Stress and Mindset

 

The perception of stress is that all stress is negative and something to be avoided. The definition of mindset in the American Heritage Dictionary is: “a fixed mental attitude that predetermines a person’s responses to and interpretations of situations.” Carol Dweck’s research has brought attention to the overriding importance of mindsets and has also dispelled the myth that they are immutable. https://gwilliamsfamilyeye.wordpress.com/2015/04/01/mindset-the-new-psychology-of-success/ There is now a substantial body of research – the conclusions of which are counterintuitive – which proves that mindsets can be changed and that these changes can be permanent. It is also clear that stress can be positive. Stress is not all the same and it provides important motivation.

Changing our mindset can make dramatic and lasting changes in our lives. Almost like the magical force in “Star Wars”, in The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal uses research to demonstrate how the forces of mindfulness and mindset can control our responses to anxiety and stress. While everyone has heard of the “fight or flight” response to stress, the “challenge” response and the “tend and befriend” responses are less well known.

To demonstrate that stress is not necessarily bad for us, McGonigal shares the following: “In 1998, thirty thousand adults in the United States were asked how much stress they had experienced in the past year. They were also asked, ‘Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?’ Eight years, later, the researchers scoured public records to find out who among the thirty thousand participants had died. Let me deliver the bad news first. High levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. But – and this is what got my attention – that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.” p. xii

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Also, “Those who had a positive view of aging in midlife lived an average of 7.6 years longer than those who had a negative view. To put that number in perspective, consider this: Many things we regard as obvious and important protective factors, such as exercising regularly, not smoking, and maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels, have been shown, on average, to add less than four years to one’s life span.” p. xiv

 

McGonigal goes on to explain that mindsets are core beliefs we have about how the world works. They tend to be invisible, like prejudices. “The mindset doesn’t feel like a choice that we make; it feels like an accurate assessment of how the world works.” p. 32 If we think about mindsets at all, we don’t realize that they are choices we have made and that we can change our choices. “Our physical reality is more subjective than we believe. Perception matters.” P. 4

“People who believe that stress can be helpful are more likely to say that they cope with stress proactively. For example, they are more likely to:

  • Accept the fact that the stressful event has occurred and is real.
  • Plan a strategy for dealing with the source of stress.
  • Seek information, help, or advice.
  • Take steps to overcome, remove, or change the source of stress.
  • Try to make the best of the situation by viewing it in a more positive way or by using it as an opportunity to grow.

These different ways of dealing with stress lead to very different outcomes. When you face difficulties head-on, instead of trying to avoid or deny them, you build your resources for dealing with stressful experiences. You become more confident in your ability to handle life’s challenges. You create a strong network of social support. Problems that can be managed get taken care of, instead of spiraling out of control. Situations that you can’t control become opportunities to grow. In this way, as with many mindsets, the belief that stress is helpful becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” p. 18

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The thinking and life changes that people go through to avoid anxiety and stress have been demonstrated to produce more stress than the situation that they attempt to avoid. Also, “It turns out that a meaningful life is a stressful life.” p. 65 “Feeling burdened rather than uplifted by everyday duties is more a mindset than a measure of what is going on in your life. These are normal and expected parts of life, but we treat them as if they are unreasonable impositions, keeping our lives from how they should really be.” p. 69 Resilience was the theme of a prior blog https://gwilliamsfamilyeye.wordpress.com/2015/01/21/resilience/ which discusses the balance between load and resilience. The research on mindsets supports that changing your mindset decreases your load and increases your resilience. Kelly McGonigal’s favorite description of resilience is from Salvatore Maddi; the courage to grow from stress. p. 94

Anxiety disorders can be crippling. People feel a loss of control. Lives are changed and the disorder can keep people constantly wary and fragile. Medications can help but behavioral interventions have the potential to be more powerful and more lasting. The following is an example of much of what has been discovered that is counterintuitive. “The value of rethinking stress is not limited to people who aren’t really struggling. In fact, embracing the stress response may be even more important for those who suffer from anxiety. Here’s why: Although people who have an anxiety disorder perceive their physiology as out of control, it actually isn’t. In Jamieson’s study, and in many others, people with anxiety self-report higher physical reactivity than those without anxiety. They think their hearts are pounding precariously fast and their adrenaline is surging to dangerous levels. But objectively, their cardiovascular and autonomic responses look just like those of the non-anxious. Everyone experiences an increase in heart rate and adrenaline. People with anxiety disorders perceive those changes differently. They may be more aware of the sensations of their heart beating or the changes in their breathing. And they make more negative assumptions about those sensations, fearing a panic attack. But their physical response is not fundamentally different.” p. 125

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As complicated as we are and as complicated as the world is, when we explore a wide range of behavioral problems and health problems, it is remarkable how we keep returning to a common core. We need to understand and take into consideration how our bodies, brains, and perceptions have evolved to produce the potentials that we have including the ability to adapt to the stresses of life. With this great potential we also have constraints. Understanding how our body/brain systems work provides insight into a range of disorders including sensory integration disorders, autism, allergies, auto-immune diseases, cancer, attention deficit disorder, and learning disabilities. Wellness and what fosters wellness is at least as difficult to study as are diseases. The variables are almost countless, but this is now being done and the revelations are astounding and exciting and have the potential to facilitate greater wellness in the future.

Worried Sick

What reality are you creating for yourself?

The Effects of the Fear of Failure in Education

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The Heroism of Incremental Care

Atul Gwande is an unusually talented observer, thinker, and writer who is a surgeon. I have blogged about his books in the past. If you are interested in health and healthcare, I think that you will find his article on incremental healthcare to be intriguing. Although it is long, I think that it will hold your interest. It can be accessed through Google.

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The Heroism of Incremental Care/ The New Yorker

 

 

 

 

 

Is It All In Your Head?

 

Suzanne O’Sullivan, MD

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Suzanne O’Sullivan reveals the power of mind-body connections through the enigma of psychosomatic illness. She is a neurologist, and while the treatment of this condition falls under the purview of psychology and psychiatry, the neurologist must first prove that there is not an organic explanation for the illness, have the patient accept the diagnosis, and convince them to engage in cognitive behavioral therapy.  Pharmaceuticals are not effective. The patient has real symptoms which convince them that it is an organic disease. “It can be very difficult for a patient to accept that they suffer from a conversion disorder (a medically unexplained neurological symptom) when that assumption is based entirely on what is missing.” Psychosomatic illness threatens an individual’s image of themselves and they fear that they will be perceived as being weak.

Suzanne O’Sullivan introduces the book with a discussion of blushing. “Blushing is an instantaneous physical change seen on the surface but reflecting a feeling of embarrassment or happiness that is held inside. When it happens, I cannot control it.” This leveler helps us to be more open about psychosomatic illnesses and understand that; they are real; they are no more a weakness than is succumbing to an organic illness; the patient cannot control them; their conscious mind wants to get better; it can happen to any of us. Somatization (a bodily response to a psychological effect) is usually benign, of short duration, and does not become an illness. Examples are trembling hands, perspiration, butterflies, shortness of breath, and laughing. “A psychosomatic illness is the body’s physiological response to stress. They serve a purpose even if that purpose is not always obvious.” The stress is not recognized because the subconscious moves the stress to the body. The person feels that they have handled the stress or may not even have recognized the degree of stress.Image result for blushing

“Illness is not the same as disease. Illness is the human response to disease. It refers to the person’s subjective experience of how they feel but does not assume an underlying pathology. Illness can be either organic or psychological.” “Approximately 70% of the people referred to me with poorly controlled seizures were not responding to epilepsy treatment because they did not have epilepsy. Their seizures were occurring for purely psychosomatic reasons.” “The effect the psyche can have on the physical self has long been observed, but for all that time, scientists and doctors have also been trying and failing to understand how it occurs.”

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We cannot live without stress. Positive stress motivates us (see The Upside of Stress). It is stress that continues and that we are impotent to relieve that causes changes in our brains. To balance the stress in our lives, we must maintain our resilience. One concern that I have is that I see an increasing number of children who are anxious. We went from the extreme of everyone receiving a reward because they participated, to accelerated curricula and the majority of “play” being on organized teams. Children have little free time, supervised from afar, whose importance in development is overlooked. Children need time for unstructured play; to daydream, relax, and decompress; to solve problems of their own or with peers; to imagine; to figure out how to occupy themselves other than an addiction to electronics; to create; and to learn from errors of their own choosing. (see What If Everyone Understood Child Development and How to Raise an Adult)

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Worried Sick

Behavioral and Emotional Problems Associated With Convergence Insufficiency in Children: An Open Trial 

Welcome to Your Child’s Brain

Grit

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We can hypothesize that John Irving may have undiagnosed and untreated visual problems which contribute to his dyslexia but that is not the most important message in the following excerpt from Grit by Angela Duckworth. Our patients who have worked successfully to remediate their visual problems have some advantages over those who have found everything to be effortless to this stage in their lives. If you wonder about grit, I suggest that you read this well-written story.

“Garp was a natural storyteller.”

This is a line from John Irving’s fourth novel, The World According to Garp. Like that novel’s fictional protagonist, Irving tells a great story. He has been lauded as “the great storyteller of American literature today.” To date, he’s written more than a dozen novels, most of which have been best sellers and half of which have been made into movies. The World According to Garp won the National Book Award, and Irving’s screenplay for The Cider House Rules won an Academy Award.

But unlike Garp, Irving was not a natural. While Garp “could make things up, one right after the other, and they seemed to fit,” Irving rewrites draft after draft of his novels. Of his early attempts at writing, Irving has said, “Most of all, I rewrote everything…. I began to take my lack of talent seriously.”

Irving recalls earning a C- in high school English. His SAT verbal score was 475 out of 800, which means almost two-thirds of the students who took the SAT did better than him. He needed to stay in high school an extra year to have enough credits to graduate. Irving recalls that his teachers thought he was both “lazy” and “stupid”.

Irving was neither lazy nor stupid. But he was severely dyslexic: “I was an underdog…. If my classmates could read our history assignment in an hour, I allowed myself two or three. If I couldn’t learn to spell, I would keep a list of my most frequently misspelled words.” When his own son was diagnosed with dyslexia, Irving finally understood why he, himself, had been such a poor student. Irving’s son read noticeably slower than his classmates, “with his finger following the sentence – as I read, and I still read. Unless I’ve written it, I read whatever ‘it’ is very slowly – and with my finger.”

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Since reading and writing didn’t come easily, Irving learned that “to do anything really well, you have to overextend yourself…. In my case, I learned that I just had to pay twice as much attention. I came to appreciate that in doing something over and over again, something that was never natural becomes more second nature. You learn that you have the capacity for that, and that it doesn’t come overnight.”

Do the precociously talented learn that lesson? Do they discover that the capacity to do something over and over again, to struggle, to have patience, can be mastered – but not overnight?

Some might. But those who struggle early may learn it better.

Dr. Gary J. Williams

DrWilliams@GWilliamsFamilyEye.com

 

 

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness

Russ Roberts

Adam Smith is credited with being the founder of modern economics and many have heard of his book The Wealth of Nations which was published in 1776. But Smith also wrote the little-known book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments which was published in 1759. The author is an economist who had read The Wealth of Nations but had never seriously considered reading The Theory of Moral Sentiments until he was asked to interview a friend about the book. When Roberts read the book he was surprised to be captured by Smith’s thoughts. Smith’s thinking had such an influence on him that he wanted others to have the same experience without having to read the original text. Continue reading

Becoming a Nation of Readers

The Report of the Commission on Reading

This report was compiled from research on reading instruction and outcomes. The Commission on Reading was formed from representatives of three federal education agencies and the report was published in 1985. While we keep up with current research and new information, it is important not to forget select older volumes which contain information whose value has been proven over time. The following are some of the pearls from this publication.

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The reading teacher’s repertoire must draw upon the deepening knowledge of child development. I frequently see children who are referred for “problems” which are within the norms of development for their age but do not match the expectations of the curriculum. If their parents were doing this at their age, it would have been considered to be normal.

Mastery tests must not treat reading as a set of discrete skills when research has indicated that a closely integrated set of processes supports fluent reading. As adults it is easy to not recognize that the early stages of reading and writing require significant multitasking. Even after the discrete skills have become automatic in isolation, including a number of visual skills, rehearsal will still be necessary to develop their automatic integration.

Reading is a holistic act. A text is not so much a vessel containing information as it is a source of partial information that enables the reader to use already-processed knowledge to determine the intended meaning. (This calls into question the use of “cold reading” to assess reading ability.)

Five generalizations flow from the research of the past decade on the nature of reading:

 

    1. Skilled reading is constructive. Comprehension is highly dependent on prior knowledge and the ability to read with sufficient mastery to be free to simultaneously consider stored knowledge.
    2. Skilled reading must be fluent to free attention for the analysis of meaning.
    3. Skilled readers are strategic. They read for a purpose.  Becoming a skilled reader requires learning to sustain attention and learning that written material can be interesting and informative.
    4. Reading requires motivation. It will take most children years to learn to read well.
    5. Reading is a continuously developing skill.

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The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.

Such old-fashioned materials as chalkboards and paper and pencils can make a difference in children’s learning to read. When children who learned to read before going to school were compared to similar children who couldn’t read, the early readers were found to have greater access to chalkboards and paper and pencils and to do more writing.

Children’s proficiency in letter naming when they start school is an excellent predictor of their first- and second-grade reading achievement.

Familiar words are especially useful for teaching children letter names and letter-sound relationships, because children can learn to recognize familiar words prior to learning all the letters.

Phonics instruction should aim to teach only the most important and regular of letter-to-sound relationships, because this is the sort of instruction that will most directly lay bare the alphabetic principle. Once the basic relationships have been taught, the best way to get children to refine and extend their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences is through repeated opportunities to read. Child_reading_at_Brookline_Booksmith.jpg

Blending may seem simple to an adult who already knows how to read, but in fact it is a difficult step for many children. Until a child gets over this hurdle, learning the sounds of individual letters and groups of letters will have diminished value.

Teaching phonics is a benefit to most children who are learning to read, but the relationships between the sounds and the print are not as clear as it appears to adults who already know how to read. Implicit phonics depends on “phonemic segmentation”. This is the ability to identify separate speech sounds in spoken words. There is evidence that many young children cannot extract an individual sound from hearing it within a word. (This is also very hard for adults. We have the illusion that we can do this due to our word knowledge. How many times do we misunderstand what someone says because they did not say what we expected them to say? “Phonemic segmentation” must also be coupled with “visual segmentation” which is dependent on language arts knowledge and figure-ground skills within a crowded letters of a word.) Implicit phonics may actually presuppose what it is supposed to teach. Also see Marilyn Jager Adams in Beginning to Read.

A problem with explicit phonics is that both teachers and children have a difficult time saying pure speech sounds in isolation. All that phonics can be expected to do is help children approximate pronunciations. These must be “tried out” to determine whether recognizable words have been produced which make sense in the context. Oral reading errors provide a window into what is going on inside children’s heads as they read. Research suggests that first graders taught through an explicit phonics approach make more nonsense errors than other children.

A clear finding from research of the past decade is that young readers and poor readers of every age do not consistently see relationships between what they are reading and what they already know.

There are qualitative differences in the experience of children in high and low reading groups that would be expected to place children in low groups at a disadvantage. Children in low groups do relatively more reading aloud and relatively less silent reading. They more often read words without a meaningful context on lists or flash cards, and less often read words in stories.

An indisputable conclusion of research is that the quality of teaching makes a considerable difference in children’s learning. Studies indicate that about 15 percent of the variation among children in reading achievement at the end of the school year is attributable to factors that relate to the skill and effectiveness of the teacher. In contrast, the largest study ever done comparing approaches to beginning reading found that about 3 percent of the variation in reading achievement at the end of first grade was attributable to the overall approach of the program. Thus, the prudent assumption for educational policy is that, while there may be some “material-proof” teachers, there are no “teacher-proof materials.

How We Read

Reading Instruction in Kindergarten

Visual Factors in Reading

The Hidden Link Between Vision and Learning

The Knowledge Illusion Why We Never Think Alone

Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach

It may be disappointing to understand that we know less as individuals than we realize, but continuing to be deceived by this illusion can  lead to poor decisions and unfortunate actions. “Most things are complicated, even things that seem simple.” “Complexity abounds. If everybody understood this, our society would be much less polarized. Instead of appreciating complexity, people tend to affiliate with one or another social dogma.”

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Many of us are frustrated by how much we forget – or remember incorrectly – but “remembering everything is in conflict with what the mind does best: abstraction.” Remembering everything “would make us less successful at what we evolved to do. The mind is busy trying to choose actions by picking out the most useful stuff and leaving the rest behind.”reminder

 

In conjunction with their theme of pooled intelligence, Sloman and Fernbach explain how our thinking is embodied – not just with our own bodies but also with the people and things around us. “The fact that thought is more effective when it is done in conjunction with the physical world suggests that thought is not a disembodied process that takes place on a stage inside the head. Mental activities do not simply occur in the brain. Rather, the brain is only one part of a processing system that also includes the body (including the eyes) and other aspects of the world.” “Our bodies produce feelings to make us aware and warn us.” “In other words, the mind is not in the brain. Rather, the brain is in the mind. The mind uses the brain and other things to process information.” This is not easy to grasp when we already “know” that all thinking takes place in the brain because that is what has been understood for hundreds of years. For additional information and perspective, you may want to reference the following.

A challenging question to answer is: Why have humans evolved such large brains? Large brains are very expensive. They use a lot of energy, they make childbirth dangerous for the mother and the child, and they require a prolonged period of development. What advantage is so important to outweigh these problems? The explanation may be “that large brains are specifically suited to support the skills necessary to live in a community.” “People are built to collaborate.” “The transmission of knowledge enabled by our social brains via language, cooperation, and the division of labor accumulates to create a culture. It is one of the most important ingredients in the human success story. Human capabilities are constantly increasing, but not because individuals are getting smarter. Unlike beehives, which have operated pretty much the same way for millions of years, our shared pursuits are always growing more complex and our shared intelligence more powerful.” “The smartest among us – in the sense of being most successful – may well be those who are best able to understand others.”

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The authors spend the second half of the book “exploring how many of society’s most pressing problems stem from the knowledge illusion” and how change, particularly that triggered by technology, tends to cause us to “lose touch with what really matters.” It is easier and more comfortable to discuss issues with people with whom we agree, but “one common finding is that when people with like minds discuss an issue together, they become more polarized.” This is not informed decision-making. To probe decision-making, Sloman, Fernbach, and other researches have asked people about issues about which they have strong opinions and then probe how much they understand. Striking examples relate to the Affordable Care Act, support for military intervention in the Ukraine, and about the labeling of GMO foods. The results clearly indicate that “public opinion is more extreme than people’s understanding justifies.”non-gmo-logo-400x400

“Recognizing the limits of our understanding should make us more humble, opening our minds to other people’s ideas and ways of thinking.” “Intuition gives us a simplified, course, and usually good enough analysis, and this gives us the illusion that we know a fair amount. But when we deliberate, we come to appreciate how complex things actually are and this reveals to us how little we actually know.” “A mature electorate is one that makes the effort to appreciate a leader who recognizes that the world is complex and hard to understand.” This approach applies to all important decisions, not just voting.  The authors hope that, by helping us understand the routine pitfalls of our thinking, we can improve our decision-making.

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