Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

How attitude transforms stress

Posted 13 Sep 2013 — by Todd
Category Health, Psychology

Listen to this inspirational TED talk by Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal. In my earlier post on Voluntary Stress, I wrote about the importance of attitude in how the body and mind respond to stress.   McGonigal’s presentation here  makes a nice connection between the psychology and the hormonal physiology of stress.  Towards the end of the talk there is a very interesting discussion of oxytocin and the social dimension of the successful stress response.

Thanks to Tony Kiel and Marnia Robinson for each making me aware of this great talk.

 

Antifragile

Posted 07 Jul 2013 — by Todd
Category Diet, Fitness, Health, Hormesis, Psychology, Stoicism

Hormesis is the ability of organisms to become stronger when exposed to low-dose stress.  Is hormesis a basic principle of biology — or is it merely a strange but unimportant quirk of nature that only applies in exceptional circumstances?

Unknown-7Nassim Nicholas Taleb–the options trader turned philosopher–is intrigued by hormesis, and sees it as but one example of a much broader phenomenon:  a fundamental principle he calls “antifragility”. The principle of antifragility applies not just to biology–but to sociology, economics, and perhaps even physics. Taleb has been developing this idea for a number of years.  Antifragility made a subdued appearance in his 2007 blockbuster work, The Black Swan, a guide to dealing with unpredictable yet momentously consequential events in our increasingly volatile world. Taleb has now more fully developed the concept of antifragility in his most recent book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.

The antifragile is the antithesis of the fragile.  You might suppose that the opposite of “fragile” is something like “robust” — something that resists change. But Taleb points out that that would be the wrong answer.  A fragile thing – a package of wine glasses, perhaps — is easily broken when subjected to a stressor, such as being dropped.   Something robust is merely resistant to breakage. But an antifragile object actually benefits by being subjected to stress.  Taleb conjures up an image of the fragile as an object we would ship in a box marked “Handle with Care”; by contrast, a box holding the antifragile would be labelled “Please Mishandle”

At first, this seems to be a tease.  Are there really such antifragile things?  Yes, indeed; the world is full of them, including you and me. And there are steps we can take to become ever more antifragile.

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Conquer your fears

Posted 13 Dec 2012 — by Todd
Category Psychology

What follows is a guest post by a frequent contributor to the comments and Discussion Forum of this blog, Dr. Nate Eliason.  Nate, who has an M.D. in Pathology, has written on the Discussion Forum about his own success in applying hormesis to vision improvement.  As someone who sees the medical system “from the inside”, Nate has observed that medical interventions such as antidepressants often deliver short-term benefits while paradoxically causing long-term impairments.  This is the mirror image of hormesis, which promotes long-term health by deliberate application of short-term “stress”.

In this post, Nate focuses on an interesting case where “controlled stress” is particularly useful: the treatment of phobias by exposure therapy.  

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy has interested me since my days in medical school. It is a very effective, but often underused therapy for phobias, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and anxiety.  In writing this post, I have relied on David Tolin’s excellent book, “Face Your Fears“.  I highly recommend it.

When fear becomes a problem. Fear is a natural emotion, necessary for our survival. A good analogy for how fear works is a car alarm system.  A well-functioning car alarm system protects our car by alerting us when someone is attempting to break in.  A car alarm which constantly goes off, however, is more harmful than helpful. In the same way, some people have a “broken” fear system, in which fear becomes hyperactive, turning into anxiety. Common anxiety disorders include panic disorder, agoraphobia, phobias, social phobia, OCD, generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and separation anxiety disorder.  All of these are categorized as specific disorders, they have many features in common, and all respond to exposure therapy. While exposure therapy is primarily used for dealing with pathologic fears, it can also help us deal with routine fears which aren’t severe enough to be pathologic. For instance, most people have some fear of public speaking–but not to the degree that it is pathologic.  The same principles apply in overcoming non-pathologic fears. Towards the end of this post, I’ll give some examples on how I’ve used exposure therapy to deal with my own fears.

Fear is necessarily unpleasant because its “purpose” is to help us stay safe by avoiding dangerous situations.  However, when it becomes overactive, our entire life can be unpleasant. Exposure therapy deliberately ‘exposes’ us to fear in order to help us learn how to bring it under control and experience it in a normal way.  I need to emphasize that one of the primary objectives in exposure therapy is to feel the fear.  That’s right–our goal is to feel fear, and then to learn to deal with that fear. Read More

The Iceman

Posted 29 Jan 2012 — by Todd
Category Fitness, Hormesis, Psychology

Wim Hof can raise or lower his body temperature at will, overriding his autonomic nervous system. He is able to sit in a box of ice for almost two hours. He can swim 50 meters under arctic ice. Wearing only shorts and going barefoot, he has run a marathon in Lapland and climbed through snow to the summits of Mt. Everest and Mt. Kilamanjaro. In carrying out these feats, he is able to avoid hypothermia, the normal human response to extreme cold. Monitoring by physiologists show that he keeps his core temperature constant and normal during these challenges.

Yet Wim is not a genetic freak or Tibetan monk. He is a 52 year old Dutch man without much body fat. He believes that anyone can adapt to the cold and learn to control body temperature.

In this article, I will try to answer two questions:

  • How does he do it, and can anyone really do the same?
  • Is this basically an impressive stunt, or is there any benefit to learning Wim’s methods?
I will end by reporting on a preliminary experiment of my own with cold exposure.

Hormesis and the limbic brain

Posted 02 Jan 2012 — by Todd
Category Health, Hormesis, Psychology

There is a powerful way to re-program your brain that has been largely overlooked.  A way to change your relationship with eating, sleep, sex and basic emotions like fear, love and aggression.  While cognitive therapies can modify behavior, they are of questionable help in altering these basic drives.

Our drives are largely governed by two small primitive brain structures, the hypothalamus and the amygdala – shown in red in the drawing at right.  Remarkably, these two tiny structures are respectively the size of a pea and an almond — representing less than 1% of the brain’s three pounds of neural matter. Together, they constitute the control center of the paleomammalian brain–the “limbic” brain that governs our basic urges and desires as well as our homeostatic “set points” for temperature, sleep, body fat and behavioral urges like sex drive and aggression.

You can attempt to change your behavior by conscious determination and cognitive therapies.  But most attempts at intentional change are temporary and are doomed to fail in the long term because they are strongly resisted by powerful homeostatic processes encoded in our limbic brain.  Modern medicine recognizes the importance of homeostatic drives, and has developed pharmaceuticals to override them with diet pills, sleeping pills and antidepressants.  In fact, these medications do shift the balance of neurotransmitters and neural activity — at least in the short term.  But such chemical interventions are short-sighted “crutches” that promote dependency and come with side effects.  Often they exhibit  a “tolerance” effect: the brain’s control system fights back and weakens the impact of the medication.  To maintain the benefit, doses are increased, but this strategy may not always work.

This article will explain how the hypothalamus and amygdala contribute to the regulation of basic drives like eating, sleeping and sexuality, and how the amygdala can actually override the hypothalamus by enhancing the reward value of foods and other stimuli. (As I will explain, however, my take on “food reward” is different from that of Stephan Guyenet and other advocates of the Food Reward Hypothesis). This dual-control model can help explain anomalies such as obesity, addiction, and disordered sleep.

Finally,  I will provide suggestions on effective and natural ways to re-program the hypothalamus and amygdala and change your homeostatic set points, using the principle of hormesis.

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Obesity starts in the brain

Posted 25 Nov 2011 — by Todd
Category Diet, Health, Psychology

 

Where does obesity begin?  What drives you to eat too much or expend too little energy, and why has there been such a dramatic increase in obesity since 1980? Some recently popular explanations are the carbohydrate / insulin hypothesis (CIH), singling out the prevalence of carbohydrates in the diet, and the food reward hypothesis (FRH), putting the primary blame on the availability of “hyper-palatable” food.

In this post I will present evidence for new paradigm, which I call the  Hypothalamic Hypothesis (HH).  I think it provides a better explanation for the facts of obesity than the CIH and FRH theories, and leads to some different advice about how best to lose weight.

Some recent research suggests that obesity starts with specific physical changes to the brain. Appetite is regulated by the hypothalamus, particularly the arcuate nucleus (ARC), ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH) and lateral hypothalamus (LH). It turns out that two very specific changes to the brain cause us to get get hungry, overeat, burn less fat, and gain weight. And these changes to particular brain structures come about as a result of what you eat, eating frequency, and to some extent your activity level. The problem of obesity or overweight is often portrayed as a single problem, but it is really two problems, and each type of obesity corresponds to one type of brain alteration. Failure to distinguish these two types of obesity has resulted in much confusion. In part, the confusion comes about because these two types of obesity frequently occur together in the same individual, although one type is usually dominant. If you understand this, and you understand the role your brain plays, you can become more successful at losing excess weight.

I’ll spend a little time explaining the theory, provide some specific suggestions for how it can help you fine tune your weight loss program, and try to point out why I think the Hypothalamic Hypothesis overcomes some weaknesses of the other obesity theories.

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Voluntary stress

Posted 22 Sep 2011 — by Todd
Category Hormesis, Psychology, Stoicism

When does stress help you and when does it hurt you? There is no doubt that stresses of the wrong sort can lead to anxiety, emotional turmoil — and eventually depression and diseases like atherosclerosis and cancer.  Yet a central theme of this blog is that certain stresses are “hormetic”: at the right dose and frequency, stress can actually make you stronger and more resilient.  The many posts on this blog illustrate how stress can be channelled to build muscle, retrain appetite, improve eyesight, strengthen immunity, defeat allergies, and tame addictions and anger.  Judicious exposure to stress can even promote joy and excellent health.

But one can come away from the study of hormesis with the misleading impression that it’s all about adjusting the level and timing of stressors to induce an appropriate adaptive or defensive response.  In this article, I would like to focus on a frequently overlooked ingredient in hormesis:  the role of intention, attitude and voluntary choice.  If you omit this ingredient, you are leaving out an important element of the way that stress helps you become stronger.

Voluntary, deliberate exposure to stress can be particularly effective in providing psychological benefits, including overcoming anxieties, obsessions and phobias, and vanquishing appetite cravings, addictions. Beyond overcoming such self-defeating tendencies, deliberate exposure works to unleash confidence and generate a sense of joy and accomplishment.

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Does tasty food make us fat?

Posted 09 Sep 2011 — by Todd
Category Diet, Psychology

Are we getting fatter because there is just a lot more irresistibly delicious food around us?  Does that explain the obesity crisis?

That theory has been around the block but it is in fashion again.   In 2009, David Kessler’s book, “The End of Overeating” put forward the thesis that food in contemporary American food has been deliberately engineered–by adding fat, sugar and salt–to exploit our neurochemistry and hijack our free will.

More recently, one of the luminaries of the Paleo movement, Stephan Guyenet, has formulated his own version of this theory, in a compelling series on his Whole Health Source blog, arguing that  “food reward” is a main driver of obesity. His prescription:  eat a bland diet. Guyenet’s talk about this at the Ancestral Health Symposium last month is the buzz of the paleosphere.

But I think the theory is wrong, for the simple reason that it too blindly takes correlation for causation. And in doing so, it gets the causal direction mostly wrong. We don’t get fat because food has become too tasty. Rather, to a large extent, it is the metabolism and dietary habits of the obese that make food taste too good to resist, leading to insatiable appetites. And the good news is that we are not consigned to blandness.  If we eat and exercise sensibly, we can eat flavorful, delicious foods and enjoy life, without packing on the pounds.

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Stop procrastinating! Use the Premack principle

Posted 19 Dec 2010 — by Todd
Category Psychology, Time Management

A lot of people have problems with procrastination, myself included.

We start off the day with a list of things that need to get done, and by the end of the day those plans are often hijacked and many tasks remain untouched. To some extent, that’s understandable and normal. We can always point to legitimate interruptions — an urgent assignment from the boss, a sick kid, an unexpected visitor. And of course there’s ultimate excuse:  In the complex new business environment, you have to stay flexible and go with the flow!  Can’t be rigid!

But be honest:  a lot of the time, it’s just because we prefer to procrastinate.

For those with office jobs or self-employed knowlege workers, connectivity is the norm. But this comes with a new kind of temptation: cyberslacking. It’s so easy to take a peek at an interesting blog, check your Twitter or Facebook, play a quick online game between phone calls.  Before you know it, you’re wasting a lot of time.

There are a lot of tasks that we tend to put off at work.  Difficult, undefined tasks like planning or starting a writing project. Boring or mind-numbing tasks like tabulating numbers. Stressful tasks that require us to deal with unpleasant people or situations.

Think about phone calls. There’s that phone call you’ve been meaning to make to resolve an issue you just don’t want to deal with. Or that client, associate or relative who likes to boast, berate you, or bore you with infinite detail. That call is just not going to be any fun. Easier to put it off.

At home, that storage room or garage stuffed full of old junk just sits there all year. There are all the little projects you dread doing–like bills, taxes, repairs, or organizing the closet.

I think you get the picture.  If your life is perfect and you can’t relate to any of this, just stop reading here. Read More

Willpower: How to get it

Posted 16 Dec 2010 — by Todd
Category Diet, Psychology, Uncategorized

This week I wrote a guest post about willpower for Julien Smith’s blog.  It synthesizes a number of the ideas on this blog about deconditioning urges and emotions that tend to undermine our resolve to make significant changes in life.