say before he does. There’s no need for him to go on.”

This level of predictability leaves no room for surprise, wonder, or genuine inquiry. Certainty deadens the ability to be present and precludes playfulness, let alone spontaneity. When I asked Hank to continue, Julia was indeed surprised by what he had to share.

Think about how certainty affects your ability to be romantic and how it dulls your love life.

A new kind of commitment

The commitment to always love each other or to monogamy, regrettably, often fails. Commitment to the process might better assure continued love and fidelity—envisioning a lifelong process requiring that each person embrace the spirit of the coupling. Learning the tools of emotional and verbal intimacy are the bedrock of this journey.

Think of your partnership as the clay in the sculptor’s hands, but this is a clay that you don’t permit to harden. You keep crafting it. You can master the art of relationship by welcoming uncertainty and change as you become the artists of your engagement with each other.

The paper, "Participating in Research on Romantic Breakups Promotes Emotional Recovery via Changes in Self-Concept Clarity," by Grace M. Larson and David A. Sbarra, was published in Social Psychological and Personality Science online on January 6, 2015.

The journal Social Psychological and Personality Science is a collaboration from the Association for Research in Personality, the European Association of Social Psychology, the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and is co-sponsored by the Asian Association of Social Psychology and Society of Australasian Social Psychologists.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Teens' same-gender friendships key to later satisfaction in romantic relationships


SOURCE:- eurekalert.org

Researchers have long known that the quality of an adult's romantic life is closely tied to both physical and mental health in adolescence. A new longitudinal study sought to identify the factors in adolescence that best predicted who would and would not have a satisfying romantic life in their late 20s. The study found that the skills teens learn in friendships with peers of the same gender were the strongest predictors of later romantic satisfaction.

The study, by researchers at the University of Virginia and James Madison University, appears in Child Development, a journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.

"In spite of the emphasis teens put on adolescent romantic relationships, they turn out not to be the most important predictor of future romantic success," says Joseph P. Allen, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who led the study. "Instead, it's the skills learned in friendships with peers of the same gender--skills such as stability, assertiveness, intimacy, and social competence--that correspond most closely to the skills needed for success in adult romantic relationships."

Researchers interviewed and observed 165 adolescents from ages 13 to 30; the youth lived in suburban and urban areas in the southeastern United States and the group was racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse. The study assessed teens' reports of the quality of their social and romantic relationships, as well as reports by close friends. Each year across a three-year period when the youth were in their late 20s, researchers also interviewed participants about how satisfied they were with romantic life.

The study found that progress in key social developmental tasks in adolescence predicted future romantic competence at ages 27 to 30, even though the adolescent tasks were in nonromantic areas. For example:

At age 13, adolescents' abilities to establish positive expectations of relationships with their peers and to be appropriately assertive with peers were the best predictors of future romantic satisfaction.

At ages 15 and 16, social competence--that is, teens' ability to establish close friendships and to manage a broad array of relationships with peers--was the best predictor.

And from ages 16 to 18, teens' ability to establish and maintain close, stable friendships was the best predictor of satisfaction romantically.

These factors were more closely associated than anything related to romantic behavior in adolescence, such as how much teens dated, whether they were involved physically in romantic relationships, their sexual behavior, and their physical attractiveness, according to the study. The researchers note that their study did not establish causal processes.

"Romantic relationships in adolescence are much more likely to be fleeting, and as such, they don't appear to be the main way teens learn skills needed for the future," suggests Rachel K. Narr, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia, who coauthored the study.

The study was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Summarized from Child Development, Adolescent Peer Relationship Qualities as Predictors of Long-Term Romantic Life Satisfaction by Allen, JP (University of Virginia), Narr, RK (University of Virginia), Kansky, J (University of Virginia), and Szwedo, DE (formerly at University of Virginia, now at James Madison University). Copyright 2019 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Part of the Brain That Stops Anxiety and How to Use It.

Peer-Reviewed Publication  +  eurekalert.org Parapluie. That's the French word for umbrella. Para means against. Pluie means rain. A par...