Tag "#Depression"

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Stress of child abuse impacts the physical growth and maturation of adolescents

© Roman Bodnarchuk / FotoliMaltreatment can affect a child’s psychological development. New research indicates that the stress of abuse can impact the physical growth and maturation of adolescents as well.While it has long been known that maltreatment can affect a child’s psychological development, new Penn State research indicates that the stress of abuse can impact the physical growth and maturation of adolescents as well.

Jennie Noll, director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network and professor of human development and family studies, and Idan Shalev, assistant professor of biobehavioral health, found that young girls who are exposed to childhood sexual abuse are likely to physically mature and hit puberty at rates 8 to twelve months earlier than their non-abused peers. Their results were published recently in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

“Though a year’s difference may seem trivial in the grand scheme of a life, this accelerated maturation has been linked to concerning consequences, including behavioral and mental health problems and reproductive cancers,” said Noll.

The body is timed so that physical and developmental changes occur in tandem, assuring that as a child physically changes, they have adequate psychological growth to cope with mature contexts. “High-stress situations, such as childhood sexual abuse, can lead to increased stress hormones that jump-start puberty ahead of its standard biological timeline,” Noll explained. “When physical maturation surpasses psychosocial growth in this way, the mismatch in timing is known as maladaptation.”

In the past, there have been studies loosely linking sexual abuse to maladaptation and accelerated maturation, but the longitudinal work completed by Noll and her team has been the most conclusive and in-depth to date, beginning in 1987 and following subjects throughout each stage of puberty.

Controlling for race, ethnicity, family makeup, obesity, socioeconomic status and nonsexual traumatic experiences, the researchers compared the pubescent trajectories of 84 females with a sexual abuse history and 89 of their non-abused counterparts. Working closely with nurses and Child Protective Services, the subjects were tracked from pre-puberty to full maturity based on a system known as Tanner staging.

Tanner staging is a numeric index of ratings that corresponds with the physical progression of puberty. The study’s researchers focused on breast and pubic hair development as two separate mile markers for pubescent change. Subjects were placed somewhere from one (prepubescent) to five (full maturity) on the Tanner index and their Tanner number and age were mapped out and recorded over time.

“We found that young women with sexual abuse histories were far more likely to transition into higher puberty stages an entire year before their non-abused counterparts when it came to pubic hair growth, and a full 8 months earlier in regards to breast development,” Noll stated. “Due to increased exposure to estrogens over a longer period of time, premature physical development such as this has been linked to breast and ovarian cancers. Additionally, early puberty is seen as a potential contributor to increased rates of depression, substance abuse, sexual risk taking and teenage pregnancy.”

The researchers believe they were able to accurately rule out other variables that may have aided in accelerated puberty, pinpointing child sexual abuse and the stress hormones associated with it as a cause for early maturation in young girls. Their findings add to the body of work highlighting the role of stress in puberty, and it is the hope that the research will lead to increased preventative care and psychosocial aid to young women facing the effects of early maturation.

Journal Reference: Megan K. Maas, Jennie G. Noll. A Person-Centered Approach to Online Sexual Experiences of Female Adolescents: The Role of Maltreatment. Journal of Adolescent Health, 2017; 60 (2): S22 DOI: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2016.10.062

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Why a Bad Mood Could be a Good Thing

Five reasons why the quest for constant happiness is misguided.

Like many seekers of happiness, I once aspired to feel good as much as possible. There’s probably a part of everyone that would prefer to avoid life’s more difficult, or even mundane, feelings—and self-help books assure us that we can, if only we adopt the right attitude.Yet most of us know that perpetual joy is not a practical goal—and recent research is starting to suggest that it may actually be a harmful one. Scientists are discovering that feel-good states can be detrimental to our problem-solving, judgment, morality, and empathy in the moment.The upshot? Context matters.On the whole, it’s absolutely beneficial to be someone for whom feeling good comes easy, who can appreciate a good meal, connect warmly with others, and dream up sunny possibilities for the future. But our whole spectrum of different feelings, from anger to elation, evolved for a reason: to help us confront and handle challenges to survival. There are times in life when feeling positive won’t help—and could even hurt.1. When you’re working on critical reasoning tasksResearch suggests that positive feelings can help us be more productive at work overall and more adept at creative tasks, particularly those that involve brainstorming responses and ideas. But a positive mood isn’t conducive to the best performance on certain analytical tasks.In a 1989 study, researchers induced a positive mood in half the participants by either giving each of them $2 or showing them a funny video. Then, everyone read an editorial they disagreed with—except some editorials contained strong, thoughtful arguments, and others contained weak arguments.Under time pressure, the amused participants were equally persuaded by the strong and weak arguments, couldn’t remember as many of the points made, and relied on shortcuts more in their evaluations (whether the author was a scholar or not) compared to the control, non-amused group. (When amused participants had more time, these patterns disappeared: They read for longer, and then they were more likely to be persuaded by strong arguments, remembered more details, and didn’t tend to rely on shortcuts.)In a 1995 study, a group of around 60 undergrads solved syllogisms—logic problems that ask you to deduce conclusions from statements like “All A are B” and “Some B are C.” Again, a group that had been induced to feel amused performed worse. They spent less time working on the syllogisms and drew fewer diagrams to help solve them. They also gave riskier “all” or “none” answers (rather than “some”), perhaps indicating that they were overoptimistic about their problem-solving abilities.The authors of a different study from 1994 offered this interpretation:“Happiness is a kind of safety signal, indicating that there is no current need for problem solving. … Unhappy people will think more deeply about their social environment (in an effort to solve their problems), whereas happy people can contentedly coast on cruise control, not bothering to think very deeply about surrounding events unless they impinge directly on their well-being.”A 2000 study complicates the picture a bit, though. Here, students read moral dilemmas and had to pick the best arguments to solve them; their performance was rated more highly if they chose arguments that were more principled and abstract, rather than concrete and simple. In this situation, amused people took longer and performed worse. But this wasn’t always the case: When students imagined themselves in the moral dilemma, or when the moral dilemma was serious and disturbing, involving war or racism, the amused students performed just as well as those in a neutral mood.In the end, the type and even the content of the task we’re working on matter. For some parts of the work we do, particularly tasks that involve logical reasoning and critical thinking, positive emotions may not be the best helper. In other words, don’t expect yourself to feel joyful proofreading a document or formatting a spreadsheet; serious focus may not be pleasant, but it may be the optimal mood for certain tasks.2. When you want to judge people fairly and accuratelyCognitive psychologists classify stereotyping as a form of “heuristic processing”: using general knowledge about a group to efficiently make predictions about individual members. In this sense, stereotyping is a kind of superficial thinking—and people in a good mood may be prone to it.In a 1994 study, participants were asked to make judgments about student misconduct; some had been induced to feel good by remembering and writing about a happy event from their past. The researchers were trying to find out if participants feeling good would make more stereotyped judgments: judging the Latino student guilty of assault or the track-and-field athlete guilty of cheating.And so they did. (Notably, researchers were able to overcome this bias by telling happy participants that they would be held accountable for their judgments and should be able to justify them—effectively increasing their motivation to make good judgments with external accountability, and eliminating stereotypical reasoning in the process.)People feeling amused also made more stereotypical judgments in a 2000 study: Here, they were more likely to (incorrectly) identify African-American-sounding names as belonging to criminals or basketball players. They didn’t make the same mistakes with European-sounding names. Participants in a neutral mood weren’t as likely to fall back on stereotypes.However, other research has shown that white people in a happy mood show less implicit bias toward African American faces—so, again, the effects may be complex. Perhaps it matters whether we come face to face with the people we’re judging, where a happy mood may help dampen our fear response to unfamiliar faces.In any case, it’s still true that people who are in a good mood are sometimes more likely to jump to conclusions about others—and less likely to consciously correct for any stereotypical notions they harbor.3. When you might get taken advantage ofThe 2000 study also found that feel-good participants were prone to applying European American names to politicians—a (theoretically) positive bias.If feeling good inclines us to see certain people in a positive light, does that mean it might make us more likely to be manipulated? Maybe.In a 2008 study, nearly 120 students were induced to feel amused, neutral, or sad (by watching a comedy video, a nature documentary, or a film clip about cancer). Then, they watched interrogation videos where other students lied or told the truth about stealing a movie ticket. Overall, the negative-mood group was better at detecting deception than the neutral or positive groups, correctly identifying the liars more often.Researchers believe this is because a negative mood makes us process information in more detailed, systematic ways, and also makes us more likely to recall other negative information (like when our roommate lied about stealing our Pringles).People intuitively seem to realize this: When we express high levels of happiness, research suggests, we are perceived as more naive and are more likely to be targets of exploitation than when we express moderate happiness. This explains why we wait for people to be in a good mood before we ask for favors, hoping that they won’t be as critical and careful in considering our request.4. When there’s temptation to cheatIn some cases, feeling good may also compromise our morality.In a 2013 study, 90 students were induced to feel either positive or neutral by watching clips from a cartoon or something resembling a screensaver. Then, they were instructed to complete a crossword-puzzle-type task, grade their own work with an answer sheet, and compensate themselves 50 cents for each correct answer. Although the worksheets appeared to be anonymous, invisible ink let the researchers figure out who was honest and who wasn’t—and the amused group stole more money than the neutral one.In surveys, the amused group reported being more morally disengaged—more apt to come up with justifications for immoral actions without judging themselves harshly. In this case, for example, they might think, “I’m not getting paid enough for this boring experiment, and I could have found more words if I tried harder.”Interestingly, these effects disappeared when the researchers put mirrors in their workspace, making them more self-aware.“Although conventional wisdom would suggest that happy people are less likely than unhappy people to be dishonest, our work suggests that anyone who buys into this simplistic cliché might be blindsided by the stealth behind the smile,” the researchers write.5. When you’re empathizing with sufferingResearch suggests that being happier in general makes us kinder and more generous. But people who try to feel good all the time, at all costs, can miss some opportunities to connect with others.A 2014 study, for example, found that positive people less accurately empathize with certain negative emotions. Over 120 young adults watched four videos where people described good or bad events in their own lives (e.g., winning a scholarship or having a dispute with a landlord). During the videos, the participants continuously rated how they believed the storyteller was feeling on a scale of one to nine, changing their rating any moment they sensed an emotional shift. Those ratings were compared to the storytellers’ ratings of their own feelings over the course of the video.In general, positive participants—those who reported experiencing positive emotions more in general—were more confident in their empathic skills but weren’t actually any better at identifying the storytellers’ emotions than other participants.In fact, when the storyteller was describing a high-intensity negative event, like the death of a parent, positive people were less accurate than their peers. For whatever reason, they seemed unable or unwilling to engage with such difficult emotions.“It perhaps takes more sacrifice to ‘drop down’ and focus on another person’s high-intensity negative emotions, and this may be particularly difficult to do” for positive people, the researchers explain.If there’s anyone in your life with inveterate positivity, you’ve probably experienced something similar. When I share my anxiety or sadness with a hyper-positive friend of mine, he usually insists that the situation doesn’t merit despair, or reassures me that everything will turn out okay—neither of which make me feel better (or understood).Should we give up on feeling good?Clearly, while feeling good does feel good, it doesn’t always bring us the success and connection we desire. It doesn’t seem ideal in all situations for all outcomes, meaning—as evolutionary psychologists could have already told us—that other, less-blissful feelings serve a purpose.Indeed, according to a survey of more than 35,000 people, those who reported high levels of positive emotion weren’t as protected against depression as those with high emodiversity—those who experienced many positive and negative emotions, from awe and amusement to anger and sadness.And that’s another point worth making: “Feeling good” doesn’t always refer to the same feeling. Much of the research focused on amusement, induced by watching a cartoon or a standup comedian. And none of the studies looked at warmer, more interpersonal feelings like love and compassion.In a quest for more happiness, I once tracked my mood every hour for a month, hoping to identify the downers in my life and try to eliminate them. But instead, I came away from that experiment a little less concerned about my negative moods—because they never lasted! Each hour brought a new feeling with a different cause, and I realized I didn’t have to stress so much.Similarly, this research might help you relax about yesterday’s bad mood—and give you a greater appreciation for all sorts of feelings.
 Related Stories‘Special Snowflake’ My Ass: Why Identity Labels MatterWhy so Serious? The Untapped Value of Positive PsychologyYou Might Be Surprised Where the Leading Areas of Drug Overdose Are in the U.S.

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The sounds of nature physically changes our mind and bodily systems helping us relax

When listening to natural sounds, brain connectivity reflects an outward-directed focus of attention; when listening to artificial sounds, the brain connectivity reflects an inward-directed focus of attention, similar to states observed in anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.The gentle burbling of a brook, or the sound of the wind in the trees can physically change our mind and bodily systems, helping us to relax. New research explains how, for the first time.

Researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) found that playing ‘natural sounds’ affected the bodily systems that control the flight-or-fright and rest-digest autonomic nervous systems, with associated effects in the resting activity of the brain. While naturalistic sounds and ‘green’ environments have frequently been linked with promoting relaxation and wellbeing, until now there has been no scientific consensus as to how these effects come about. The study has been published in Scientific Reports.

The lead author, Dr Cassandra Gould van Praag said, “We are all familiar with the feeling of relaxation and ‘switching-off’ which comes from a walk in the countryside, and now we have evidence from the brain and the body which helps us understand this effect. This has been an exciting collaboration between artists and scientists, and it has produced results which may have a real-world impact, particularly for people who are experiencing high levels of stress.”

In collaboration with audio visual artist Mark Ware, the team at BSMS conducted an experiment where participants listened to sounds recorded from natural and artificial environments, while their brain activity was measured in an MRI scanner, and their autonomic nervous system activity was monitored via minute changes in heart rate. The team found that activity in the default mode network of the brain (a collection of areas which are active when we are resting) was different depending on the sounds playing in the background.

When listening to natural sounds, the brain connectivity reflected an outward-directed focus of attention; when listening to artificial sounds, the brain connectivity reflected an inward-directed focus of attention, similar to states observed in anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. There was also an increase in rest-digest nervous system activity (associated with relaxation of the body) when listening to natural compared with artificial sounds, and better performance in an external attentional monitoring task.

Interestingly, the amount of change in nervous system activity was dependant on the participants’ baseline state: Individuals who showed evidence of the greatest stress before starting the experiment showed the greatest bodily relaxation when listening to natural sounds, while those who were already relaxed in the brain scanner environment showed a slight increase in stress when listening to natural compared with artificial sounds.

The study of environmental exposure effects is of growing interest in physical and mental health settings, and greatly influences issues of public health and town planning. This research is first to present an integrated behavioural, physiological and brain exploration of this topic.

Artist Mark Ware commented, “Art-science collaborations can be problematic, often due to a lack of shared knowledge and language (scientific and artistic), but the team at BSMS has generously sought common ground, which has resulted in this exciting and successful outcome. We have plans to continue collaborating and I am keen to explore how the results of this work might be applied to the creation and understanding of time-based art (installations, multimedia performance, and film) for the benefit of people in terms of wellbeing and health.”

Journal Reference: Cassandra D. Gould van Praag, Sarah N. Garfinkel, Oliver Sparasci, Alex Mees, Andrew O. Philippides, Mark Ware, Cristina Ottaviani, Hugo D. Critchley. Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7: 45273 DOI: 10.1038/srep45273