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Newton Deploys Relaxation Experts To Help De-Stress Community

Screen shot 2014-04-07 at 1.45.34 PM

As of today, the high-achieving suburb of Newton begins a new effort to combat stress in teens: helping their parents relax.

The town is hosting four seminars for parents to help them “relax and reboot” and learn some strategies to better take care of themselves and their stressed-out teenage kids.

In case you live in Newton and are thinking of attending, sorry. They’re already full. But the town is offering several related programs, including An Open Conversation on April 30 for parents to talk about “how we define success in a high achieving community and how that impacts the stress on our teens.”

National statistics suggest that teenage stress is at an all-time high, with kids apparently adopting adult-levels of stress, according to the latest American Psychological Association report on stress in America.

In Newton, the issue is particularly poignant because three Newton high school students took their own lives during the current school year.

But even before the suicides, Newton had decided to take a somewhat novel approach. It applied for and received a “mental health and well-being” grant — $30,000 over three years — to, in effect, allow students, parents and teachers to take a massive exhale and figure out ways, large and small, to take the edge off growing up.

One solution was to contract with the Benson Henry Institute of Mind-Body Medicine, based at Massachusetts General Hospital, and offer the stress-reduction sessions.

The town was already aware of its stress-related problems: Continue reading

Stress Eating: It’s More Complicated Than It Looks

Nearly half the American population admits to managing stress with food. (See, also: Thanksgiving.)

Eating as a stress-reducer, though, has been linked to unintended weight gain and largely condemned. But, oddly, people who lose their appetite when stressed are seen as fortunate, and their behavior is often dismissed as benign.

New research out of Germany suggests that neither situation is so clear-cut. A study just published in Psychological Science suggests that maybe stress-eating isn’t so awful after all, particularly when it comes along with a positive social interaction.

Researchers from the University of Konstanz, Germany, recruited self-identified stress-eaters (called “stress hyperphagics”) as well as people who skip meals when stressed (“stress hypophagics”). The study subjects were randomly given either positive social feedback (“social inclusion”), or experienced rejection (“social exclusion”). They were then presented with different flavors of ice cream under the guise of a “taste test,” so the subjects weren’t aware that the researchers were measuring the amount of ice cream they consumed.

icecream

As expected, stress-eaters consumed significantly more ice cream than stress-skippers after experiencing social stress. But after a positive social experience, the behavior patterns were reversed. Not only did stress-eaters consume significantly less ice cream, but stress-skippers ate a lot more. Take these two situations together, and the average calorie consumption of stress-eaters and stress-skippers was about the same.

It seems, according the the study, that rather than labeling people as “stress-eaters” and “stress-skippers,” people who alter their food intake according to their emotional state could more appropriately be called “mood-dependent eaters.”

So what does it all mean? “According to our findings, neither munchers nor skippers are considered at risk to gain weight by default,” says lead researcher Dr. Gudrun Sproesser. Continue reading

The Checkup: Meltdown U. And Mental Health Tips For Parents Of College Kids

For all those freshman just settling into dorm life this fall, college can be exhilarating, mind-blowing, the best years of their lives. But many parents don’t realize that their children are also facing a potential double whammy. Not only must new students navigate an entirely unfamiliar social, emotional and intellectual landscape, but they’re also entering a time in their lives — the ages between 18 and 21 — when many mental illnesses, from anxiety to depression to eating disorders, peak.

This week, The Checkup, our podcast on Slate, explores the mental health of college students. Here’s one sobering statistic: up to 50% of college-age kids have had or will have some kind of psychiatric disorder. That’s why we’re calling this episode “Meltdown U.” (To listen to The Checkup now, click on the arrow above; to download and listen later, press Download; and to get it through iTunes click here.)

The Checkup

Consider some more scary numbers:

–80% of college students who need mental health services won’t seek them

–50% of all college students say they have felt so depressed that they found it difficult to function during the last school year

–Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college-age youth – over 1000 deaths per year.

–The rate of student psychiatric hospitalizations has tripled in the past 20 years.

We asked Dr. Eugene Beresin, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, to offer some guidance on what parents should know about helping their college-age kids cope with the high stress of undergraduate life. Here’s his advice: Continue reading

Long After Recession’s End, Deep Layoff Scars May Remain

In this June, 2010, photo, Frank Wallace, who has been unemployed since May of 2009, is seen during a rally organized by the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(Matt Rourke/AP)

I went back to visit my old parking lot at The Boston Globe this week. For more than six years, I commuted to the Globe along the crawling traffic of the Southeast Expressway, travel mug in hand. But what I remember most about that parking lot is crying in it.

It was 2009. The Globe was in a major financial crisis, like much of the country. Brian McGrory, then the Metro editor, had just called me in to his office to warn me that I was almost certainly about to lose my job.

I held it together in his office, but then when I came out into the parking lot to call my best friend, I felt a wave of shame and insult engulf me. I knew better, but for just that moment, I felt — worthless.

Carey Goldberg stops back at The Boston Globe, where she was laid off in 2009. (George Hicks/WBUR)

Carey Goldberg stops back at The Boston Globe, where she was laid off in 2009. (George Hicks/WBUR)

Well, that’s no surprise, right? Everybody knows it hurts to lose your job. But what has caught me by surprise is that even though my family didn’t suffer much financially from my layoff, and even though I tend to be pretty upbeat and resilient, and even though I’ve landed well, it still hurts. More than four years later, I’m still not fully over it.

At work, I feel hypervigilant – as if nothing I do is ever enough, or good enough, to feel safe. At home, making life plans fills me with anxiety.

Which makes me wonder: Are these feelings normal? And if so, what does that mean for the roughly one-quarter of American workers who were laid off at some point during the recent recession?

These days, the Dow is hitting record highs. Housing is hot again in many spots. More and more, the Great Recession of 2009 is becoming just a bad memory. Except that, like other bad experiences, for many of us it may have left emotional scars that last.

So are we going to end up something like the forever frugal survivors of the Great Depression?

“One of the things you find about depression babies, as we call them — that is, people who came of age in the great depression — is that they retained a characteristic skepticism about good times. They never believed them,” said Prof. Bruce Schulman, an American historian who is chair of the Boston University history department.

“They were the people like my grandparents who always reused teabags. Even when they went out to a restaurant at a prosperous time, to celebrate a great occasion, [they] would take the teabag and drain it out and wrap it up and put it in their purse.” It is a generation, Schulman said, that tries always to be prepared for crisis.

Of course, the depression was far worse than the recent recession. But extensive research shows that whether one-third of the population is out of work or only one-tenth, layoffs at any time can have deep and long-lasting effects.

Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher says that though virtually everyone faces tough experiences, layoffs can be an unusually damaging kind of life event.

Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher

Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher. (Courtesy)

“It approaches my financial health, in the sense of what my income is,” she said. “It approaches and is disruptive to my physical health; it can disrupt my mental health and my sense of self; and I think for so many of us, work is a central part of our identity, and so when that is disrupted, that is actually something that layers on top of all these known effects.”

Let’s begin with the financial impact of a layoff, which Sucher says can persist indefinitely.

“One study of workers displaced in a 1981 recession found that they experienced a 30 percent decline in their income at the time of the layoff,” she said. “Twenty years later, they were still earning 20 percent less than employees who were not laid off.”

Now for health. The stress of a layoff shoots up your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Your risk of depression doubles; your risk of alcoholism quadruples; your risk of committing violence or suicide also rises. Continue reading

Talking To Kids About Bombs And Bad Guys, Watching For Trouble

A girl looks out the window of her family’s home as a SWAT team drives through her neighborhood while searching for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings in Watertown, Mass., Friday, April 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

A girl looks out the window of her family’s home as a SWAT team drives through her neighborhood while searching for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings in Watertown, Mass., Friday, April 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Over the course of this harrowing, surreal week, Dr. Gene Beresin offered some very useful professional advice on how to explain the terrible events to kids while still trying to make them feel safe and secure.

Beresin, a child psychiatrist and director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Mental Health and Media, also shared this advice for stressed-out grownups struggling with Friday’s city-wide lockdown, which kept millions trapped in their homes and on edge for the day.

As one Boston-area mom put it on Facebook Friday night: “So many feelings — relief its over, sadness that it all happened, grief at the losses and injuries, anger that my kids are growing up in a world of violence and just plain tired from being on high alert all week.”

Now that the remaining Marathon bombing suspect has been captured, the question is: will the trauma linger on? And if so, what form will it take? In a continuing attempt to help parents mitigate any residual stress, Beresin offers these tips on trouble signs to watch for as children and families return to “normal” life and daily routines.

Flowers sit at a police barrier near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Boston Tuesday, April 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Flowers sit at a police barrier near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Boston Tuesday, April 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

By Gene Beresin, MD
Guest contributor

What a week. From Monday’s Marathon bombing to Friday’s city-wide “stay at home” order to, finally, the dramatic capture of the bombing suspect, the people of Boston have had an intensely stressful and emotional few days. That includes the kids.

Parents are understandably worried about the impact these events have had on their children (and themselves). We remember how long it took to recover from other tragedies.

Fortunately, kids and families tend to be incredibly resilient. However, there may be a range of emotions and behaviors that parents could notice in the short run that would tip them off about a problem.

Here are some things to look for, and even more importantly, if you do see them, things you could do to fend off longer term problems:

• Remember that kids observe your behaviors and react to your feelings and actions.

• Parents need to take care of themselves first. It is much like the statement on airplanes, if the pressure drops, put the oxygen mask on yourself first, then help the child next to you. Parents are best able to help kids of any age if they have a means of processing the tragedy. The more you can obtain support from others, calm yourself down and present yourself in a supportive way, the better this is in allowing you to help your kids. This usually means having nurturing family members and/or a community to help you.

• Kids need a few basic things:

Reassurance things are going to be OK
Assurance their daily needs will be met
Presence of caring adults who are paying attention to them
Hope for the present and future.

How can parents and caregivers distinguish normal reactions to trauma from those that are worthy of concern and perhaps professional attention? Let’s look at kids in different age groups. And remember that a change in the short run may simply be a phase and can disappear with a brief response. So don’t jump to conclusions that things are going to be terrible at the first signs of problems.
Continue reading

Stressed Out And Stuck At Home: Strategies To Help Adults Cope

(photo rachel zimmerman)

(photo rachel zimmerman)

So far this morning my kids have watched two movies and an old episode of “Glee.” We read “Oliver Twist.” We packed for a weekend trip we may not be able to take. Now we’re snacking. And there’s still no telling when the Boston “stay at home” order will be lifted. Stressful? Umm, just a bit.

We’ve been getting excellent advice from child psychiatrists about how to talk to children about this week’s events — from the horrific Marathon bombing Monday to today’s scary, surreal manhunt around our neighborhoods: MIT, Memorial Drive, Cambridge Street at Norfolk and as friends say, H2O-town. But what about the grown-ups? We’re on-edge too and wondering how to cope. (I tried to go to yoga this morning but it was cancelled.) Here, again from our expert mental health team at MGH is a list of top coping strategies when you are trapped at home during a massive police manhunt:

By Gene Beresin, M.D. and Steven Schlozman, M.D.

As adults we always think of our children first. Maybe this is human nature, survival of the species or just plain love.

But adults have their own share of fears, anxieties, and needs during massively stressful times. What are some of the ways disasters and war-like situations affect us and what can we do to help ourselves?

Humans respond to life and death situations with the fight or flight response – that is they experience normal fear, physical symptoms of anxiety (stomach upset, jitteriness, rapid heart rate, extreme vigilance) and a wish to be in a safe place. But even if safe, excessive fear verging on panic can feel awful. Physical symptoms such as headache, muscle spasm, tremor, heartburn, or even chest pain are not uncommon. We startle at the slightest sound or change in the environment.

Some feel depressed, hopeless, and develop a kind of pessimistic, catastrophic thinking in which most things are taken as signs of doom and gloom. Others long for getting outside, feeling trapped, isolated. Still others cannot remember things, keep track of time or just feel lost. In these moments, it is sometimes hard to function – to do daily activities, take care of kids, or focus on work.

So, what can adults do to cope with our current stress:

1. Adults need support from other close adults, e.g., spouse, family member, friends

2. Family cohesion: stay close to others, kids, spouses. Do things together — play, especially cook!

3. Community cohesion: This includes religious, spiritual or other community groups. Try to stay connected even at a distance, calling, texting, using your social media.

4. Ability to process events, both emotionally and cognitively: Techniques may be specified for each. We need to specify the techniques a bit: Get in touch with your emotions, and think of ways you have settled them in the past; and be careful of exaggerated or catastrophic thinking. This will be over soon. In general use logic over emotion!

5. Self-reflection and awareness is key. Be aware of your current state. Monitor yourself.

6. Self-care that is physical: sleep, good diet, exercise

7. Meditation or yoga is helpful

8. Music or other means of soothing Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: It Works Even If You Hate It

(US Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

(US Navy/Wikimedia Commons)


Another excuse not to exercise bites the dust. Gretchen Reynolds raises a hopeful question in her latest Phys Ed column for The New York Times: Might exercise be so unpleasant for some people that the negative feelings it engenders in them cancel out all the emotional benefits, the reduction in anxiety and stress?

It takes quite a few paragraphs of reading through an interesting experiment with rats forced to run in treadmills to get to the answer, so here’s a short cut: No. If these rats are any indication, exercise is still good for you even if you hate it. Gretchen writes:

…The animals that had exercised on the running wheels, whether they could control their exercise regimens or not, proved to be quite resilient. They bounced back emotionally from the imposed stresses and were willing to explore the lighted regions of their new surroundings on the next day.

They were, by rodent standards, happy and well-adjusted guys.

What this suggests, says Benjamin Greenwood, a professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado who designed and led the study, is that “even forced exercise increases stress resistance.”

Or in the immortal words of the goddess Nike, “Just do it.”

Why Your Kids Should Exercise Today: Lower Cortisol And Stress

God knows kids these days are under enormous pressure, but a new study finds that exercise may help alleviate their stress by better regulating surges of the stress-related hormone cortisol.

It’s one of those studies that infuses a little science into what we already know but is reassuring nonetheless.

From the news release:

Exercise may play a key role in helping children cope with stressful situations, according to a recent study accepted for publication in The Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism (JCEM).

kidweight500When they are exposed to everyday stressors, the study found sedentary children had surges of cortisol – a hormone linked to stress. The most active children had little or no increase in their cortisol levels in similar situations.

“The findings suggest physical activity plays a role in mental health by buffering children from the effects of daily stressors, such as public speaking,” said the study’s lead author, Silja Martikainen, MA, of the University of Helsinki, Finland.

The cross-sectional study monitored physical activity and cortisol levels in a birth cohort of eight-year-old children. Continue reading

MIT Report Graphically Details Lives Of Students Under Pressure

From The Tech‘s special report on student stress at MIT

This student newspaper report, “Under Pressure” provides possibly the best data visualization ever of college stress — and leave it to MIT to do it. The ambitious and beautifully realized analysis of the MIT pressure cooker draws on the detailed responses of more than 3,100 students who opened up about their academic workload, social life, sleep habits and extracurricular activities.

It’s an incredible portrait of a “hosed” student body, kids who feel, at times, overwhelmed by the torrent of information coming at them and the competing, and cumulatively crushing, demands on their time. (One example: the survey found that 2:30 a.m. is the most common bedtime and 50 percent of students feel that they don’t get enough sleep.)

The Tech survey was inspired by Lydia K., an MIT junior who blogged about her own stressful “meltdown” and persistent dread that no matter how smart she was, she was never quite smart enough. The piece triggered an unprecedented response from students at MIT and around the country; MIT’s president Rafael Reif wrote an open letter to The Tech urging everyone at MIT to read Lydia’s piece.

In response, The Tech launched its project on stress: 3,191 MIT undergraduate and graduate students responded to the survey — about 29 percent of the total student population and 35 percent of the undergrads. Among its findings: “The average MIT student sleeps only about 6.5 hours a night, and 52 percent of them have, at one point, felt like they don’t belong at the Institute.” Here’s a bit of the editorial introducing the special issue:

The Institute is a tough place. The classes are hard, the homework is hard, and the tests are hard. It’s difficult to step back and get any perspective, and when things are going bad, competition between peers makes things worse. If you dare lament the amount of work you have, chances are that your neighbor will challenge you and say that he has even more.

Does this competition sound familiar? It should. The “I’m so hosed” game has become a cultural phenomenon at MIT, one that perpetuates the “hardcore” attitude Continue reading

Lessons From Lady Gaga’s 25-Pound Weight Gain — And Her Response

In  May, Lady Gaga performs “Alejandro” on her tour The Born This Way Ball in Hong Kong (Photo: H.L. Tam via Wikimedia Commons)

Count on Lady Gaga — who’s closing in on a record 30 million Twitter followers – to play the ultimate meta-media game, taking control of the message by splashing it herself. This time around, the theme is weight and body image.

Headlines and photos over the last few days have trumpeted the singer’s recent weight gain. She said in a radio interview that she has put on about 25 pounds, and blames eating at her father’s new Italian restaurant: “It’s so freaking delicious, but I’m telling you I gain five pounds every time I go in.”

In response to some nastiness — the meat costume is inevitably mentioned, and you can see some typically mean-spirited comments below this Huffington Post photo — she has now posted self-celebrating photos of herself in just underwear, as Jezebel reports here. She captions them “Bulimia and anorexia since I was 15,” titles the section a “Body Revolution” and calls on followers to be brave and celebrate their own “perceived flaws.” Founder of the anti-bullying Born This Way Foundation, she’s not going to take any bullying about her body.

I don’t think I’ll be posting self-accepting photos like some of her fans, but I was struck by the dramatic change in a performer who had always looked to me so naturally skinny, and wondered: Aside from Lady Gaga’s consistent message of compassionate self-acceptance, are there any lessons here for the rest of us?

I asked Dr. Sherry Pagoto, an obesity researcher, a clinical psychologist and an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She blogs on Psychology Today here. Our conversation, lightly edited:

I do not assume you read the gossipy news sources that have been detailing Lady Gaga’s recent weight gain, so here are the salient facts: She says she’s up 25 pounds; she blames her father’s new Italian restaurant; and she says she’s on a diet but she’s not bothered for a minute by how she’s looking. What can we learn here?

Dr. Sherry Pagoto

Sherry Pagoto: What it sounds like is, she’s a human being and she, like the rest of us mortals, is subject to the same forces that affect our weight. And she’s in the same food environment.

She has a lot more money than most of us do, but money doesn’t buy you skinny. It has a lot to do with your lifestyle, and I assume she’s a very busy person and travels a lot, and so she’s eating on the fly like most of us do when we’re rushing around. She’s having the same struggles that anybody else has — and because she probably travels so much, it may be pretty difficult for her. Continue reading