Religion and spirituality have different and complementary influences on our health, according to new research from Oregon State University.
Formal religious affiliation and regular service attendance are linked to better health habits, such as lower smoking rates and less alcohol consumption. Spirituality, including meditation and prayer, aids in regulation of emotions, which improves physiological symptoms such as blood pressure.
“Religion helps regulate behavior and health habits, while spirituality regulates your emotions, how you feel,” stated Carolyn Aldwin, a professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at OSU.
Aldwin and colleagues have been working to understand and differentiate the links between health, religion and spirituality. The outcome is a new theoretical model that defines two unique pathways.
“No one has ever reviewed all of the different models of how religion affects health,” reported Aldwin, the Jo Anne Leonard endowed director of OSU’s Center for Healthy Aging Research. “We’re trying to impose a structure on a very messy field.”
There can be some overlap of the influences of religion and spirituality on health, Aldwin said. More research is needed to test the theory and examine contrasts between the two pathways. The goal is to help researchers develop better measures for analyzing the connections between religion, spirituality and health and then explore possible clinical interventions, she said.
Carolyn M. Aldwin, Crystal L. Park, Yu-Jin Jeong, Ritwik Nath. Differing pathways between religiousness, spirituality, and health: A self-regulation perspective.. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2014; 6 (1): 9 DOI: 10.1037/a0034416
We’ve known for some time that romantic love activates the same reward areas in the brain as cocaine. And it’s equally addictive for many of us.
Recently, Yale School of Medicine researchers have discovered a more selfless variety of love — a deep and genuine desire for the happiness of others without any expectation of reward — actually turns off the same areas in the brain that light up when lovers see each other. This phenomenon has now been documented in the minds of experienced meditators.
“When we truly, selflessly wish for the well-being of others, we’re not getting that same rush of excitement that comes with, say, a tweet from our romantic love interest, because it’s not about us at all,” reported Judson Brewer, adjunct professor of psychiatry at Yale now at the University of Massachusetts.
Brewer and Kathleen Garrison, postdoctoral researcher in Yale’s Department of Psychiatry, share their discoveries in a paper to be published Feb. 12 in the journal Brain and Behavior.
The neurological boundaries between these two types of love become clear in fMRI scans of experienced meditators. The reward centers of the brain that are strongly activated by a lover’s face (or a picture of cocaine) are almost completely turned off when a meditator is instructed to silently repeat sayings such as “May all beings be happy.” These sayings are most commonly encountered in a particular type of meditation known as loving-kindness meditation.
Such mindfulness meditations are a staple of Buddhism and are now commonly practiced in Western stress reduction programs, Brewer notes. The tranquility of this selfless love for others — exemplified in such religious figures such as Mother Theresa or the Dalai Llama — is diametrically opposed to the anxiety caused by a lovers’ quarrel or extended separation. And it carries its own rewards.
“The intent of this practice is to specifically foster selfless love — just putting it out there and not looking for or wanting anything in return,” Brewer said. “If you’re wondering where the reward is in being selfless, just reflect on how it feels when you see people out there helping others, or even when you hold the door for somebody the next time you are at Starbucks.”
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Dr. John Schinnerer
Positive Psychology Coach
Anger Management Specialist
Dec. 31, 2013 — Researchers found that the most common emotions trigger strong bodily sensations, and the bodily maps of these sensations were topographically different for different emotions. The sensation patterns were, however, consistent across different West European and East Asian cultures, highlighting that emotions and their corresponding bodily sensation patterns have a biological basis.
“Emotions adjust not only our mental, but also our bodily states. This way the prepare us to react swiftly to the dangers, but also to the opportunities such as pleasurable social interactions present in the environment. Awareness of the corresponding bodily changes may subsequently trigger the conscious emotional sensations, such as the feeling of happiness,” tells assistant professor Lauri Nummenmaa from Aalto University.
“The findings have major implications for our understanding of the functions of emotions and their bodily basis. On the other hand, the results help us to understand different emotional disorders and provide novel tools for their diagnosis.”
The research was carried out on line, and over 700 individuals from Finland, Sweden and Taiwan took part in the study. The researchers induced different emotional states in their Finnish and Taiwanese participants. Subsequently the participants were shown with pictures of human bodies on a computer, and asked to colour the bodily regions whose activity they felt increasing or decreasing.
The research was funded by European Research Council (ERC), The Academy of Finland and the Aalto University (aivoAALTO project)
The results were published on 31 December, 2013 in the scientific journal
L. Nummenmaa, E. Glerean, R. Hari, J. K. Hietanen. Bodily maps of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1321664111
The Many Faces of Oxytocin…Augments Bad Memories, Fear and Anxiety as well as Promotes Bonding and Trust
July 22, 2013 — The ‘love hormone’ oxytocin has been all the rage in scientific circles for several years due to it’s involvement in trust, single pair bonding, friendship and love. Yet, recent research seems to indicate that the neurotransmitter, oxytocin, can also strengthen negative memories and increase the intensity of anxiety and fear. This is an entirely new role being uncovered for the fan favorite neurotransmitter.
Negative social situations, such as being the target of bullying, getting yelled at by the boss or embarrassed by a teacher, seem to be reinforced and strengthened by oxytocin. And perhaps, oxytocin may be part of the trigger for dread – anticipatory worry – and anxiety. This comes at a time when oxytocin is being studied for use as an anti-anxiety agent.
The reason is that oxytocin seems to strengthen our social memories – positve AND negative – in one particular region of the brain, according to researchers at Northwestern University.
If a social experience is negative or stressful, oxytocin seems to activate an area of the brain that intensifies that memory. Further, it seems to increase the odds of feeling dread and anxiety in anticipation of future stressful events.
Ongoing research seems to indicate that oxytocin also augments positive social memories and, thus, intensifies feelings of well being as well.
The findings are critical as chronic stress is one of the primary causes of anxiety and depression, while positive social interactions lead to emotional health.
“By understanding the oxytocin system’s dual role in triggering or reducing anxiety, depending on the social context, we can optimize oxytocin treatments that improve well-being instead of triggering negative reactions,” stated Jelena Radulovic, the lead author of the study at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. The paper was published July 21 in Nature Neuroscience.
This is the first and only research to link oxytocin to social stress and its apparent role in increasing anxiety and dread in anticipation of future stress. Northwestern scientists also discovered the brain region responsible for these effects — the lateral septum — and the pathway or route oxytocin uses in this area to amplify fear and anxiety.
The scientists discovered that oxytocin strengthens negative social memory and future anxiety by triggering an important signaling molecule — ERK (extracellular signal regulated kinases) — that becomes activated for six hours after a negative social experience. ERK causes enhanced fear, Radulovic believes, by stimulating the brain’s fear pathways, many of which pass through the lateral septum. The region is involved in emotional and stress responses.
The findings surprised the researchers, who were expecting oxytocin to modulate positive emotions in memory, based on its long association with love and social bonding.
“Oxytocin is usually considered a stress-reducing agent based on decades of research,” said Yomayra Guzman, a doctoral student in Radulovic’s lab and the study’s lead author. “With this novel animal model, we showed how it enhances fear rather than reducing it and where the molecular changes are occurring in our central nervous system.’
The new research follows three recent human studies with oxytocin, all of which are beginning to offer a more complicated view of the hormone’s role in emotions.
All the new experiments were done in the lateral septum. This region has the highest oxytocin levels in the brain and has high levels of oxytocin receptors across all species from mice to humans.
“This is important because the variability of oxytocin receptors in different species is huge,” Radulovic said. “We wanted the research to be relevant for humans, too.”
Experiments with mice in the study established that
1) oxytocin is essential for strengthening the memory of negative social interactions and
2) oxytocin increases fear and anxiety in future stressful situations.
John Schinnerer, Ph.D.
Positive Psychology Coach, Expert consultant for Pixar
Author of the award-winning Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion & Thought (for a free PDF copy, visit Guide to Self and click on the book icon on the left of the page)
Yomayra F Guzmán, Natalie C Tronson, Vladimir Jovasevic, Keisuke Sato, Anita L Guedea, Hiroaki Mizukami, Katsuhiko Nishimori, Jelena Radulovic. Fear-enhancing effects of septal oxytocin receptors. Nature Neuroscience, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/nn.3465
According to Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we encounter roughly 20,000 individual moments per day. Each ‘moment’ lasts 1-3 seconds. When you recall any evocative memory — positive or negative – it is almost always linked to a recollection of a specific moment in time. While the mind has a penchant for event tagging (i.e., marking events as positive, negative or neutral), rarely does a neutral encounter carry any emotional weight and is quickly forgotten. Your memories are nearly always positive or negative. What’s more, the mind has evolved to overfocus on the negative – negative self-definitions, emotions, words, thoughts, memories, etc. So tools to promote the positive are needed to counterbalance this negativity bias. In some instances, positive words or a sharing a cherished memory can forever improve one’s life.
When Were You Last Happy?
Here is a brief demonstration for you…
Think about the last time you felt happy; I mean really, truly happy, even if only for a moment. I want you to imagine that scene in your mind’s eye right now. Was your chin up? Shoulders pulled slightly back? Was there a smile on your face? Who was with you? What were the surroundings? What were you wearing? Are there any smells you recall? Think about the situation in as much detail as you can.
Now, how does your body feel?
Thinking back upon happy times cultivates positive physiological responses and positive emotions. Your heart rate slows, you breathing deepens, your chin elevates slightly, shoulders are drawn back, a warmth develops in your chest, and you smile.
How Can I Be Happy? Create a Mental Scrapbook for Your Self
One proven exercise from positive psychology is the mental scrapbook exercise. How can I be happier? Create a mental scrapbook in your head of times when you were happy, proud, excited, and/or confident – recollections that involve a variety of positive emotional experiences. That way, when you want to access a particular positive feeling to enhance the emotional quality of the present moment, you simply have to pull up that photo in your mental scrapbook to bring about the emotion you want.
Let me give you an example. Several years ago, I went in for an MRI scan on my hip for sciatica. When I booked the appointment, the receptionist asked if I was claustrophobic. Without thinking, I replied, “No.” Then I went in to get the MRI. I lay down on the table which began slowly sliding into the closed, narrow MRI tube. The tube was as wide as my shoulders. I could not move my arms except to fold my hands on my hips. The ceiling of the tube was two inches from my face. As I needed an MRI of my hip, I was slid all the way inside – head first.
To my surprise, my emotional mind went back to when I was 7 years old trapped in a mummy sleeping bag. And I began to panic. My heart began to race. My throat constricted. My chest tightened. While my emotional mind screamed at me to go Hulk and tear apart the machine which imprisoned me, my rational mind knew I had 20 minutes to spend in this tube. I I closed my eyes and reminded myself to breathe deeply. That helped a little. Then I forced myself to smile – a real Duchenne smile using the muscles around my eyes. That helped a little more. Next, I used the mental scrapbook exercise. I thought about the time I came face to face with an ancient sea turtle while snorkeling in Hawaii. I thought about playing with my boys on the beach. After calling those images to mind, I felt my body relax. I got through the 20 minute MRI without an incident.
How Can I Be Happy? Share Positive Memories with Others
A good friend of mine, Ebon Glenn, founder of the positive clothing line, AimHighESG, discovered a brilliant extension of the mental scrapbook exercise. Ebon discovered he could positively impact the moods of loved ones by sharing photos of family memories prior to a car ride, or a business meeting or a family dinner. The simple act of sharing memories of good times via photos served to lift his mood as well as the moods of others, thereby creating a positive emotional upward spiral.
The Big Impact of Small Words
The extension of this is to share small, powerful words with those around you. For example…
‘I’m proud of you.’
‘I believe in you.’
‘You are a genuinely good person.’
For years, I wondered whether such small phrases could positively impact people. I frequently have clients come in who are depressed, anxious, overwhelmed or angry. When we get to the topic of implementing positive changes in their lives, I make a point of to slow things down, look them square in the eye and I tell them, ‘Listen, I believe in you. I believe you can do this.’ After all, what comes first, you believing in yourself or someone else believing in you? Perhaps it doesn’t matter as long as someone believes.
Do your thoughts affect you? Absolutely. Do your memories impact the emotional quality of your life? Definitely. And you can learn to manage which thoughts and which memories take up the most space in your mind…with practice.
About the Author
John Schinnerer, Ph.D., an expert in positive psychology, is revolutionizing the way in which people make sense of the mind, behavior and emotion. In December of 2011, he was one of three emotion experts (along with Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner) to consult with Pixar on a feature-length movie in which the main characters are emotions. Much of his time is spent in private practice teaching clients the latest ways to turn down the volume on negative emotions such as anger, anxiety and stress. He has developed a unique coaching methodology which combines the best aspects of entertainment, humor, positive psychology and emotional management techniques. His offices are in Danville, California. He graduated from U.C. Berkeley Summa Cum Laude with a Ph.D. in educational psychology. He has been an executive, speaker and coach for over 15 years. He hosted over 200 episodes of Guide To Self Radio, a daily prime time radio show, in the SF Bay Area. He wrote the award-winning book, ‘Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought,’ which is available at Amazon.com. His blog, Shrunken Mind, was recently recognized as one of the top 3 in positive psychology on the web (drjohnblog.guidetoself.com). His new video blog teaches people the latest ways to manage anger using positive psychology. (WebAngerManagement.com). He is currently working on a destination site to teach individuals paths to sustainable happiness via positive psychology and ongoing practice at HowICanBeHappy.com.