Teen Stress Connected To Depression And Obesity Recent Penn State Study

This past weekend, I presented at a Parenting Conference on Strengths-Based Approaches to parenting. At the conference, a new film, The Race to Nowhere, was screened.The movie brought up a number of pertinent issues regarding the educational system in the United States…



The creation of high degrees of chronic stress in all ages of students (but not all students) due to excessive homework demands.


The excessive homework load seems to be largely due to curriculum which has been pushed down to lower and lower grade, often to the point where the academic requirements are mismatched with the developmental stage of the student.


The well being and happiness of students are not considered relevant in the current educational system.


The current system puts students into a constant forward-looking race to get to the next stage of education. For instance, sixth graders are looking at which foreign language classes to take to get into college; 7th & 8th graders are focused on what to do now to get into the advanced track classes in high school; many high school students are continually focused on what they can do in terms of extracurriculars and AP grades to get into the ‘right’ colleges.


Once in college, students are finding they never learned how to think critically on their own. Rather they were taught to regurgitate facts to do well on standardized tests which assess only a fraction of the whole child’s abilities and skills. 


At some point, many of these students are running headlong into a period of purposelessness and some are even dropping out of college due to depression, anxiety and hopelessness. If you are interested in finding out more about the movie, check out their site at RaceToNowhere.com.



Today, I came across a new study out of Penn State which shows a link between adolescent stress, depression and obesity. Below is a review on the study borrowed from a fantastic psychology site PsychCentral.com.


By Rick Nauert PhD Senior News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on February 25, 2010


Obesity is a disturbing worldwide trend. In fact, researchers say the effects are so pervasive that unless the issue is controlled, children born today will not live longer than their parents.

A new research finding provides insight on how a mental health issue may trigger obesity among adolescents. In the study, researchers discovered depression raises stress hormone levels in adolescent boys and girls. And, among girls, the stress hormones may lead to obesity.

Accordingly, early treatment of depression could help reduce stress and control obesity.


Cortisol, a hormone, regulates various metabolic functions in the body and is released as a reaction to stress. Researchers have long known that depression and cortisol are related to obesity, but they had not figured out the exact biological mechanism.

Although it is not clear why high cortisol reactions translate into obesity only for girls, scientists believe it may be due to physiological and behavioral differences (in girls, estrogen release and stress eating) in the way the two genders cope with anxiety.

“The implications are to start treating depression early because we know that depression, cortisol and obesity are related in adults,” said Susman.

If depression were to be treated earlier, she noted, it could help reduce the level of cortisol, and thereby help reduce obesity.

“We know stress is a critical factor in many mental and physical health problems,” said Susman.

“We are putting together the biology of stress, emotions and a clinical disorder to better understand a major public health problem.”

Susman and her colleagues Lorah D. Dorn, professor of pediatrics, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and Samantha Dockray, postdoctoral fellow, University College London, used a child behavior checklist to assess 111 boys and girls ages 8 to 13 for symptoms of depression.

Next they measured the children’s obesity and the level of cortisol in their saliva before and after various stress tests.


Statistical analyses of the data suggest that depression is associated with spikes in cortisol levels for boys and girls after the stress tests, but higher cortisol reactions to stress are associated with obesity only in girls. The team reported its findings in a recent issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

“In these children, it was mainly the peak in cortisol that was related to obesity,” Susman explained. “It was how they reacted to an immediate stress.”

Source: Penn State University

For full article, click here.

Have a wonderful and stress-free week!

All the best,

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Positive Psychology Coach

Author of the award-winning book Guide To Self:

The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion & Thought Guide To Self, Inc.

913 San Ramon Valley Blvd. #280

Danville CA 94526

(925) 575-0258

GuideToSelf.com – Web site

DrJohnBlog.GuideToSelf.com – Award-winning Blog

@johnschin – Twitter


New Study Shows Positive Emotions Protect Against Heart Disease

A first of kind study was released this past week by The European Society of Cardiology showing that individuals who experience positive emotions more frequently are less likely to succumb to heart disease (as compared to those who feel positive emotions less frequently or less intensely).


They sent out the following news release regarding the study which appears in European Heart Journal.


Don’t worry, be happy!  Positive emotions protect against heart disease


People who are usually happy, enthusiastic and content are less likely to develop heart disease than those who tend not to be happy, according to a major new study published today (Thursday 18 February).


The authors believe that the study, published in the Europe’s leading cardiology journal, the European Heart Journal [1], is the first to show such an independent relationship between positive emotions and coronary heart disease.


Dr Karina Davidson, who led the research, said that although this was an observational study, her study did suggest that it might be possible to help prevent heart disease by enhancing people’s positive emotions.

However, she cautioned that it would be premature to make clinical recommendations without clinical trials to investigate the findings further.


‘We desperately need rigorous clinical trials in this area. If the trials support our findings, then these results will be incredibly important in describing specifically what clinicians and/or patients could do to improve health,’ said Dr Davidson, who is the Herbert Irving Associate Professor of Medicine & Psychiatry and Director of the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University Medical Center (New York, USA).


Over a period of ten years, Dr Davidson and her colleagues followed 1,739 healthy adults (862 men and 877 women) who were participating in the 1995 Nova Scotia Health Survey. At the start of the study, trained nurses assessed the participants’ risk of heart disease and, with both self-reporting and clinical assessment, they measured symptoms of depression, hostility, anxiety and the degree of expression of positive emotions, which is known as ‘positive affect.’


Positive affect is defined as the experience of pleasurable emotions such as joy, happiness, excitement, enthusiasm and contentment. These feelings can be transient, but they are usually stable and trait-like, particularly in adulthood. Positive affect is largely independent of negative affect, so that someone who is generally a happy, contented person can also be occasionally anxious, angry or depressed.


After taking account of age, sex, cardiovascular risk factors and negative emotions, the researchers found that, over the ten-year period, increased positive affect predicted less risk of heart disease by 22% per point on a five-point scale measuring levels of positive affect expression (ranging from “none” to “extreme”).


Dr Davidson said: ‘Participants with no positive affect were at a 22% higher risk of ischaemic heart disease (heart attack or angina) than those with a little positive affect, who were themselves at 22% higher risk than those with moderate positive affect.’


‘We also found that if someone, who was usually positive, had some depressive symptoms at the time of the survey, this did not affect their overall lower risk of heart disease.’


‘As far as we know, this is the first prospective study to examine the relationship between clinically-assessed positive affect and heart disease.’


The researchers speculate about what could be the possible mechanisms by which positive emotions might be responsible for conferring long-term protection from heart disease. These include influence on heart rates, sleeping patterns and smoking cessation.


“We have several possible explanations,” said Dr Davidson. “First, those with positive affect may have longer periods of rest or relaxation physiologically. Baroreflex and parasympathetic regulation may, therefore, by superior in these persons, compared to those with little positive affect. Second, those with positive affect may recover more quickly from stressors, and may not spend as much time ‘re-living’ them, which in turn seems to cause physiological damage. This is speculative, as we are just beginning to explore why positive emotions and happiness have positive health benefits.”


She said that most successful interventions for depression include increasing positive affect as well as decreasing negative affect. If clinical trials supported the findings of this study, then it would be relatively easy to assess positive affect in patients and suggest interventions to improve it to help prevent heart disease. In the meantime, people reading about this research could take some simple steps to increase their positive affect.


‘Like the observational finding that moderate wine consumption is healthy (and enjoyable), at this point ordinary people can ensure they have some pleasurable activities in their daily lives,’ she said. ‘Some people wait for their two weeks of vacation to have fun, and that would be analogous to binge drinking (moderation and consistency, not deprivation and binging, is what is needed). If you enjoy reading novels, but never get around to it, commit to getting 15 minutes or so of reading in. If walking or listening to music improves your mood, get those activities in your schedule. Essentially, spending some few minutes each day truly relaxed and enjoying yourself is certainly good for your mental health, and may improve your physical health as well (although this is, as yet, not confirmed).’


In an accompanying editorial by Bertram Pitt, Professor of Internal Medicine, and Patricia Deldin, Associate Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, both at the University of Michigan School of Medicine (Michigan, USA), the authors pointed out that, currently, no one knew whether positive affect had a direct or indirect causal role in heart disease, or whether there was a third, underlying factor at work, common to both conditions. Nor was it known for certain whether it was possible to modify and improve positive affect, and to what extent.


‘Randomised controlled trials of interventions to increase positive affect in patients with cardiovascular disease are now underway and will help determine the effectiveness of increasing positive affect on cardiovascular outcome and will provide insight into the nature of the relationship between positive affect and cardiovascular disease,’ they wrote.


‘The ‘vicious cycle’ linking cardiovascular disease to major depression and depression to cardiovascular disease deserves greater attention from both the cardiovascular and psychiatric investigators……..These new treatments [to increase positive affect] could open an exciting potential new approach for treating patients with known cardiovascular disease who develop depression. If Davidson et al.’s observations and hypotheses stimulate further investigation regarding the effect of increased positive affect on physiological abnormalities associated with cardiovascular risk, perhaps it will be time for all of us to smile.’



[1] ‘Don’t worry, be happy: positive affect and reduced 10-year incident coronary heart disease: The Canadian Nova Scotia Health Survey.’  European Heart Journal. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehp603.

[2] ‘Depression and cardiovascular disease: have a happy day – just smile!’. European Heart Journal. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehq031


We may as well add this to the growing mountain of research documenting the tremendous potential of positive emotions (currently there are more than 65,000 studies documenting the positive impact on optimal human functioning of happiness, life satisfaction, subjective well-being, and positive emotions). Think of it as a matter of degree and frequency that we’re trying to increase. It’s not a black or white issue in which positive psychology is saying you have to be happy all the time. That would be absurd. Rather, the idea is to increase the amount of time (as well as the intensity and duration) you spend in positive emotional states such as contentment, relaxation, curiosity, awe, pride, love, joy, laughter, hope, amusement and so on. And positive emotions is just one of the areas covered by positive psychology.


Have a tremendous day!

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Positive Psychology Coach

Author of the award winning ‘Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought’

Follow John on Twitter at @johnschin

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Naps Make You Smarter, Increases Learning Ability & Helps Clear Space for New Info

A new study from my alma mater, University of California at Berkeley, shows that a one-hour nap can significantly restore your mental capacity, make you more intelligent and clears out old information to make way for new learning.

On the other side of the coin, the longer you go without sleep, the more we lose mental clarity and become increasingly foggy.  As any new parent knows, interrupted sleep makes one grouchy, irritable, and what’s more, poor sleep makes one less able to concentrate effectively.

When I was in college, I had classmates that would pull all-nighters to cram for finals. I never pulled an all-nighter,  partly because I just couldn’t operate the next day without sleep. The study from UC Berkeley showed a marked difference in the learning ability of students who pulled an all-nighter versus those who got their z’s in. Remarkably, those students who studied all night without sleep showed a 40% decline in their ability to learn new facts due to a shutdown in their hippocampus, a brain area associated with fact-based learning.

The hypothesis which is gaining support from research is that the hippocampus eventually becomes overloaded and sleep gives it a chance to empty itself out, similar to deleting your junk mail  folder in Outlook. Space is freed up so it can be used in new, more constructive ways.

For more information and the full article, please click here.

Have an incredible week!

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Positive Psychology Coach

Bay Area, California

Dr. Dave Van Nuys Interviews John Schinnerer, Ph.D. on Shrink Rap Radio – transcript

Shrink Rap Radio #228, January 10, 2010, Positive Psychology Coaching

David Van Nuys, Ph.D., aka ‘Dr. Dave’ interviews John Schinnerer

(Transcribed from www.ShrinkRapRadio.com by Virl Seribo)


Excerpt: I don’t know how much listeners know about positive psychology in general, but basically it’s not a self help movement, it’s not a fad.  It is a new branch of science based on a mountain of research into how and when people function at their very best.  And I think at last count, maybe a year or two ago, there were about 50,000 peer reviewed studies that are looking at what make people function optimally.  And to me, that’s what really separates it from, you know, Tony Robbins, or Marianne Williamson, and The Secret.  It’s not those things.  It’s grounded in science and it’s a change after roughly 100 years in the medical profession from what is wrong with us to what is right with us.


Introduction: That was the voice of my guest, Dr. John Schinnerer, who uses Positive Psychology as the underlying framework in his personal coaching practice.  John Schinnerer PhD is in private practice helping individuals learn happiness by mitigating destructive emotions and fostering constructive emotions.  Using positive psychology, he helps clients achieve happy, thriving, meaningful lives.  He graduated summa cum laude from the University of California-Berkeley with a PhD in Educational Psychology.  Dr. Schinnerer has been an executive and psychologist for over 12 years.  He’s president and founder of Guide to Self, a company that coaches clients to their potential using the latest in positive psychology, emotional management, mindfulness, and attentional control.  He’s hosted over 200 episodes of Guide to Self Radio, a primetime radio show on positive psychology in the San Francisco bay area.  Dr. Schinnerer’s areas of expertise range from positive psychology, to emotional awareness, to moral development to sports psychology.  He wrote the award winning Guide to Self: The Beginners Guide to Managing Emotion and Thought, which is available at Amazon.com and other online book sellers.  And he’s currently collaborating with the University of New Zealand in a longitudinal positive psychology study, called The International Well Being Study.  You can send Dr. Schinnerer an email via john@guidetoself.com.  Now, here’s the interview…


For the entire interview, please click here to go to ShrinkRapRadio.com.


Have a fantastic weekend!

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Positive Psychology Coach

San Francisco Bay Area, California< -->

Awe-Inspiring Articles Most Likely To Be Shared With Others from New York Times site

I’m always on the look out for short videos to elicit specific emotions when I speak to audiences.

It might be sadness, hope, inspiration, elevation (the feeling you get when you witness another person performing an act of moral courage), laughter, courage, curiosity, or others. I’ve found that it is often useful to have a short video break for audiences for several reasons. I can use the video to put them in a particular feeling state. The video may be used to start discussion. It’s a chance for me to take a sip of water to wet my whistle.

The videos can be used to demonstrate the effect that ‘negative’ emotions such as anger, fear and sadness have on our attention and awareness (e.g, they narrow our focus). Or to show the broaden-and-build effect that positive emotions have on us (e.g., they open our awareness, increase the available thought processes we have, and build internal resources for later use).

So I found it interesting when I came across research from the University of Pennsylvania that showed that the most emailed articles from the New York Times website involved one of two themes: sex or awe (and perhaps awe-inspiring sex!). Folks on the web were most likely to share articles that filled readers with awe, a theme that was noticed after researchers realized the vast number of scientific articles being shared via email.

Definition of Awe

Awe is defined as a ‘feeling of self-transcendence, admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.’ There seems to be two types of awe (at least).

There is the type of awe that comes from watching feats of human strength, ability, balance, and bravery.

I would also argue that there is a type of awe which combines simultaneous feelings of mild fear along with elevation or self-transcendence.

Awe as Self-transcendence Mixed With a Dash of Fear

This type of awe arises due to being confronted with something that is so vast, beautiful, destructive or overwhelming that it leaves one feeling elevated and also slightly scared possibly due to a perceived threat to one’s very existence. So it’s a combination of self-transcendence (feeling connected to a larger purpose or to other beings and/or nature) with a low-level fear. For instance, watching a volcano erupt or standing atop the Grand Canyon might create a feeling of awe which mixes fear and self-transcendence.

Awe as Self-Transcendence and Elevation

Then, there  are events which evoke awe that are more purely ‘positive’ in the traditional sense and solely involve the feelings of self-transcendence, elevation and expansiveness in the chest. Some of the best current examples of awe-inspiring acts include Shaun White’s gold medal run in the half-pipe, followed by his celebration run, Shani Davis winning the 1000m in speed skating, and Lindsey Vonn’s gold-medal run in the slalom on an injured shin.

Watching such acts of courage and athleticism fills me with awe, disbelief, pride and a feeling of being connected to other Americans and human beings in a significant way, a way that whispers to me ‘If they can do that, what can we, as a species, do? What are we capable of? What might we be inspired to create? What problems can we solve? How can we best help one another?’

What’s more, stories that were emotion-laden were most likely to be shared with others. And within the emotionally-laden stories, stories that had to do with positive emotions were more likely to be shared than those having to do with negative emotions. Interestingly, longer articles were more readily shared than shorter articles which runs counter-intuitive to the assumption that we live in a short-attention span culture here in the U.S.

With that said, allow me to share some of my favorite awe-inspiring videos with you. And you can tell me whether or not, or to what degree, these clips fill you with awe and wonder…

Top Video to Inspire Feelings of Awe

Dylan Longbottom Surfing a Monster 12 foot Barrel

I’m having trouble embedding this video. If the video doesn’t come up here is the link…


Killer Whale Jumping Out of Water

Dolphins Playing with Self-made Bubble Rings

Danny MacAskill Trick Riding BMX Bike in Edinburgh Scotland

Awe – some Images In Space from the Hubble TelescopeLet me know if you have other awe-inspiring video clips of your own. I’d love to hear from you!

Have a fantastic weekend!

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.
Positive Psychology coach, author, keynote speaker
San Francisco Bay Area