Outbreak: Can You Catch a Bad Mood?

Moods are as easy to catch as the common cold. When you see someone coughing and sneezing with watery eyes, you reflexively move away from them. The same strategy is a good one to follow when faced with people in bad moods.Studies show how moods are easily passed from one person to another. Psychologists describe this phenomenon as “emotional contagion” and outline a three stage process:The first stage involves nonconscious mimicry, during which individuals subtly copy one another’s nonverbal cues, including posture, facial expressions and movements. In effect, seeing my frown makes you more likely to frown. People may then experience a feedback stage—because you frowned, you now feel sad. During the final contagion stage, individuals share their experiences until their emotions and behaviors become synchronized.Consider the mood altering experience of attending a business meeting where the leader is in a great mood or in a bad mood. The tone can run from positive and optimistic to defeatist, stressful and anxiety provoking and chances are your mood will be altered accordingly.Moods are transmitted to those around you. One of the worst things about a bad day at the office is that it doesn’t stay at the office: when negativity follows you home, it also affects the ones you love.The good news is that the opposite is true, too. Research suggests that one person’s positive feelings can spread to other members of a household. The study looked at “day-specific self esteem” of working couples and found that if one person came home with a high level of confidence about his or her performance on the job, it was more than likely that by bedtime their partner would also be feeling good about their accomplishments that day.  If one partner generally had low self-esteem and was more prone to having bad days at the office, then the “crossover” of positivity from a partner who had a good day was even more pronounced.The bottom line: a good mood is catching. Surround yourself with sunspots and don’t get too close to black holes that might suck you in.

Why I’m Prescribing a Mediterranean Diet to My Patients

When I was training to become a psychiatrist, I rarely paid attention to what my patients ate. Unless the person had an eating disorder or depression-associated weight loss, their diet did not get much airtime. I couldn’t have cared less about how many frappuccinos they drank or how many bowls of Fruit Loops they ate for breakfast.Little did I know about the link between diet and brain health. Now, nutritional psychiatry is taking off as scientists gain a better understanding of how diet affects mental health. A recent report in the highly regarded Lancet Psychiatry journal even concluded that:
The emerging and compelling evidence for nutrition as a crucial factor in the high prevalence and incidence of mental disorders suggests that diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.
Here is what we know so far: A typical Western diet high in sugar, processed food, and fatty meats is not good for your mental health. In fact, research shows a strong association between this pattern of eating and depression and anxiety. Related studies show that it also appears to cause the hippocampus—the part of the brain associated with memory and learning—to shrink.While there is no single ingredient that will put you in a better mood or prevent memory loss, a great deal of evidence suggests that following a Mediterranean diet can boost your psychological fitness. Instead of processed carbohydrates, sugar, and saturated fats, this diet consists of legumes, whole grains, fish, moderate amounts of lean meat, healthy fats like nuts and olive oil, antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, and red wine.The evidence is clear. A study of more than 10,000 healthy Spaniards found that those who closely followed a Mediterranean diet had a 30 percent reduced risk of depression. Another study specifically linked omega-3 fatty acids in fish with these benefits to the brain. As the authors wrote:
Every year, the list of correlations between certain foods and mental well-being grows: fish and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids might help fend off psychosis and depression; fermented foods such as yogurt, pickles and sauerkraut seem to ease anxiety; green tea and antioxidant-rich fruits may help keep dementia at bay.
Now I grill my patients about what they eat and literally prescribe a Mediterranean diet. The only side effects are feeling and looking good.

If You Need to Remember Something, Do This

People always say that the best way to remember something is to write it down. In college I took this advice to heart. I would take copious notes during a lecture and then recopy them afterwards. I always thought this was a pretty good strategy to commit the material to memory.Research suggests a more effective strategy to boost recall. Instead of writing something down, draw it. As the lead author of the study explains:
We pitted drawing against a number of other known encoding strategies, but drawing always came out on top. We believe that the benefit arises because drawing helps to create a more cohesive memory trace that better integrates visual, motor, and semantic information.
Drawing the information outperformed writing it down, creating mental images of it and viewing pictures of it. Indeed, a simple sketch turns out to be an excellent memory-enhancer.Fret not if you are not Picasso. The good news is that the quality of the drawings doesn’t seem to matter much. Taking four seconds to draw a rough picture is enough to gain a “huge advantage” in memory.Wish me luck drawing my “to do” list.

Are You F.A.T & Happy?

What would you think if a friend walked past you on the street and didn’t stop to say hello?  Would you be hurt because you felt she purposefully ignored you? Would you worry you had recently done something to offend her? Would you be concerned that she isn’t going to invite you to her birthday party next month?Instead of falling into a downward spiral of negative thinking that consumes you, get F.A.T. Getting F.A.T. isn’t about packing on the pounds, it’s about thinking Flexibly, Accurately and Thoroughly, all of which are linked to resilience.Alternate explanations exist for your friend’s behavior: perhaps she’d just been to the eye doctor and her eyes were dilated, perhaps she was lost in her thoughts, perhaps she just didn’t see you.In their book, The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles, Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte define resilience as the capacity to respond to adversity in healthy and productive ways. They highlight how important resilience is for wellbeing and moreover, that it can be taught.Keep in mind that there’s more to resilience than recovering from serious setbacks. The skills of resilience are as important to broadening and enriching one’s everyday life as they are to dealing with major disappointments.Our emotions and behaviors are triggered not by events themselves but how we interpret them. Gather the facts and be sure you have all the information before engaging in black and white thinking or jumping to any conclusions.I assure you, the most resilient people are F.A.T…thinkers.In the words of Darwin:
It is not the strongest of the species that survives…It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.


The Miracle Cure

An old joke captures the value of exercise perfectly:We have found the miracle cure for depression, anxiety, obesity, high blood pressure, ADHD, and more. It works instantly and effectively. Even in small doses…The one hitch?  It only works if you take it an hour after exercise.Of course the miracle cure is exercise itself.Exercise has been shown to have an immediate and positive effect on mood. Even a single “dose” of exercise—30 minutes of walking on a treadmill—has been shown to lift the mood of a patient suffering from major depression. To put this in perspective, it can take up to 8 weeks to feel the full positive effects of an anti-depressant while a walk in the park works immediately. In fact, exercise has been shown to be as effective as medication in treating depression and to have longer lasting results. Research shows that physical activity prevents depression too.  Think of it as a way to inoculate oneself against the inevitable stresses of daily life.Exercise has also been shown to provide benefits for patients with anxiety and ADHD. Moreover, physical activity optimizes learning by improving impulse control, attention, arousal and reducing learned helplessness.Exercise affects more than 20 chemicals in the brain in a positive way and may stimulate the release of endorphins and nerve growth factors which are like fertilizers for the brain. It may also protect the brain against age-related memory loss and new information emerges everyday reinforcing its benefits.In summary, the benefits of exercise are immeasurable. It’s not just about going to the gym an hour a day; the key is to build more activity into your day. Take the stairs. Get off the subway before your regular stop. Leave your house a little earlier so you can walk to work or school. It’s good for your body and your mind.
Walking is man’s best medicine.~Hippocrates

Backfire: Is the Pursuit of Happiness Making You Unhappy?

“Are you happy?” The moment someone asks you this question, you start analyzing how happy you are.  “Am I happy? Am I really happy?” you ask yourself.  Existential angst creeps in. The more you think about it, the more anxious you become.Studies show that the more we think about happiness and how to pursue it, the less likely we are to find it.Valuing happiness may be self-defeating. Leading people to value happiness more made them feel less happy.The problem may stem from the way we view happiness. The emphasis on personal happiness – like buying the best stuff and finding the best job leads to too much self-focus. As Palmer Thomson points out:No one ever died saying, ‘I’m sure glad for the self-centered, self-serving and self-protective life if lived.’Indeed, there is more to life than being happy all the time. Having a sense of meaning may be the secret sauce of a life well lived.Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided. If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need.Bottom Line: doing good is more important than feeling good.Eleanor Roosevelt said it best:Happiness is not a goal…it’s a by-product of a life well lived.

What Is The Ultimate Luxury?

The best things in life aren’t things.

-Art Buchwald

While nice things may be nice, the relentless pursuit of material goods leaves people feeling empty. More money, a faster car, a brand new dress and a bigger house don’t bring happiness. What is striking is how bad most of us are at predicting what will.The offices of Park Avenue psychiatrists are filled with people who have “everything” but feel empty inside. Philosophers and religious teachers have known this forever and research confirms it. Study after study shows that materialism is bad for wellbeing. It actually undermines happiness.The good news is that there are proven strategies to reduce materialism. In one study, a group of adolescents were asked to participate in three sessions where they learned about consumer culture. Then they were asked to think about what they value most in life such as friendship, family, giving back to the community and connections. The adolescents became less materialistic, showed greater self-esteem and were more content than those who didn’t participate in the sessions.By focusing on what was intrinsically meaningful to them, they gained perspective and were able to distance themselves from the “more is more” rat race. As the researcher commented:Intrinsic goals tend to be the ones that promote greater well-being and act as a kind of ‘antidote’ to materialistic values.In other words, when people live their lives in concert with their values, they are inoculated against the unyielding lure of luxury.Arthur Brooks says it best:

Love people, not pleasure.

A Few of My Favorite Things…This Week

Hope you enjoy!1. An awesome (not condescending or hokey) guide to meditation. No candles necessary How to Meditate2. You can have your cake & eat it too. Can't wait to dive into The Pie Life by @SamanthaEttus3. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” -Margaret MeadAnyone, anywhere can make a difference. Take action & earn #GCFestival tickets. - Global Citizen 4. In case you were losing faith in humanity, here is a dose of goodness that will have you sitting on a rainbow. You have to read it to understand what I mean. - Photo of F.S.U. Football Star Sitting With Boy Eating Alone at School Charms Internet5. Make up your mind! The Surprising Scientific Link Between Happiness And Decision Making


Angela Duckworth

Psychologist, Mom, Catalyst