In chronic pain, the pain system is locked in to a high-alert mode. One of my colleagues describes it as replacing your alarm system after a burglary, but with one so sensitive it goes off when a fly goes through the room. Mere touch may now be experienced as pain. The pain is real, it isn’t “just in the head”, but nor is there a hidden injury to fix or illness that can be cured. It’s a system that needs retuning, and that calls for participation from the body itself.
According to a new paper in the Journal of Clinical Psychology one particularly promising way that psychologists can help with this is by encouraging self-compassion: a practice of recognising one’s own suffering, accepting this is part of a shared human experience, and not over-identifying with the suffering.
Take a moment to consider how old you feel. Not your actual, biological age – but your own subjective feelings.
Abundant research during the past few decades has shown that this “subjective age” can be a powerful predictor of your health, including the risk of depression, diabetes and hypertension, dementia, and hospitalisation for illness and injury, and even mortality – better than your actual age. In each case, the younger you feel, the healthier you are.
The link probably goes in both directions. So while it’s true that ill-health may make you feel older, a higher subjective age could also limit your physical activity and increase feelings of vulnerability that make it hard to cope with stress – both of which could, independently, lead to illness. The result could even be a vicious cycle, where feelings of accelerated ageing lead you to become more inactive, and the resulting ill-health then further confirms your pessimistic views. And as I recently wrote for BBC Future, understanding this process could be essential for designing more effective health programmes.
Yannick Stephan at the University of Montpellier has led much of the work examining this phenomenon, and his latest paper, published with colleagues in the journal Intelligence, extends this understanding by revealing a surprising link with IQ. According to this research, the more intelligent we are in our late teens and early 20s, the younger we will feel in our 70s – and this may also be reflected in various markers of biological ageing.
The phenomenon of mothers gaining weight during and beyond pregnancy is well-researched and understood – much of it has to do with the hormonal changes that assist fetal growth and preparation for lactation. Less researched and recognised, other than through jokes about “dad bods”, is that many expectant fathers also gain weight, and that the pounds tend to stay on (one study found that fathers weigh, on average, 14 pounds more than childless men).
In Health Psychology Review, a team led by Darby Saxbe at the University of Southern California highlight the evidence for perinatal weight gain in fathers, and they review seven potential casual mechanisms for why it happens, which they hope will stimulate further research. The lack of empirical research on this phenomenon before now “is striking”, they write.
We could say without exaggeration that the discovery of a means of achieving full control over oneself is something of a “holy grail” for psychology. There is nothing to indicate that we are getting any closer to finding one, but recent decades have brought us a growing number of discoveries that at least partially allow us to enhance self-control mechanisms. One of them is the light which has been shed on the importance of rituals in boosting self-control. Now in a new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Allen Ding Tian and his collaborators have examined whether enacting rituals (defined as “a fixed episodic sequence of actions characterised by rigidity and repetition”) can enhance subjective feelings of self-discipline, such that rituals can be harnessed to improve behavioural self-control.
It’s well established that elite athletes have a longer life expectancy than the general public. A recent review of over 50 studies comprising half a million people estimated the athletic advantage to be between 4 and 8 years, on average. This comes as little surprise. One can easily imagine how the same genetic endowment and training necessary to develop physical prowess in sport might also manifest in physical health. Now for the first time, a study published in PLOS One (open access) shows that athletes of the mind – chess grandmasters – show the same longevity advantage as athletes of the body.
The idea that stress increases the risk of breast cancer is a persistent one, despite a number of major large-scale findings to the contrary. “Over the past 40 years, women have been exposed to strong messages about the importance of ‘thinking positively’ and reducing stress in their lives, which can add to the burden of guilt in those who develop cancer, who feel they have somehow failed”, note the authors of a new prospective study of women in Australia, published in Psycho-Oncology. Their findings suggest that neither acute nor chronic stressors recorded over a three-year period influenced the likelihood that a woman with a strong family history of breast cancer would develop the disease over the next three years.
“Our results, based on rigorous methodology, add to the growing literature providing reassurance to women at increased risk of breast cancer, who are concerned that the (often unavoidable) stressors in their lives may increase their risk of breast cancer”, the researchers said.
Johannes Eichstaedt was sitting in a coffee shop by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala when he received a slack about a tweet about a preprint. In 2015, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist and his colleagues published a headline-grabbing article linking heart disease to the language used on Twitter. They’d found that tweets emanating from US counties with high rates of heart disease mortality tended to exhibit high levels of negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, disengagement, aggression, and hate. The study, published in Psychological Science, has proven influential, already accruing over 170 citations. But three years later, the preprint authors Nick Brown and James Coyne from the University of Groningen claimed to have identified “numerous conceptual and methodological limitations”. Within the month, Eichstaedt and his colleagues issued a riposte, publishing their own preprint that claims further evidence to support their original conclusions.
As recent revelations surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have highlighted, corporations and political organisations attach a high value to social media data. But, Eichstaedt argues, that same data also offers rich insights into psychological health and well-being. With appropriate ethical oversight, social media analytics could promote population health and perhaps even save lives. That at least is its promise. But with big data come new challenges – as Eichstaedt’s “debate” with Brown and Coyne illustrates.
According to statistics published by the British Heart Foundation, we spend 76 days per year, on average, sitting. The World Health Organisation describes physical inactivity as a “global public health problem” that contributes to millions of deaths each year.
You might not be surprised to hear about the harmful health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle, but perhaps less obvious is that physical inactivity is also associated with unwelcome changes in personality over time. Previous research has documented these effects over periods of four and ten years. A new paper in the Journal of Research in Personality has extended this, finding that greater physical inactivity at baseline is associated with deterioration in personality two decades later, even after accounting for any differences in initial personality.
As the researchers, led by Yannick Stephan at Université de Montpellier, point out, there is an upside: the findings suggest that even a moderate increase in your activity levels today could have positive implications for your personality decades from now.
Changing an unhealthy habit depends a lot on your belief that you can do it, something psychologists call self-efficacy. Take smoking, for example. Your belief that you are capable of quitting will influence the likelihood you will decide to quit in the first place, the amount your smoking reduces, and your chances of staying smoke-free in the long-term.
This self-belief doesn’t come out of nowhere. Besides seeing ourselves make progress (called “mastery”), health psychologists will tell you that one of the most important inspirations is seeing others successfully make the changes that you desire. To test how true this is, Lisa Warner from the Freie Universität Berlin and her colleagues looked at the impact on smokers of having a partner whose own attempt to quit is going well. Their findings, published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, didn’t fit the expected pattern – but there’s news that co-quitting couples can help each other make a difference.
Listening to music while exercising can make a work-out feel more pleasant. But might having some control over the sound of that music have an even stronger effect? A new study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, suggests that it does. In theory, this approach (known as known as “Jymmin” – gym plus jammin’…) might help injured athletes and other rehab patients to complete beneficial, but painful, exercise programmes. As the researchers, led by Thomas Fritz at the Max Planck Institute for Human Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, note, “Physical pain can present a significant obstacle to the success of physical exercise rehabilitation, increasing negative affect and decreasing patient motivation.”