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PsychNotes March 2013
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Clinical and Sport Psychologist

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March 26, 2013


Why is it that as people age they have mental and physical decline and yet they experience greater psychological well-being? Amanda Shallcross and colleagues (2012) examined the role of acceptance with reduction in negative emotions as people age and found that greater well-being was associated with acceptance and reduced anxiety and anger.

Not only that, but psychological well-being is associated with better health. For instance, Boehm and Kubzansky (2012) found that well-being helps to protect against heart disease even when other risk factors are present. In other words, someone who has family genetics for heart disease but who is an optimist is less likely to suffer the negative consequences of heart disease.

What does this tell us? The more you can cultivate an accepting attitude, you are likely to experience greater psychological well-being and lower incidence of illness.

Even if you are not naturally optimistic, you can learn to develop an accepting attitude by learning how to identify and change irrational thinking. A good starting point is the Cognitive Styles Test that can tell you which styles of thinking can be problematic for you. Once you understand what you need to change, then repetition of statements challenging the irrational thinking styles can help you change. For more information: How Do We Change Irrational Thinking?

Boehm, J.K. And Kubzansky, L.D. (2012). The Heart’s Content: The Association Between Positive Psychological Well-Being and Cardiovascular Health. Psychological Bulletin, 138, 655-691.

Shallcross, A. J., Ford, B. Q., Floerke, V. A., & Mauss, I. B. (2012). Getting Better With Age: The Relationship Between Age, Acceptance, and Negative Affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031180

March 23, 2013


How can you perform at your best? Whether you are a competitive athlete, musician, actor, or even an engineer, physician, or writer (any activity requiring skill and concentration), the more that you achieve a high level of focused awareness, the better the outcome.

The research examining the effects of mindfulness training on athletic performance can provide insight into enhancing other types of performance as well. Generally, it has been shown that the more athletes can “get in the zone” the higher the athletes and coaches rate their overall performance.

What is “the zone?” It is a state in which the athlete is completely focused on the task at hand in a positive, energized manner. Also known as “flow” this state cannot be created, but just happens. However, you can create the conditions to allow it to happen. The primary conditions require the appropriate skill level, a positive focus, and the correct amount of intensity (or energy) for the task.

Much research showing some positive results has been conducted in the last 30 years on psychological skills training to help athletes retrain negative thinking and to manage stress and anxiety (Rumbold, Fletcher & Daniels, 2011) so as to create “flow.” However, more recent examinations of mindfulness training has shown to have even stronger outcomes (Gardner & Moore, 2012).

What is mindfulness? It is a state of being fully present in the moment without negative evaluation or distracting thoughts. Sounds similar to being in “the zone” or in “flow,” doesn't it? Although you can't create the state of “flow” (in fact, the act of trying to create it prevents it from occurring), you can learn to be more mindfully present in whatever task you are involved. By increasing your ability for mindfulness, you will likely improve your performance.

Gardner, F.L. & Moore, Z.E. (2012). Mindfulness and Acceptance Models in Sport Psychology: A Decade of Basic and Applied Scientific Advancements. Canadian Psychology, 53, 309-318.

Rumbold, J.L., Fletcher, D., & Daniels, K. (2011). A Systematic Review of Stress Management Interventions With Sport Performers, 1, Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 173-193.

March 19, 2013


More and more people are using apps to promote emotional and physical well-being (such apps are known as mHealth). Research (Della Porta et.al., 2012) examining use of an app to increase happiness and the effectiveness of the suggested strategies lends some advice to users of Excel At Life's app Happy Habits: Choose Happiness.
1) The app used for the research consisted of a number of different strategies that users can choose to use (or not use). The research found that the strategies chosen by users were not always the most effective strategies for that particular user. This may be due to the user choosing a strategy that he or she is already practicing or not using the strategy as directed.
2) Most happiness seekers use a number of techniques, not just one. It appears that variety is key to creating happiness.

How can this be applied to using Happy Habits?
First, try different strategies. If you are already using a certain strategy, you may be receiving your maximum benefit and a new strategy may be more rewarding. However, don't stop what you are already doing because everything adds to creating the conditions for happiness. The test “Your Happiness Assessment” in the Happy Habits app can help you determine areas of focus.

Second, use the strategies as described. Varying the strategies may not provide as much benefit. For example, using the Loving Kindness meditation only occasionally may offer some temporary benefit but it is unlikely to add to overall happiness unless used regularly.

Della Porta, M.D., Pierce, R.S., Zilca, and Lyubomirsky (2012). Pursuing Happiness in Everyday Life: The Characteristics and Behaviors of Online Happiness Seekers, Emotion, 12, 1222-1234.

March 15, 2013


Studies have previously shown that adolescent girls often suffer more problems with depression and anxiety than adolescent boys when significant marital conflict occurs in the home. Researchers El-Sheikh and colleagues (2013) examined individual coping styles during childhood and how that may predict which girls are likely to react to the stress of the conflict in the home.

Using physiological measures of stress reactions, the researchers examined marital conflict and the effect on anxiety and depression in children over a two-year period from ages 8 to 10. They wanted to understand if certain coping styles influenced the development of anxiety and depressive symptoms.

They found that girls who had avoidant or passive coping styles as measured by heart rate/breathing and skin conductance (perspiration) were more likely to experience an increase in anxiety and depressive symptoms when marital conflict is present.

How can this be helpful to parents? The obvious answer to many people may be to reduce marital conflict. However, this is not the complete answer. Children who are vulnerable to the stress caused by marital conflict are also likely to be vulnerable to other stressors in their lives. Therefore, although it is important to reduce the controllable stressors such as conflict in the home, it is also critical to teach more effective means of managing stress to children who exhibit these passive coping styles.

Children with more active coping strategies such as talking to others about problems, changing thinking about the situation, relaxation or calming methods, and problem-solving appear to be less vulnerable to developing depressive and anxious symptoms. Therefore, teaching children these methods can help them manage the stress they experience. These same methods can be helpful to boys as well who may externalize stress through acting-out behavior.

El-Sheikh, M., Keiley, M. and Erath, S. (2013). Marital Conflict and Growth in Children’s Internalizing Symptoms: The Role of Autonomic Nervous System Activity. Developmental Psychology, 49, 92-108.

March 12, 2013


So often parents and teachers have been told that frequent praise can help increase self-esteem in children. However, researchers Brummelman and colleagues (2013) have found that the “common sense” approach to praise can have a detrimental effect on the self-esteem of children already suffering with low self-esteem.

In particular, they found that the approach most adults take with vulnerable children is to praise personal qualities. For example, “You are so smart.” However, this can lead to shame if the child experiences failure such as getting a poor grade on a test because the child attributes the poor grade to an unchangeable personal quality of not being smart enough.

However, praise that is directed towards behavior is more likely to positively influence the child's self-esteem. For example, “You put a lot of effort into your studies.” As a result, the child can appreciate his/her work ethic which is more under the child's control.

The focus on personal qualities may be the common approach because it is often easier praise to provide as it does not require much thought. However, focusing on a child's positive or successful behaviors requires more observation of the child as well as attention to how to best state the praise.

Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Overbeek, G., Orobio de Castro, B., van den Hout, M. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2013, February 18). On Feeding Those Hungry for Praise: Person Praise Backfires in Children With Low Self-Esteem. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031917

March 9, 2013


Exercise does not have to be “exercise.” The problem for many people who are sedentary is that when they try to exercise it is very uncomfortable. Most likely this is due to exceeding their capacity for exercise. Frequently, as a result, they quit exercising.

If you have been sedentary and want to improve your health by exercising, try not to think “exercise.” When people start exercising, they listen to the recommendations to start with walking. Sounds easy enough, right? But for many people, starting a walking program may be too difficult.

In addition, due to previous bad experiences with exercising, many people have negative associations with the word “exercise.” Just hearing the word can make them cringe.

So, don't think “exercise.” Think “activity.” How can you increase your activity level? Some examples are cooking dinner, shopping, gardening, light house-cleaning. If there is something you like such as sight-seeing, take a tour of a local attraction. You are being more active but it may not seem so bad because you are engaged in an enjoyable activity.

Also read: Thinking Your Way to a Healthy Weight

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Dr. Monica Frank

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