Category Archives: strategies for self-care

The neuropsychology of love

Falling for someone may be stressful in the beginning, there’s uncertainty about whether they feel the same way, the possibility of rejection, and anxiety about when and if to say those three big words.

The initial stages of falling in love INCREASES levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, in new couples, according to a study published in 2004. However, when the participants were tested 12 to 24 months later, their cortisol levels had returned to normal.

Love can potentially DECREASE stress in the long run. A study published in 2005, in Neuroendocrinology, examined the neuropsychology of those in love for over a year or longer, and found a reduction in levels of stress and overall anxiety.  Forming a bond with a partner brings about physiological changes that reduce levels of anxiety. Oxytocin, a hormone released through physical contact like hugging, kissing, and intimacy, deepens feelings of attachment towards your partner and produces sensations of contentment, calmness, and relaxation.

(Photo, San Francisco, 2015)

On Introspection

The American Psychological Association defines self awareness as “self-focused attention or knowledge.” It means paying attention to yourself. It’s knowing what’s going on in your world. Going deeper, self awareness means understanding your personality and character: your values, your relationships, and your beliefs. Self awareness includes understanding how you process your experiences. Do you like to reflect on what happens each day, or do you avoid thinking about your feelings?

The term introspection is used to describe a research technique that was first developed by the psychologist Dr. Wilhelm Wundt. Also known as experimental self-observation, Wundt’s technique involved training people to carefully and objectively as possible to analyze the content of their own thoughts. Although there are certainly pitfalls in your overall ability to fully be observant of our own thoughts, self-awareness or introspection is certainly a useful tool.

When alone time does present itself, facing it without any entertainment or diversion to occupy the mind risks anxiety, whether in its more positive or negative guises. Self reflection has sometimes been described as self-absorbed, even narcissistic, while rumination, repetitive thought patterns, is noted to be on the negative spectrum of thinking. So it’s all too easy to go from appointment to appointment, relationship to relationship, task to task, without actually knowing what you feel and think.

The neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio, whose findings about how emotion shapes decision-making skewered the centuries-old insistence that cold logic and analytic reasoning is the optimal mode of navigating challenges, has said that what we refer to as insight is really the accumulation of getting intimate with what you already know.

How do we use introspection in healthy ways? Gaining greater self awareness is a long-term process, not an overnight achievement. You do it over time by creating a practice or routine of self-reflection and introspection.

I frequently write about University of Texas psychologist Dr. James Pennebaker, who has found that taking 20 minutes a day to write expressively about painful memories, challenges, or current struggles has breathtakingly powerful effects, from improving immune function and reducing blood pressure, to a significant reduction in anxious and depressive symptoms.

Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to be helpful for introspection. With experience, meditation can allow thoughts to come and go, until it feels like a familiar ritual.

The goal of self awareness is actionable insight you can use to change your life for the better. For every activity or assessment that I offer in my practice, real life gains are the goal.  Data without pragmatic use is an intellectual exercise.  But how do you access those insights?

When to be Introspective
Move : Yoga, Cardio, Walking, or anything else of your choosing.
Meditate: Don’t worry about how it looks. Sit, walk, or lay down, however feels most natural to you.
Reflect & Journal: Jot down quick thoughts as they come to you.

I have clients keep three notebooks. One is a therapy notebook of things they want to discuss or work on, that occurred to them throughout the week. The second one is a planner: this includes work, academic, family/social, self-care, and personal things to do, all in different ink colors.  The third one is what I call the junk drawer. In this, any random thought that occurs can be written down. This helps to remove it from your head and reduces repetitive thinking, once written on paper.

Topics for Introspection
When you’re reflecting, you’re also analyzing your life. Ask yourself the tough questions, and see what answers your mind responds with. Here are a few questions I find helpful to ask:
Am I living my truth? If not, what can I do to get there?
Am I using my time wisely? What can I cut out to make more time?
What puts me on edge or makes me anxious? How can I work around this?
What puts me at ease? How can I fill my life with more of that?
Am I taking care of my body? Am I moving enough and eating foods that make me feel good?
What makes me laugh and smile? How can I invite more of this into my life?
What do I want to learn more about? Can I carve out time to start?
What can I say yes to?
What can I say no to?
Who are the people in my life who genuinely love and support me? How can I love and support them more?
And so many more.

We find time to check our email, keep up with our medical appointments, fulfill our work responsibilities. Introspection is ultimately the examination of our own emotional state, the ability to sit in silence and be comfortable with our inner most thoughts. Introspection is also our responsibility for our self; a regular scan of what’s going on inside.

Making it part of our routine is great for mental health.

How to Self Respect

I frequently write about self-love and self-compassion. The final and perhaps the most important third of the triad is self-respect.

Take time for self-care
Society puts busy people on a pedestal. It’s good to be busy, but what’s better is allowing yourself times to not be busy at all. You are not a machine, thankfully. The brain needs time to decompress so it can function at full capacity. Take that bubble bath, nap, or read or watch for leisure.

Choose partners and friends who adore you.
You know the first place all of us tend to throw self-respect out the window? Yup, you guessed it: relationships. I speak to countless people who have so much to offer but are stuck in a relationship that forces them to compromise some part of themselves and live in a state of numbing self-sacrifice or falsehood. Though scary, breaking off a relationship will be less painful than being with people who do not want to, or are incapable of giving you what you need.

Let whatever you get done today be enough.
Show self-respect means not being overly self-critical, judgmental, or restrictive. It’s so easy to chain ourselves to a to-do list and then gauge our worthiness on its completion. Practice making purposeful shifts toward self-kindness by saying to yourself as you finish one task and contemplate the next: “I could do this, or I could not. If I choose to stop now, I will allow whatever I have completed today to be enough, and I will not beat myself up for it.” I sometimes have my clients make completed or done lists, instead of to do lists. They are often astounded by how much they have accomplished, that was never acknowledged.

Surround yourself with positive energy.
You are who you surround yourself with. The people you choose to surround yourself with largely impacts your self-image and decisions. You will know it’s a positive relationship, when you walk away from an interaction, and you feel motivated, engaged, and encouraged.

Know that you are not your genes.
You could spend a lifetime untying the knots of your family life—but that’s your choice. Conversely, at any point, you can reflect on our childhood influences and declare, “This is not my story. I am not my genes.” No matter what you’ve inherited, it’s not your fate.

Apologize. But keep your self-respect.
Saying “I’m sorry” is seldom pleasant or easy to do, so if you’re going to do it, do not lose yourself. It’s important to offer a genuine level of contrition to someone you have wronged. However, belittling and diminishing yourself should not be part of the equation.

Que Sera Sera.
You must be willing to see things and people as they are. It can be painful to acknowledge that there is a problem with ourselves, our loved ones, or a situation, that cannot be fixed. Knowing when to fold is important. Continuing to struggle to fix things that cannot be fixed is not very respectful of your time and energy.

Write love letters to your body.
Our health, like everything else in our life, is a relationship. The more we pay attention to it and nourish it, the more our body thrives. Often when we consider becoming healthier, we find ourselves in front of the mirror looking at our bodies and wondering what we need to “fix.” Instead of making self-deprecation your morning ritual, stand in front of the mirror and list three things you love about yourself. Later, write them down, preferably on sticky notes. Then pick the one or two that make you feel the way you want to feel every single day and leave these love notes on your bedroom mirror, in your wallet, on the remote, or anywhere you can read them every day. Your body is your never ending partner. They deserve kudos.

Love yourself endlessly.
Being in love with someone comes with no strings attached. Love comes unconditionally. It’s necessary to apply the same mentality to your self-image. I do a visualization with my patients: imagine that you are on a gorgeous beach and you look up and you see the most beautiful person you’ve ever seen. Just like in a movie, they start coming towards you. You move towards them. You run into each others arms. You look into their eyes. It is YOU. You wrap your arms around them. It feels amazing. You are the love of your life.

Express how you feel when you’re hurt.
People can’t give you the respect you deserve if you don’t demand it of yourself. It’s not pleasant to tell someone you care about that they hurt you, but in doing so you respect yourself. If someone hurts your feelings, it’s better to say it in the moment rather than let things build up. The people that actually matter will care about your feelings. Drop the people who don’t.

Know your worth.
Your time is important. You are important. Please do not ever downplay your worth to yourself or anyone else. For example, you’re a skilled professional at what you do. By knowing your worth, you can shut down anyone who says otherwise.

Stay active.
You only have one body. It will carry you through the best and worst times, your steadfast companion. That being said, you can respect yourself by respecting your body. Staying active has benefits like releasing happy chemicals called endorphins. It also just makes you feel good in general because you can run to catch a cab, walk your dog, carry bags of groceries, travail flights of stairs, and hike with your uber fit niece, all without feeling exhausted.

Stay true to who you are.
Never water down who you are. Working on yourself is great because everyone can always improve, but not if it means changing your identity completely. Don’t stand for people who want you to diminish parts of yourself.

Define your values.
You owe yourself respect more than anything else. A way to respect yourself is by knowing who you are as a person and what you stand for. By taking the time to really reflect on what is important to you, it becomes easier to know what violates your schema. Take the time to figure out your values in order to honor them. You are your own hero.

Learn how to set boundaries.
A big part of self respect is the ability to set guidelines about how you feel and want to be treated. Respect yourself by being completely comfortable with the idea of only doing what makes you feel comfortable.

Don’t downplay emotions.
A part of respecting yourself is acknowledging that your feelings are valid. If you are sad about something, let yourself feel that way. The same goes for being angry. I have a patient who lived with someone who mocked her every time she cried. She learned not to. Medically and mentally, bottling up your emotions is unhealthy in the long-term.

Learn from mistakes without beating yourself up.
Every mistake is a lesson. If you really respect yourself, you will take notes on these lessons. It doesn’t help your self-worth by demonizing your actions. Just pick yourself up and move on with your life. Similarly, don’t allow others to hold your past transgressions over your head. First, they have no right. Most importantly, the past is past, and nothing can be gained from it except data.

Also see: The Power of the Self Hug.

The ingredients of friendship

Strong friendships are a critical aspect of most people’s emotional well-being. Psychology research indicates that close friendships are associated with greater happiness, self-esteem, goal orientation, and sense of purpose. These bonds are even associated with physical outcomes, such as lower blood pressure, decreased stress hormones, and a longer lifespan. [See Friendships Are Good For Your Mental (And Physical Health]

Friendships are a great way to learn our way in the world, explore, and find adventures, in the company of people who care about you.

Interestingly, a body of research has also found that friendships are initially formed when people find the other person to be attractive or engaging. Over time, as friendships grow, the estimation of a friend as attractive seems to also grow.

Friendship breakups can be as painful as romantic breakups, and leave us grieving, further adding to the importance of nurturing our friendships.

Dr. Degges-White, social scientist and researcher, at Southern Illinois University, has been studying friendship for many years. My review of her research has summarized the following defining characteristics of friendship.

-Friendships exist when pleasure is taken in the company of another.

-Friendship implies reciprocity and give-and-take. This is not in the sense of an immediate even exchange “economic model” of behavior, rather that support is expected to flow both ways in different forms, as needs arise for either party.

-Levels of friendship commitment vary over a lifetime, depending on the energy required by family, work, or other commitments. However, when crisis strikes, true friends can generally be counted on to offer support, regardless of inconvenience or challenges they may face to do so.

– Friendships are voluntary, and we recognize that our friends are also making a choice to engage in the relationship. The classic adage, friends are the family you choose, is supported by the research. 

– Importantly, friendships will flourish and maintain only if mutual respect exists between friends.

-Friendships may serve different needs over time.

Young adulthood: We enjoy sharing activities, interests, and create respite from our adulting responsibilities and pastimes. In sum, we enjoy having fun together.

Middle adulthood: We need friends who don’t waste our time, who challenge us to be better people, or to understand who we are without having to explain. We don’t have time to waste on superficial relationships that once might have claimed our energy.

Older adulthood: We need our friends as social supports. Our friendship circles shrink dramatically during the last stage of life and loneliness and depression can result from isolation. It’s essential that we stay involved in social support networks, either retirement communities, spiritual community (Sangha), or neighborhood groups.

Friendships are a huge part of our mental health resources.

The neuropsychology of touch

Harry Harlow was one of the first psychologists to scientifically investigate the nature of human love and affection. Through a series of controversial experiments, Harlow was able to demonstrate the importance of early attachments, affection, and emotional bonds on the course of healthy development.

His most famous experiment involved giving young rhesus monkeys a choice between two different “mothers.” One was made of soft terrycloth but provided no food. The other was made of wire but provided nourishment from an attached baby bottle.

Harlow removed young monkeys from their natural mothers a few hours after birth and left them to be “raised” by these mother surrogates. The experiment demonstrated that the baby monkeys spent significantly more time with their cloth mother than with their wire mother.  The infant monkeys went to the wire mother only for food but preferred to spend their time with the soft, comforting cloth mother when they were not eating. Harlow concluded that affection and touch were the primary force behind the need for closeness.

Humans have hugged each other since thousands of years. No one knows exactly when the first hug occurred between two human beings, but we do know that hugs have been in the human behavioral repertoire for at least several thousand years. In 2007, a team of archeologists discovered the so-called “Lovers of Valdaro” in a Neolithic Tomb near Mantua, in Italy. The lovers are a pair of human skeletons that have been buried holding each other in a tight embrace.  They have been determined to be approximately 6000 years old, so we know for sure that people already hugged each other in Neolithic times. Hugging and touch are in our DNA.

Many people are suffering from ‘skin hunger’ due to pandemic loneliness. Neuropsychology research shows that stroking a companion animal can certainly help. So can gently stroking one’s own arms and back (see ”The Power of the Self Hug”).

With gentle strokes or touch, afferent nerves, the sensory nerves that carry sensory stimuli from the physical source of touch, known as the peripheral nervous system, to our spine and brain (CNS) are activated, and release the pleasure neurotransmitters, oxytocin and dopamine.

When we are finally able to touch again, it is likely that we will be able to recover from the touch deprivation of the past year.  In the meantime,  finding ways to experience connection helps.

What can we learn from aging companion animals?

The Psychology of Aging

Like many of us, I have said goodbye to some of my most beloved companions. It inspired me to start a pet bereavement group, initially co-run with a veterinarian colleague. Over the years, it became something else, a reflection on life and our own mortality.

“Dog years” are fluid things; smaller breeds live longer than big ones. Emotionally, a domestic dog exists in a kind of perpetual adolescence, a long summer twilight of play, meals, naps, and happy routine in the company of parents who adore you. They will always be our babies.

The scientific term for this Peter Pan state is “neoteny” — when adults retain juvenile traits — and it’s one of many characteristics of older canines. Psychologist Daniel Promislow, who studies aging at the University of Washington, recently assembled scientists from various disciplines to join a Canine Longevity Consortium. With a grant from the National Institute on Aging, they’re laying the groundwork for the first national longitudinal study on aging in dogs.

Why? The researchers are exploring an audacious idea: Dogs are in many ways our mirror species. “Unlike most [animal] models used to study aging, dogs aren’t in a lab — they share the same environment we do,” Dr. Promislow writes.

Domestic dogs exhibit huge genetic variability, often eat processed food, sleep in our homes (actually on our beds) and enjoy access to humanlike health care. I have written elsewhere that American dogs and cats enjoy more healthcare, socialization, affection, comfort, and nutrition than many children the world over.

Increasingly, they also get sick and die like us: They acquire arthritis and heart disease and many of the same cancers; they grow frail, tired, and forgetful. Interestingly, in contrast to humans, dogs often do not show physical pain or distress until they have an advanced disease. Researchers at the veterinary program and med school at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech are researching why this applies to animals, and how it may be useful for human interventions. The medical definition is compression of morbidity: when significant deficits are not shown until close to the end.

Often companion animal lives are extended by expensive medical interventions. Dr. Promislow and his colleagues hope to discover what factors allow some dogs to better fend off these indignities.

The gerontologist Kenneth Doka has called the death of a pet “disenfranchised grief.” It’s a loss whose significance others don’t recognize. You post a sad Facebook update and go back to work. You speak with a couple of close friends who might understand. In general, the world wants us to go back to normal. Even though we have lost a family member.

In my group, past discussions have included what we learn from our aging pets.  An important theme has emerged:

Everything you do for a dog or cat to help them age well, you should do with them. So research and eat the best food you can afford. Go for a walk, even if it’s raining. Take a lot of naps. Keep your teeth clean and your breath fresh, so that the people you lick will not flinch. And when someone you love walks in through the door, even if it happens five times a day, go totally insane with joy.

Turning poison into medicine: Psychology and Buddhism

What’s the worst problem you have right now?

Many people are struggling with where to work, live, be; loss of home, job, business, and livelihood. Dreams. They may have watched savings diminish, prospects wither, doors close. They may be forced to address serious health problems and illness, of self and beloved others. Even without the sociopolitical landscape, it has been rightly described as an exhausting, daunting, and never ending year for most.

From the Buddhist perspective, all people are endowed with the innate ability to create value out of any situation, no matter how awful or tragic. Unlike the naive adage or idea that every cloud has a silver lining—that something positive can always be found in everything negative—the principle of changing poison into medicine explains that we can transform even the most unsettling tragedy into something that leaves us with more resources and tools. It acknowledges, integrates, and requires a face down with pain and grief.

What is your poison?
We tend to label any event “bad” that makes us suffer, feel lingering loss, and seems unsolvable. It feels like it leaves a demarcation or brand on our soul skin. It hurts.

Two concepts:
The significance of any event changes depending on the circumstances surrounding it.
The significance of any event changes depending on what we decide to do next.
The process of changing poison into medicine begins when we approach difficult experiences as an opportunity to reflect on ourselves and to strengthen and develop our courage and compassion. This does not at all invalidate or minimize the deep pain that we have experienced.

Instead, it’s an impetus for change.

How to make poison into medicine
Stages of Grieving
The five stages of grief aren’t restricted to the loss of loved ones. These stages, in general, are ones we ALL go through when attempting to process something deeply painful.

The stages are:
Shock/denial
When something bad first happens, we may be unable to process what is going on, and it can feel unreal or impossible to believe. You need time to unpack it. And there is no statute of limitations on that time.

Pain/anger
The pain of being in your situation and sense of injustice/unfairness may take over.

Bargaining
You might get lost in “what if” and “if only” statements.

Depression
You start to realize that there’s no easy way out of this, which may make you feel sad, heartbroken, and hopeless.

Acceptance
You begin to understand the situation, and accept that it’s happened/happening to you.

Other ways to transform poison into medicine
You learn to forgive
Bad situations can be eye-openers when it comes to forgiveness. You realize: You forgive other people for what they’ve done. Moreover, you understand that they are complex individuals and that there are two sides to every story. You forgive yourself for “allowing” this to happen. Plus, you either realize it isn’t your fault, or you find the parts that are your fault and learn from them.

You become your own best friend. 
In some cases, the worst situation means feeling totally on your own. It’s a terrible feeling, but it can still teach you new things and change your life.

When you only have yourself to rely on, you have two choices. You can continue to be cruel to yourself, thus removing your only form of support. Or you can be kind to yourself, bolstering your support, so you thrive. Becoming your own best friend, and treating yourself the way you’d treat someone you care about, is a hugely positive step forward in personal development. It means that, even when you’re totally alone, you’ll be fine, because you still have yourself. [Also see: The Power of the Self Hug].

With this clarity, you can better see:
The support of your friends or family
The evidence of your strength
The fact that you can learn from this bad situation

You find out what you cannot control. And what you can.

There are many things in life you cannot control, and these may be the things that led to these “worst” situations. But what about the things that you can control?

The concept of taking control over certain life events and circumstances is known as self-efficacy, and it can prevent things from spiraling out of your grasp altogether.
So take control of the small things.

You can start by:
Rearranging the furniture in your home
Personalizing your work and leisure space
Taking up a new hobby
Changing your usual routine
Reaching out to friends. And making new ones.
Trying a new style: Fashion, social, work mode, aesthetic.

You realize that you can overcome stuff
If there’s one thing a bad situation can do, it’s to show you your inner strength. Think about all the terrible circumstances you’ve gotten through and how you’ve managed to emerge unscathed.
I have patients make a list of everything accomplished, not just the ubiquitous to do list. They are often astounded at what they’ve managed to do.

You learn to ask for help
You can’t do everything on your own. Or, if you can, it may not be the healthiest or most positive way to go about it. It’s okay to need help, and it’s okay to ask for help. Other people can provide you with different perspectives that you may not be able to see.

Here are some ways you can ask for help:
Reach out to a friend, mentor, or family member
Seek help from a therapist or counselor
Find support groups, whether online or in-person
Talk to someone you trust for advice
Ask for a deadline extension from a teacher, boss, or client, if needed
Learning to ask for help can dramatically change your life. This doesn’t mean you stop being self-reliant. It means you become secure enough in yourself that you’re comfortable seeking assistance when you need it. You learn to practice positive coping mechanisms, in the face of difficult events.

A few examples of positive coping mechanisms are:
Meditation
Exercise (even simple, gentle kinds)
Expressions through art, like writing, painting, dance, or singing
Watching movies or shows
Reading books
Pampering yourself with a self-care day
Cooking
Sleeping
Time spent in nature
We are natural alchemists, and life is our Laboratory.
Taking the poison and making it into medicine = gold.

How to ask for help without feeling weird

‘I Have Your Back’

Reaching out for support is a skill we’re somehow expected to know, yet it’s never taught and rarely modeled for us. When you need help -no matter the kind of help you need, or the person you need it from -to simply state “Can you help me?” can be fraught with tension.

A seemingly simple request for help can bring huge implications with it. You may have been raised in a family where asking for help, or letting others know that you need support, was considered a sign of weakness and was frowned upon for suggesting a lack of privacy regarding personal difficulties.

Asking family members, colleagues, friends, community, and partners for help may reflect a larger cultural dynamic of communication and give-and-take.

Saying, “Can you help me?” speaks powerfully to an instinctive desire to be of service to other people and to receive reciprocal attention. But “Can you help me?” also makes you vulnerable.

What I say to patients: please practice asking for help.
For many, it’s a new activity, and it feels rusty, like anything novel.  Yet, so many people have recently lost their livelihood, had physical health problems, financial hardship, and even loss of home and identity. More than ever, asking for help is an art form that we need. As a society, we don’t always have the experience to ask for help. In my belief, that needs to change, but requires self compassion and practice.

Where to start:
1. Make a list of what you need help with: particular errands, chores, some cooking, walking the dog, getting food or groceries, yard work, job recommendations, assistance with letter or email writing, changing filters, moving furniture, tech support, maybe even a shoulder to cry on.

2. Write down the names of friends, colleagues, and relatives who have offered to help in the past.

3. Match people with tasks based on their interests, their strengths, their time flexibility and your comfort level with them, given the intimacy of the particular task. One friend may really enjoy cooking, another may check in on you via regular texts, another might upgrade your computer, or walk your dog.

4. Pick just one thing off the list and contact the person you’ve chosen. Be direct. See the next few points, below.

5. I always talk about timing and dosage. If you’re not sure whether or not it is a good time, just ask. You can say, “I’ve love to ask for your help with something. Is there a time that’s good for you to talk?”

6. Don’t be defensive. Instead, say what you can’t do.
Instead of saying, “I need to add a few graphic elements for a major key point power point presentation, say, “I’m concerned a few of my slides for my seminar look terrible.” You don’t have to emphasize how ‘important’ you are. Just ask for the help that you need.

7. Show respect. Without actually saying it, you’ve already said, “You know more than I do.” You’ve said, “You can do what I can’t.” You’ve said, “You have experience (or talent or knowledge) that I don’t have.”

Learning is not diminishing yourself.

8. Show trust. You’re vulnerable. You admitted to a weakness.And you’ve shown the other person that you trust them with that knowledge. You’ve already said, “I trust you.”

9. Show you’re willing to listen. Instead of saying exactly how the other person should help you, you give them the freedom to decide.

By showing you respect and trust other people and by giving them the latitude to freely share their expertise or knowledge, you don’t just get the help you think you want. You get more.

10. Be grateful. Acknowledge the help you received. Even though you might feel embarrassed that you needed help, don’t pretend like it never happened. Directly acknowledge that you appreciate what the other person did for you.

11. Be sincere. When someone is helping you, it’s okay to be a little bit vulnerable. The other person might appreciate knowing that they are genuinely helping you during a difficult time.

12. Gain credibility by helping others. People will be more likely to agree to help you if you have been known to help others. Build a reputation as a helpful person. You will draw others to you who share that same sentiment.

The Science of Compassion

In my doctoral studies, I had the honor of working on a research study on conjugal bereavement with Dr. Dacher Keltner. Dr. Keltner, in addition to prolific work in a wide range of areas, has developed the science of compassion and empathy into a multidisciplinary field. In short, the study I co-authored found that in a study of individuals who had lost a long-term partner, and who ultimately showed greater psychological health over a five-year span after the loss, were those who received ongoing empathy and social support in response to their vulnerability, as the primary variable related to mental health and adjustment.

(Bonanno, G. A., Siddique, H. I., Keltner, D., & Horowitz, M. J. (1996). Correlates and consequences of dispositional repression and self-deception following the loss of a spouse. The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC).

Dr. Keltner runs a compassion-based research studies program at UC Berkeley. He writes prolifically about the importance of compassion for psychological health, social justice, and even the survival of our species.

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.

While cynics may dismiss compassion as touchy-feely or new age-y, neuropsychologists have started to map the biological basis of compassion, suggesting a deeper evolutionary purpose. This research has shown that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to care for other people.

Compassion makes us feel good: Compassionate action activates pleasure circuits in the brain, and compassion training programs, even very brief ones, strengthen brain circuits for pleasure and reward and lead to lasting increases in self-reported happiness.

Being compassionate—tuning in to other people in a kind and loving manner—can reduce risk of heart disease by boosting the positive effects of the Vagus Nerve, which helps to slow our heart rate. A recent study found that people who have a greater level of empathy live 9 to 10 years longer than others, controlling for other factors. 

One compassion training program at Stanford has found that it makes people more resilient to stress; it lowers stress hormones in the blood and saliva and strengthens the immune response. Compassion training may also help us worry less and be more open to our own and others’ negative emotions. In short, people who are more compassionate tend to be less avoidant of the range of emotions.

Compassion could improve our mental health: One research review found that practicing compassion meditation improved participants’ emotional life, positive thinking, relationships, and empathy. Brain scans during loving-kindness meditation, which directs compassion toward suffering, suggest that, on average, compassionate people are happier.

Practicing compassion could make us more altruistic. In turn, it may also help us overcome empathic distress and become more resilient in the face of others’ suffering. Too often, we hear people say, I can’t watch the news because it’s just too much for me. Instead, the practice of compassion makes people more able to tolerate the pain of others, and yet provide support.

Compassion helps make caring parents: Brain scans show that when people experience compassion, their brains activate in neural systems known to support parental nurturance and other caregiving behaviors.

Compassion helps us be better friends and partners: Compassionate people are more optimistic, forgiving, and supportive when communicating with others.

Compassion helps make better doctors: Medical students who train in compassion feel less depressed and lonely, and avoid the typical declines in compassion that sometimes happen during medical school.

Employees who receive more compassion in their workplace see themselves, their co-workers, and their organization in a more positive light, report feeling more positive emotions like joy and contentment, and are more committed to their jobs. A compassionate workplace culture is linked to less burnout, greater teamwork, and higher job satisfaction.

Compassionate people are more socially adept, making them less vulnerable to loneliness; loneliness has been shown to cause stress and harm the immune system.

Compassion is contagious. According to Dr. Keltner’s “the greater good project”, based out of UC Berkeley, compassionate behavior rubs off on other people.

Is Crying Healthy?

Client: please teach me how not to cry.
Me: what would happen if you did?
Him: it’s not acceptable. 

Crying is a natural response humans have to a range of emotions, including sadness, grief, joy, anger, and frustration. It is not unusual to cry, and both sexes cry more than many people may assume. In the United States, women reportedly cry an average of 3.5 times per month and men cry an average of 1.9 times a month. This is likely to be under reported. According to neuropsychology, there are a number of benefits to being able to shed tears.

It can have a soothing effect
Self-soothing is when people regulate their own emotions, calm themselves, and learn to reduce their own distress. A 2014 study found that crying may have a direct, self-soothing effect- crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which helps people relax. Crying doesn’t only happen in response to something sad. Sometimes people cry when they are moved, happy, scared, angry, or stressed. It may help to restore emotional homeostasis- your body’s way to recover from experiencing strong emotion.

It helps ameliorate pain
Crying for long periods of time actually releases oxytocin and endorphins. These natural feel-good chemicals can help ease both physical and emotional pain. Oxytocin can give you a sense of calm or well-being. It’s another example of how crying is a self-soothing action.

It may help people receive support from others
As well as helping people self-soothe, crying can help people get support from others around them. When I was an undergraduate, I did developmental psychology research at a pediatric ward, observing the behaviors of premature babies. The actual crying of the babies elicited a caring and attachment based response in most caregivers. 

Enhances mood
Crying may help lift people’s spirits and make them feel better. As well as relieving pain, oxytocin and endorphins can help improve mood. This is why they are often known as “feel good” chemicals.

Releases toxins and relieves stress
When humans cry in response to stress, their tears contain a number of stress hormones and other chemicals. Research indicates that crying could reduce the levels of these chemicals in the body, such as cortisol, which could, in turn, reduce stress.

Crying aids sleep
A preliminary study in 2015 found that crying can help babies sleep better. Whether crying has the same sleep-enhancing effect on adults is yet to be comprehensively researched. There might be something to the old adage of crying yourself to sleep. 

Fights bacteria
Crying helps to kill bacteria and keep the eyes clean as tears contain a fluid called lysozyme, that is a natural cleanser. A 2011 study found that lysozyme in tears has significant antimicrobial properties.

Improves vision
Basal tears, which are released every time a person blinks, help to keep the eyes moist and prevent mucous membranes from drying out. The lubricating effect of basal tears helps people to see more clearly. When the membranes dry out, vision can become blurry. Crying actually helps with clarity. 

Embolden Psychology
Embolden

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

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