Stress and Ageing

A question of attitude

The science of the mind is a fascinating and rapidly evolving one.  So much of what the ancient eastern philosophers and healers believed about the mind-body connection is now being studied and proven in western medicine and psychology.  Positive psychology is a burgeoning area of science which studies the powerful effects of practicing mindfulness, meditation, daily gratitude, humour and positive thinking on the body.  Positive psychology has also discovered the positive links between practicing core strengths and successful relationships and organisations.
The following article highlights the importance of attitude, positive thinking and stress management in slowing the ageing process.  I have been a proponent of this thinking for thirty years and it is gratifying that science is now able to support these theories and give us all something to actively work towards – living younger for longer, building our immunity against the ravages of modern living and valuing happiness and well-being as basic core values.

The link between chronic stress and a marker of old age is being disentangled

Apr 7th 2011 | from the print edition

Bad for your telomeres

TELOMERES are to chromosomes what plastic caps are to shoelaces—they stop them fraying at the ends. Unlike shoelaces, though, chromosomes replicate themselves from time to time as the cells they are in divide. This shortens the telomere and, after 50-70 such divisions (a number known as the Hayflick limit, after its discoverer), a chromosome can grow no shorter and the cell it is in can divide no more.

That provides a backstop against cancer. The rapidly dividing cells in a tumour soon hit the Hayflick limit and the process is brought to a screeching halt. Which is a good thing. The bad thing is that reaching the limit is one of the markers of old age. You do not want it to happen too quickly, particularly in tissues that have to do a lot of dividing in order to work properly, such as those in the immune system.

It has been known for some time that chronic stress (caring for a child with a protracted illness, for example) causes premature shortening of the telomeres. What has not been clear is whether this is a one-way trip, with each stressful period turning the telomeric ratchet irreversibly. This week, though, at a meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Orlando, Florida, a group of researchers led by Edward Nelson of the University of California, Irvine, showed that it isn’t. Their research suggests that stress management not only stops telomeres from shortening, it actually promotes their repair.

Dr Nelson drew this welcome conclusion from a previous study that measured the impact of telephone counselling on women who had been treated for cervical cancer. The study found that such counselling worked, both mentally and physically. Women who had been counselled reported that the quality of their lives had improved, compared with those of a control group who had not been counselled. They also showed improvements in the strength of their immune systems.

Given those benefits, Dr Nelson wondered if he could find others, and he re-examined the participants’ samples to look at the lengths of the telomeres in their white blood cells (red cells have no nuclei, and therefore no chromosomes). What he found surprised him. Not only did counselling stop telomere shrinkage, it actually promoted telomere growth. Those women for whom counselling had worked (ie, those who reported a decrease in emotional stress) had longer telomeres at the end than they did at the beginning. Their Hayflick countdowns were being reset.

A single such result must, of course, be treated with caution. But another study reported at the meeting, by Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco (who shared the Nobel prize for the discovery of the enzyme that repairs telomeres), gave some support. This showed that exercise has a similar effect to counselling on the telomeres of the stressed.

If Dr Nelson’s work is successfully replicated, it will shine more light on the ill-understood relationship between the health of the mind and the health of the body. For, as he points out, nothing actually changed in the lives of the women in question. They still had cancer, albeit under treatment, and they were still under stress. Nothing, that is, except their attitude.

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Authentic Happiness and Well Being Theory

Here is an interesting article which I have edited for space and relevance to my reading audience.  The article written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave for Positive Psychology News Daily will give you a greater understanding of Martin Seligman’s Well Being Theory.  If you click on the links you can find out how his theory is being applied to the area of national well-being which is, in my opinion, the ultimate greatest use and benefit of the application of positive psychology.

The topic of measuring national well-being was the subject of a recent BBC Radio 4 programme: The pursuit of happiness. One of the first questions asked was “what is happiness and can it measure national well-being?’”[Some] of you will have read Martin Seligman’s  Authentic Happiness (2002) which brought positive psychology out of the shadows and into the mainstream.

In Authentic Happiness, Seligman describes a compellingly simple model of happiness based on three pathways:

  • Positive emotion – leading to a pleasant life
  • Flow – leading to an engaged life                     
  • Purpose – leading to a meaningful life

In short, the Authentic Happiness model suggested that you can achieve happiness in your life by pursuing one or more of these three pathways. This means that even if, for example, you don’t experience much positive emotion in your life, you can still be happy by doing activities which engage or absorb you fully, or by finding meaning in life by using your strengths in service of something larger. This conclusion was probably quite a relief to Seligman, who freely acknowledges in the book that until relatively recently he himself had been a bit of a grouch.

Authentic Happiness – the Sequel

In the past decade or so since positive psychology was launched, hundreds of scientific experiments have been carried out which are moving the field forward. So it’s exciting to hear that the original Authentic Happiness model has also been developed to embrace two further pathways, relationships and accomplishment. This new well-being theory (aka PERMA: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment) is described in Seligman’s forthcoming book, Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being – and how to achieve them.


Incorporating a relationships/ connections component makes sense on the basis that social support has been recognized as one of the most influential determinants of well-being. University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson put it succinctly: ‘other people matter.’ Students of positive psychology will already be familiar with Ed Diener and Martin Seligman’s 2002 paper entitled Very Happy People, which is often used to highlight the finding that the difference between very happy people (which means the upper 10% of consistently very happy people) and those who are average or unhappy (which means the rest of us) is their relationships and social connections.  When we are talking about national well-being, the frequency and quality of our interactions with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and strangers, as well as our experience of trusting others and feeling like we belong, are all central to our level of well-being. As the 17th Century English poet John Donne said, ‘no man is an Island.’

Including accomplishment in well-being theory seems not so straightforward, however.  Firstly there are numerous definitions of accomplishment. Do we mean accomplishment as in ‘achieving a personal goal’? Do we mean ‘competence,’ one of the three basic psychological needs in Self-Determination Theory? Or the sense of accomplishment we get from doing a good job and which makes the day seem worthwhile? Or perhaps we mean something else. Secondly, how should accomplishment be assessed? Will we use objective or subjective measures? Thirdly, if accomplishment is a suitable pathway to well-being, why not physical exercise, or eating a balanced diet?  Since the science of positive psychology is descriptive, not prescriptive, surely there are other equally valid pathways to well-being which deserve a place in the theory of well-being.

It’s opportune that just as the UK government sets out to measure the nation’s well-being, Marie Forgeard and her colleagues Eranda Jayawickreme, Margaret Kern, and Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania publish a paper called Doing the right thing: Measuring well-being for public-policy. It gives an overview of the main theoretical perspectives on happiness and well-being and highlights Well-being Theory in particular, explaining the PERMA components as follows:

“These five elements are the best approximation of what humans pursue for their own sake …. Although individuals may sometimes pursue these elements for other ends (e.g., they may for instance think that accomplishment will bring positive emotion), many choose to do so because these elements are intrinsically motivating by themselves” (p. 97) (italics in original)

The PERMA model has the advantage of being concise, covers both hedonic and eudaimonic aspects of well-being and all five facets can be measured both objectively and subjectively. Whether this is adequate for assessing national well-being is another matter: the PERMA measures are currently being developed.

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Love is a verb

Here is a timely reminder to practice gratitude in your relationship and in your life in general.  It is so easy to find what is wrong with our lives.  Our brains are hard wired to look for ‘threats’ due to our early ancestry having to watch out for predators and other threats.  However, the brain has to work harder to think of positives and it can seem like an effort.

Having practiced gratitude daily for nearly fifteen years, I know the benefits of it.  It has become an automatic response when things don’t go the way I planned, or when I experience a major problem.  It is so much easier to look at what I have learned from the experience (or can learn), to count myself luckier than many other people who experience a hard life every day and to find the ‘diamonds amongst the rough’.

I hope you enjoy reading the following article from PPND.

Three Times Two: Love is a Verb

By Angus Skinner

February 17, 2011

The three blessings nomenclature has not always served Positive Psychology well. To some people, it can seem silly. Others are put off by the religious implications. Yet this exercise has lasting benefits, more reliably attached to reducing depression than stopping smoking is attached to reducing cancer. How we behave is either down to our genes or our environment – no responsibility there of ours!

Man on phone - notice the smile!Man on phone – Notice the smile! 

It is, of course, down to all three: our genes, our environment, and what we choose to do.

Anxiety – or love – makes us move. And then effort helps us move on. Love is a verb.

My love and I are not often in the same place, and not tonight. We talked on the phone about this and that, made plans, worried about the world, and blamed everyone at work for being so stupid, as perhaps you do at the end of the work day.

Woman on Phone - Another Smile!Woman on phone, also smiling! 

And then we agreed to talk of three good things in our day before we slept. “I have had a rotten day and can’t think of three good things,” she said. Yet she did. And so did I – some inane, some important.

And so we agreed each night before we sleep, wherever we are, to talk of three good things of the day. Different things, six in all.

So we each multiply our own blessings by two. As Chris Peterson summarized, positive psychology is about other people.

You may not have a lover, but you probably have friends that who would love to have a conversation with you, particularly about something as refreshing as the good things in your life.

(Caveat: You may be cross and lonely in a marriage or relationship you cannot bear to continue. Accept help.)

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Learning positive habits

A large part of my job as a therapist is to help people become aware that their negative thoughts and behaviours are habits, learned over time through repetition.  I use the analogy that if I was to lift a 2kg weight with my right hand 50 times a day over a period of say one month, whether I want it or not, I am going to end up with a huge right bicep!  Why would I do that I ask myself.

Sadly most of us practice negative thoughts about ourselves, our performance, our looks and people and events around us, day in and day out.  We do this quite unconsciously, not realising that we are developing neural pathways in our brain and forming habitual negative thinking patterns.  Once a neural pathway has been formed and reinforced over time, we do not have to expend much neural activity to have an automatic response, so a habit is effortless, if you like.

Unfortunately negative thinking habits are also linked to negative emotions (endocrine system secretions of stress hormones) and strong negative emotions are more likely to reinforce these thinking habits and subsequent behaviour.

For example, if we experience someone cutting us off on the freeway and we then tell ourselves we could have been killed, that they are an idiot,  they should not be allowed to drive and that the freeway is not a safe place to drive, we are going to experience a “stress response”.  If that experience is repeated or if we continue to expect the worst on the freeway and revisiting those negative angry thoughts about negligent drivers, we will soon find that we automatically feel apprehensive about driving on the freeway and feel automatically angry when another driver transgresses in even a minor way.

Most of the people I counsel for road rage have been practicing being angry for a long time.  However, helping someone understand that their response is simply the result of a habit, formed over time can be useful in convincing them that they can unlearn that  response in the same way they learned it.  With practice!

It is possible to become a calm driver, through consciously responding in a rational manner and focusing on the positives.  For example, when we see someone speeding and weaving in and out of traffic, we can tell ourselves that person may be on an emergency dash to the hospital to visit a dying relative, or they may have a child on the back seat in need of medical attention.  In other words, it has nothing to do with us.  We do not have to take it personally and respond angrily.  We can change our emotion to one of compassion or concern instead of anger.  Of course we do need to drive defensively and courteously, however, other people’s behaviour is out of our control in most cases.  Staying calm and alert will serve us best when driving.

The following excerpt from Emily vanSonnenberg’s article in Positive Psychology News Daily highlights the ability to change unhealthy, negative habits by practicing new positive thoughts and behaviours.

An abundance of potential habits exist which research shows can foster our well-being and ability to flourish. If you want to increase your well-being–feel more positive emotions, more meaning, closer relationships, and a greater sense of accomplishment, consider implementing these positive activities (or come up with your own) every day to form habits that contribute to well-being.

  • Keep a Gratitude Journal at night.
  • Practice random acts of kindness to strangers.
  • Engage in a novel activity with your partner each week and talk about the new experience together.
  • Learn a new word.
  • Begin a new hobby (or re-awaken one you enjoyed as a kid)

How to Break a Bad Habit

If you want to break a bad habit, here is one method that is often successful:

  1. Identify a positive habit and congruent behaviour you would like to adopt.
  2. Identify the habit you want to break.
  3. Recognise the sensory impulse(s) you experience in your body or other stimuli that occur just before you usually act on the negative habit.
  4. Instead of acting on the negative impulse, use your conscious attention to re-focus your thoughts and behaviours on the new and positive habit you identified in Step 1.
  5. Substitute the new behaviour that is congruent with the positive habit you want to form for the behaviours of the negative habit.

Continue Steps 4 and 5 for at least 66 days. Notice that you are using the triggers from the old habit to reinforce your practice of the new habit.

Living Automatically, by Choice

This way or that way?This way or that way? 

All in all, if you want to form a new habit, you can! Acquiring a new habit tends to take just over two months until it is automatically cemented into your brain’s neural pathways. Use the willpower inside yourself to commit to repeating the behaviour so that you can form a new and positive habit. Sooner than you may anticipate, you will no longer need to think about doing the behaviour. It will become automatic.

You can develop good or bad habits. Take your pick. If you consciously behave the way you want to behave for only a few months, it grows markedly easier, as you adopt new positive habits that contribute to well-being. The effects that positive habits can have on your well-being are nothing short of life-changing, and this, is within your control.

“We are what we repeatedly do; excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” -Aristotle

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Try on vulnerability

Think about a time when you felt vulnerable.  This can best be described by feeling out of your comfort zone; feeling afraid of being exposed for making a mistake; not knowing something; not being who you think others think you should be; telling someone something about yourself that you are ashamed of or about to risk disapproval from someone you respect.

Describe what happened and say whether you felt better after accepting your vulnerability and pushing through it.  Alternatively,  if you tried to hide your vulnerability, what happened and how did you feel?

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Whole-hearted Living

Steve Safigan wrote a great article on Brene Brown in Positive Psychology News Daily on January 24th, 2011.  You can find the whole article if you go to PPND, however, I have put her video here for you to look at.  It truly is one of the most inspiring videos I have witnessed.  Lots to think about and apply to our lives.

Let me know what you think about after you have watched the video.

Brené BrownBrené Brown 

Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She’s a writer, a speaker, a story-teller, and—as it turns out—a minor internet phenomenon. Perhaps it’s only because of the field in which I work, but her “TED talk” video keeps being recommended to me from various people who do not know each other and therefore are finding the video independently. I’m apparently not alone, as more than a quarter million people have viewed the 20-minute video through YouTube at a rate of about 10,000 views per week.

The video attached can also be found on the TED site

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Adapting through crisis

Think back to a crisis you went through or are going through.  How did you grow or how can you grow from that crisis?

When in the past have you adapted to a difficult experience?  In addition to the passing of time, did anything else help you along the process of adaptation and recovery?

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