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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Does Focusing on the Positive Help Your Brain Get Over a Breakup?

A romantic rejection or breakup is one of the most common reasons people seek psychotherapy. Rejection makes us feel worse about ourselves and be more distrusting of other people. The grief of a breakup can feel overwhelming sometimes, making it difficult to get back out there. We may spend hours brooding or checking Facebook posts of our former partners. In this post, I will discuss how our brains process breakups, whether this emotional pain is similar to physical pain, and whether focusing on the positive can help us recover more quickly.

Your Brain on a Breakup

Your brain is likely to prioritize thinking about your ex-partner in the same way as it signals you to pay attention to physical pain. A study by cognitive neuroscientists at Columbia University used brain fMRI scans to look at brain activity in unmarried people who had experienced an unwanted breakup in the previous six months Participants looked at pictures of their ex-partners while thinking about shared experiences. The researchers compared the scans to when participants looked at pictures of a friend, or when they were exposed to pain via a hot probe on the arm. The scientists found that the same parts of the brain lit up when individuals looked at the ex-partner pictures or experienced physical pain, but not when they looked at the friend pictures.

These brain regions, including the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex, are associated with physical pain. Romantic rejection is not actually the same thing as physical pain, rather  these brain areas light up because of “salience." In other words, our brains signal us that both physical pain and photos of lost loves were important and worth attending to. For our ancestors, both pain and rejection (being thrown out of the tribe) could reduce the chances of actual survival, hence our brains may be wired to pay special attention to such experiences.

Does Focusing on the Positive Help?

One research study investigated whether an expressive writing intervention could help subjects feel better about their breakups. In this study of almost 100 college students with a recent (past 3 months) breakup, participants were assigned to write about either only the positive aspects of the breakup, only the negative aspects, or about a superficial topic (control group).  Those in the positive-writing group reported experiencing more positive emotions when they thought about the breakup and had no increase in negative emotions. The positive emotions included empowerment, happiness, relief, thankfulness, and wisdom.  If the breakup was mutual, the benefits of positive writing were even stronger. Perhaps focusing on the positive can eventually reprogram the brain's reactions? This would likely take months or years. More research using actual brain scans is needed to assess this. Also, since these participants were college students, we don't know if older people would experience the same effects. Since the brain only stops growing at 25, younger people may have a greater ability to effect change.

Take Home Message

If you're having difficulty getting over an ex-partner, don't think about the positive aspects of the relationship! Instead think about what you have gained by breaking up. This may force you to confront the negative aspects of your partner or the relationship, rather than being stuck in a romantic fantasy about it.  You can also try distraction by going out and doing fun things (even if you don't feel like it initially) or turn to a friend for support.

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Friday, April 8, 2011

How to live to be 100!

What are the secrets to a longer life? This question has preoccupied researchers, psychologists, philosophers and sages throughout history. In The Longevity Project, health psychologists Howard Friedman, Ph.D. and Leslie Martin Ph.D., summarize the results of 80 years of research data on how personality, stress, and social support predict good health and a longer life. They state that of all the personality traits studied (e.g., neuroticism or extraversion), the most important predictor of longevity was conscientiousness!

Based on these findings, here are some things you can do to promote a long life:

1. Be conscientious and do a good job 

Conscientious people are well-respected in their communities, have happier marriages, and are more likely to be successful in their careers, according to this research. Having a sense of responsibility for people and organizations that you are connected with seems to pay off in better relationships and opportunities. To be able to do a good job, you may want to think carefully about the things you commit to. Make sure you have enough time to do a good job on all of them without getting resentful or burning yourself out. Sometimes it is better to say "no" to some things to leave more energy for the people and causes that are most important to you.

2.   Reach out to help many people, not just family

By helping other people, you help to build community and also build  a reputation as a caring person who can be relied on. You can strengthen your relationships or build new relationships through helpful behaviors. This is particularly useful if you are new to a community. Volunteering for projects at your local school, place of worship, or charity, environmental group, or joining a service networking group, such as Rotary International can help you connect with other people who care.

3. Choose an exercise you can stick to and enjoy

People in the study who exercised when they were young, then gave it up did not live as long as those who stuck to their exercise routines into midlife and beyond. Vigorous exercise has the most immediate benefit, but if you can't keep it up, the effects won't last. Walking 30 minutes per day 5 days a week is a great low-stress way to improve your health and fitness and connect with nature and your neighbors.

4. Be satisfied with your chosen path and achievements

If you choose a job that you're passionate about and work hard at it, you're more likely to be satisfied with the results after many years.  If you haven't lived up to your potential yet, you may want to consider hiring a career coach or psychologist to help you focus and address barriers to achievement. Some people have traits or habits that get in their way, such as being too controlling and aggressive, too passive and avoidant, or too impulsive and likely to act without thinking. Alcohol and drugs or dysfunctional relationships will also suck energy away from your career so these too, need to be addressed.

The good news is that people who were not conscientious to begin with, but who changed and became more conscientious or socially connected over time still lived long lives. So for most people, it is never too late to walk a new path. You just need to find the courage to change!


The Secret to Longevity - Character!

The Longevity Project - Howard Friedman- home page

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