Self-Control and the Concept of Delayed Gratification

When something appealing is presented to us, do we tend to jump right in with both feet, or do we weigh the options so as to determine best outcome? The Stanford Marshmallow experiment was a (late 1960’s) study in which children were placed in a room with a marshmallow and told that if they could wait for a short while before eating it, they will get an extra snack as a reward.

Watching this 4 minute YouTube video is a replication of the same experiment:

It is very interesting to see which children will patiently wait, cute to see how many will lick it or nibble it, and how many will go ahead and eat it.

Essentially, this experiment was about self-control and our ability to wait for something versus a need to be instantly gratified. Self-control is really about being able to regulate our emotions, thoughts and behaviours. If we have a good sense of self-regulation, we tend to be able to not only use our rational brain to weigh in on our decisions, we also have faith that waiting will bring a just reward.

It would seem then, that being conscientious of the bigger picture is something we can lean into when the “treat” is right in front of us. 🙂

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What is the Vagus Nerve and Why is it Important?

In an article entitled “Science Confirms That the Vagus Nerve Is Key to Well-being” by Markham Heid and featured on elemental, we read about the vagus nerve and its importance to our overall emotional health. Paraphrased: “The vagus nerve is one of twelve cranial nerves, (picture it leaving the brain, like a set of roots, connecting to our heart, our guts, our immune system and many other organs) with it being the nerve that governs the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps control the body’s relaxation responses. In simple terms, heightened vagal activity counteracts the stress response.”

So what does this mean exactly? Here are the highlights:

  • “The sympathetic nervous system is fight or flight, while the parasympathetic nervous system is more chill out,” says Stephen Silberstein, MD, a professor of neurology and director of the Headache Center at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals.”
  • “Silberstein says that heightened vagal activity slows heart rate and also switches off inflammation, in part by triggering the release of immune system calming chemicals.”
  • “Pick almost any common medical condition that’s made worse by stress or inflammation — everything from arthritis to inflammatory bowel disease — and there’s research showing that vagus nerve stimulation can help treat it or relieve its symptoms.”
  • “More and more, we’re learning how critical vagal activity is to attention and mood,” says Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.”

The article goes on to talk about how we can heighten our vagal activity; including massage, yoga, physical touch, meditation, deep breathing – essentially any activity that helps to elicit our relaxation response will increase vagal activity; thereby reducing stress and the inflammation that tends to come along with it. 🙂

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An Owl or a Lark?

We all know about the importance of sleep; approximately 70% of us will have what is called a normal sleep pattern based on our internal clock, known as our circadian rhythm.

There are times however, when our circadian rhythm works at a different pace and we can either have a delayed sleep phase, in which we are falling asleep 3 or 4 hours delayed (night owl) or an advanced sleep phase, which is characteristic of waking up 3 or 4 hours earlier than the norm (morning lark.)

Sleep Habits, is a website that features many articles on sleep. Paul Jordan, author of “Morningness Eveningness Questionnaire – Are you a Night Owl or a Morning Lark?” has this to say about the importance of knowing your sleep pattern:

“Knowing whether you’re a night owl, morning lark or neither can be worked towards your advantage. Night owls are more productive during the night, where as morning larks are more productive during the morning. By scheduling high intensity tasks at your peak times you can effectively get more done. If you have flexible work commitments you may find it useful to either shift your sleep timing forwards or backwards to best take advantage of your most productive times.” 

Knowing where we land in terms of our own typical sleep pattern can allow us to make adjustments; allowing us to optimize our best sleep and as a consequence, feel refreshed and productive.

If you would like to take the quiz, follow the link:

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Music Works its Magic on Our Mental Health

Putting on my ‘dance music’ play list is a must when I clean the house; ‘Jazz’ when I am cooking in the kitchen, and ‘Good Mood Music’ when on a road trip. We can all attest to the powerful effect that music has on us – it can uplift us when we are feeling blue, it can accompany us through our daily tasks, it has the ability to relax us.

In a recent article entitled “Music takes 13 minutes to ‘release sadness’ and 9 to make you happy, according to new study” by Helena Asprou and featured on Classic fm, we read about a study that was conducted at the British Academy of Sound Therapy (BAST), in which participants noted that the use of music helped them to relax, to feel happier, to process sad feelings and to concentrate. I quote:

“The best music for relaxation had a slow tempo, simple melody and no lyrics, with an optimum listening time of 13 minutes – and many benefits were reported, including ‘decreased muscle tension, negative thoughts disappearing, feeling peaceful and contented and being able to sleep better. Meanwhile, only nine minutes of music (mostly songs with a driving rhythm, fast tempo and positive lyrical content) is required to make people feel uplifted. An impressive 89 percent had improved energy levels, 65 percent laughed more and others felt more in control of their lives or able to ‘take on anything’ – an encouraging result for medical professionals looking for new ways to treat patients with mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.”

We most likely can all confirm that we have experience with music that echoes this study’s results. This article is a lovely reminder that in order to allow music to work its magic on our emotional health, we have to consciously use it; making sure our playlists are full and we have built them into our daily routine. 🙂

To read the full article (they include a lovely summarized chart):

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A Promising Study: The Effects of Cannabis on the Teenager’s Brain

I often sit with young people in my office who are quick to point out the positive effects of smoking pot. Pretty mired in their opinion, my caution to them always comes with amount of use. Smoking pot socially looks a whole lot different than smoking it in a chronic way; any time that we are relying on an outside substance to manage our emotional health, we move to dysfunction and not to growth. 

In an article entitled “Halifax researcher studies how cannabis affects brain function in young adults” by Aly Thomson and featured on CBC News, we meet Dr. Philip Tibbo, a professor of psychiatry, who is conducting a study with researchers at Western University in London, Ont. It involves 180 people in both provinces between 18-35 who use cannabis to varying degrees.

Tibbo remarks “Each area of the brain doesn’t work independently — it’s all interacting. It’s very complex. If you have more dysfunctional connections, the brain is not working the way that it should be.”

“What I usually say clinically is if you’re going to be smoking, you’re doing it because it’s supposed to be a pleasurable experience,” he said.
“But if you’re smoking pot and you’re getting a bit more paranoid, or you’re feeling a little bit more sketchy, well then perhaps there’s some vulnerability there to have negative outcomes, and is that because of the effects of cannabis on your brain white matter? He said he hopes the study will eventually arm adolescents and young adults with more information to make informed decisions about cannabis use.”

In a similar article entitled “Your brain on cannabis: Halifax researcher probes effects on white matter, behaviour” by John McPhee and featured on The Telegram, Tibbo (who treats teenagers and young adults with significant psychiatric disorders such as early phase psychosis) notes:

“I figure about 80 per cent of my patients have some exposure to cannabis; actually about 25 to 35 per cent would meet criteria for a cannabis use disorder, which can have very significant negative outcomes on their mental health.”

Bottom line? When smoking pot, it is best to proceed with caution.

To read the first article:

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Walking and How it Can Benefit Us

I have written similar posts to this one about the benefits of walking – but it bears repeating. In an article entitled “How 15 Minutes of Walking A Day Can Change Your Body” featured on Higher Perspective, we read:

“Exercise buys you three to seven additional years of life. It is an antidepressant, it improves cognitive function, and there is now evidence that it may retard the onset of dementia.” – Sanjay Sharma, professor of inherited cardiac diseases in sports cardiology at St. George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in London.

In addition to listing health benefits, the article included benefits related to our emotional health:

  • It reduces pain and enhances mobility.
  • It improves cognitive performance.
  • It improves mood.

Although walking at a fair pace is probably the most beneficial, sometimes our mobility issues or chronic pain tends to impede the process. Walking at your own pace or at what you can handle will still prove to be beneficial; especially if you can get outside in nature. Two natural mood boosters, rolled into one 🙂

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Chronic Pain and the Link to Emotions

In an article entitled “Chronic pain can change the way your brain processes emotion, scientists find” by Sophie Scott and Mary Lloyd and featured on ABCNews, we read about a group of Australian researchers who have made an interesting discovery between chronic pain and compromised emotional processing:

“Associate professor Sylvia Gustin, found patients with chronic pain had lower levels of a substance called glutamate, a key chemical messenger between brain cells that helps regulate emotion. “[It] means their brain cells can no longer communicate properly and therefore their ability to process positive emotion is jeopardised,” Gustin said.” 

The report goes on to say: “As a result, people in chronic pain can have personality changes where they are “prone to feeling tired, unmotivated and constantly worrying on a daily basis”, she said. Researchers found the greater the decrease in glutamate, the more chronic pain sufferers showed fearfulness, pessimism, fatigue, and sensitivity to criticism.”

People who live with chronic pain often report having a comorbid condition such as depression and/or anxiety. It would stand to reason given that living with chronic pain puts your body and mind in the automatic position of trying to manage pain symptoms. Chronic pain also puts you in a state of limbo, as those who suffer from it never know on a daily basis if they will be able to carry out their planned activities.

Although the article goes on to mention that there are no medications that target reduced levels of glutamate in the brain, there is hope that programs can be developed in the future to address these issues for chronic pain sufferers. Often, just knowing that there could be a physical reason for emotional difficulties can relieve the guilt one experiences for having these feelings.

Chronic pain sufferers can begin managing symptoms by fostering a function centered life and talking to their GP about pain management.

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The Science Behind Gratitude

In an article entitled “Neuroscience Reveals: Gratitude Literally Rewires Your Brain to be Happier” featured on DailyHealthPost, we read about how the effects of actively being thankful can benefit us. Here are some research findings (paraphrased):

  • It leads to an overall increase in feeling positive and optimistic about life.
  • It improves sleep quality and reduces anxiety and depression.
  • When we are focused on feeling grateful, the areas of the brain that show increased activity are those linked to reward, empathy and value judgement, leading to an increased sense of positivity towards others.
  • By affecting the hypothalamus, gratitude increases dopamine, our feel-good hormone. It also tends to have a positive metabolic effect on stress.
  • The practice of gratitude increases our sense of self-worth and compassion for others.

By consciously increasing our levels of gratitude we can increase our overall sense of well-being. The act of being thankful also tends to increase our ability to be open minded, as the focus naturally creates a direct path to our feel good emotions.

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The Right and Left Brain; Post 3

In our last on a series about the right and left hemispheres of our brain, we look at how to keep our minds sharp. As we discovered in the last two posts, the two sides work together to help us process information. Here are some ways to keep the right and left sides working at their best:

  • Crossword puzzles and word or number games, writing out lists. Reading daily is a good way to keep your mind sharp; writing (even on a small scale such as in a journal or writing a letter to someone) co-ordinates the two sides of your brain.
  • Try doing something creative. The logical side of your brain will appreciate the mapping out of the steps, and sequences to the craft or art project, and the imaginative side will enjoy the use of colour and freedom to express creativity.
  • Playing card games or board games will also engage both your right and left hemispheres. One side will enjoy the rules of the game, the other will work at helping you edge out your competition by picking up on subtle non-verbal clues in your opponents. 🙂
  • Change things up – order something out of the ordinary at a restaurant, watch something that you normally wouldn’t be drawn to on TV,  experiment with new music genres – the right brain will appreciate the spontaneity, while the left brain will be looking to sort out where to fit this into your already formed habits.
  • Alternate left and right brain activities as a way to strengthen the skills of both. Even something as simple as creating a grocery list one week (left brain), followed by a spontaneous trip to the market the next to see what might entice you (right brain). Planning a trip (left brain), while keeping one or two days open for a “let’s see where the day brings us” opportunities (right brain).

When we know and appreciate the ways that our brain works, we can actively promote the formation of new brain cells and pathways that keep our minds in good shape.

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The Right and Left Brain; Post 2

Yesterday’s post explored the different functions of the left and right brain. Although we can often imagine that they work independently of each other, they work together. Here are some examples of how both sides of the brain tend to contribute to our understanding and processing:

  • We hear someone tell a story. The left brain will compute the logistics required of language such as grammar, whereas the right brain will be working at linking meaning, tone and metaphor.
  • You have a math question in front of you. The left brain is working at the equation itself, the right brain helps by being able to estimate.
  • You are looking at someone who looks familiar, but can’t place them in the moment. The left side will be putting together the facial features, the right side eventually links them to the whole person.
  • You are at a paint night. The right side is able to visualize the whole picture and will help you with highlights and shadowing; the left side brings about the critical eye we need to make changes for a realistic picture.

Understanding that our left and right brain work together can help us to have a greater appreciation for the complexity of the brain and how it works towards creating optimal functioning. Tomorrow’s post will look at tips to keeping our brain active and sharp.

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