Category Archives: stress and cortisol

“Oh, What’s Occurring?”

I am indebted to BBC Radio 1’s Scott Mills, for inventing this game, based on Nessa’s catchphrase from the beloved BBC sitcom, Gavin & Stacey.

In Scott’s game, a current event or star-du-jour that ought to be known to most Britons, is formulated as a question, which is then put to a “random sample” of 10 people on “Stupid Street” [a street right outside the London radio studio] by a BBC staffer. Let’s say, for instance, “Who’s Andy Murray?” The point of the game is not to guess the truth [the right answer]; but to guess the most frequent answer given by the 10-person sample on Stupid Street: also known as popular opinion.

Ponder the epistemological implications of this innocent little game for a moment. Since the truth about such objective, scientific matters as the human role in the rapidly melting polar ice caps [or whether Lili’s crippling condition, degenerative myelopathy, can be definitively diagnosed by a DNA test] is still being debated among the researchers themselves, it is tempting to default to the “received wisdom” of vox populi. Except we try to hedge our bets by avoiding the populi on Stupid Street. Our sources [we believe & hope] are reliable. They know whereof they speak. Nar’mean?

Because I’m a curmudgeon, I enjoy trolling the pages of the Science sections of the NYTimes & WaPost, not to mention my favorite discredited source BBC online news, for their uncritical, wildly-extrapolated-beyond-the-data, later retracted, proclamations on [not to put too fine a point on it] How To Avoid Death. Regular readers of this blog will know I prefer the wisdom of Epictetus & Marcus Aurelius on this subject: accept that you are going to die of something, sometime; and live each day as if it were your last on earth. This is not to be confused with fatalism or Nihilism. Nor is it a simple-minded call to Acceptance [an overhyped new form of psychotherapy]. It’s a call to Do Your Best and nil desperandum [pace Horace].

The non-Classical, dog-Latin variant of this last phrase, “nil desperandum illegitimi” [Don’t let the bastards get you down.”] is the take home message of the “Oh, What’s Occurring” game. Are others humiliating you with their ill-informed opinions about what’s wrong with you/your dog? Do they tell you “It’s a Judgement” [handed down by their otherwise loving God]? I have several patients coping with health issues, which their “God-fearing” co-workers blithely attribute to Retribution. I urge them [my patients, not their persecutors] to play “Oh, What’s Occurring?” by assuming their insensitive critics live on Stupid Street. I suggest that on the way to work, they try to predict what prejudiced opinions these quidnuncs are likely to voice. When they guess right, they can award themselves 100 Scott Mills points. Hurrah! It is actually quite an effective cortisol-buster, to predict correctly what slings & arrows will come your way today.

This week on Lili’s walks the denizens of Stupid Street have opined that she has hip dysplasia and needs aspirin [whereas increasing numbness is actually the problem]; that I am over-exerting her [whereas the recommended treatment is a daily long walk]; and that they saw on YouTube that you can fit a paralyzed dog with wheels [oh, Zeus, give me patience]. To which I hum the theme song to “Oh, What’s Occurring?” Right out loud.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under attribution theory, comic relief, Epictetus said..., stress and cortisol

“hooked on the sound like it’s nicotine”

This apt metaphor comes from the current BBC Radio 1 hit, “Make Peace Not War” by the BritRap DJ, Skepta (known to his Nigerian-born parents as Joseph Junior Adenuga). I highly recommend its addition to your MP3 player, if only for the addictive hooky sample, “Everybody Dance, Now.”

As you may have guessed, the nicotine addict pictured above is not Skepta, but my own dear, long-since departed father (known to his Irish-born parents as “Red,” and to his shipmates as “Rosie”). Indeed, this picture comes from the official Naval book, U.S.S. WALKE, Korean Cruise, October 1950 to August 1951. What’s he like, eh? While everyone else in the book is pictured in uniform and smiling, the editors chose to let the Executive Officer’s inner wolf flag fly: “The Exec…If you felt you’d been [on deployment] too long, if you weren’t completely happy with your work, if you had any little problem at all, you just brought it in to this kindly old soul. He knew just how you felt.” [Note the use of the Poetic Speech function.]

A propos Memorial Day weekend, I will quote further from the book: “At 0740, June 12, 1951…a heavy explosion. In one stunning moment the full agony of war came home to us. In that moment 26 shipmates lost their lives and 40 more were wounded. Out of disaster came heroism and determination. The wounded were brought to safety and then we saved the ship. In the ordeal that followed a good ship became a great one…and the WALKE and the men who sailed her lived to fight again.”

One is tempted to say, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it, North Korea!” However, alas, it was Rosie, and many of his fellow Americans, who did the smoking; and this post is yet another attempt to understand why.

The research I will quote comes from an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, published on 17 June 2010: “Nicotine Addiction,” by Neal L. Benowitz, M.D. He begins with the usual grim statistics. “Cigarette smoking remains a leading cause of preventable disease and premature death in the United States and other countries. On average 435,000 people in the United States die prematurely from smoking-related diseases each year; smoking causes 1 in 5 deaths. The chance that a lifelong smoker will die prematurely from a complication of smoking is approximately 50%.”

So, what gives? Are all those smokers (including smart, brave, stoical Rosie) just Crazy Like a Fox? Maybe. “The pharmacologic reasons for nicotine use are enhancement of mood, either directly or through relief of withdrawal symptoms, and augmentation of mental and physical functions.” Wait, what? Don’t tell your “Kangaroo” [aka attention-challenged] children; but Benowitz cites lab animal & human research studies suggesting that nicotine improves concentration and adherence to task. The evidence is more compelling [and also ethically distressing] in the rat studies, since one would presume that the rats are responding only to the cholinergic effects of the nicotine, not to the learned social cues and expectations so exhaustively explored on MadMen.

To totally simplify his neuroscience-speak, the initial chemical effect of nicotine on the brain is to increase available dopamine [leading to a sense of calm well-being & “in-the-zone” mental/physical performance]. But soon the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (known to their friends as nAChRs) become desensitized, “demanding” ever higher doses of nicotine, just to forestall (in rats) “anxiety-like behavior and the release of corticotrophic-releasing factor (CRF) in the central nucleus of the amygdala.” Aha! Our old nemesis, the howling wolf [amygdala, yah?] is flooded with toxic CRF, resulting in (unaccountable) fear (aka anxiety), and pain & suffering. No wonder those in nicotine withdrawal are so cranky!

Benowitz is not a big fan of [comparatively inefficient] nicotine-replacement delivery systems [such as gum or trans-dermal patches]. He believes in shielding the nAChRs from the depredations of nicotine in the first place. Short of psychosurgery or serendipitous Traumatic Brain Injury, however, no such nicotine-eluding technology yet exists.

Like a hooky song you can’t get out of your head, once you take “Nico” on board, you may have a “shipmate” for life.

Leave a comment

Filed under crazy like a fox, limbic system, stress and cortisol

Who’s Got Your Back?


While watching Wimbledon tennis on telly with the sound muted, I’m listening to Radio Wimbledon, which provides commentary on all the matches [from Center Court to Court 14], as well as traffic, transport & weather advisories for those in the stands. If you’re in SW19, Radio Wimbledon’s got your back. As young girls in the 60s, clutching General Admissions tickets to the grounds and CheapDayReturn train tickets back to our town, my sister & I had each other’s backs, too, minding the time to make sure we had enough of it to hoof it back to Wimbledon Station and get our tickets punched by the Station Master before rush hour [when our CheapDayReturns expired]. All this, without the aid of Radio Wimbledon, cellphones, debit cards, or even wristwatches! What a team we made.

We still do. The British relationship therapist, Dr. Sue Johnson, quotes “a traditional Irish saying” [although I can’t find it in any of my aphorism reference sources] thus: “We stand in the shelter of one another.” Or, if we are gazelles @ the LA zoo, we lie down in the shelter of one another. If Chris had used a wider-angle lens, you could have seen a spindly-legged baby gazelle, toddling around under the vigilant gaze of these 3 “lifeguards,” all of whom had its back.

Ah! It’s soothing, just to see them. No, really. Watching a cohort of furry creatures tend & defend their vulnerable members has been shown [in those studies I’m not wild about, for ethical reasons] to lower cortisol, not just in the creatures themselves, but in the observer. [Except maybe not in would-be predators, like those leopards from the previous post, who chunter to themselves, “Curses! Foiled again!”]

The Radio Wimbledon commentators make frequent reference to each contestant’s looking up to the Player’s Box where their entourage of “lifeguards” [coaches, family, friends] are sitting, “seeking their sympathy, or approval, or their righteous indignation at a bad line call.” The exchanges are all done non-verbally, but sometimes with operatic intensity. Unfortunately, when members of a player’s cohort see themselves on a telly camera [via the Jumbotron], they tend to stiffen up, cast their eyes down, and leave their vulnerable Young One momentarily undefended. That’s why it’s heartening to hear the radio accounts [or to be there in person, to see the authentic exchange of give-a-damn looks]. As my favorite Radio 1 Scottish DJ, Edith Bowman, says, wherever in the world Andy Murray is playing, she is listening, “Willin’ him on, just willin’ him on!”

Such fan support helps the player [if he or she is aware of it, and our Andy is a keen Twitterer]; but it also helps the sports fan. Remember the truth about oxytocin? It makes you want to tend & defend those in your reference group, but not the opponent. Nar’mean?

Leave a comment

Filed under reference group, stress and cortisol, zero-sum-gaming

"Dai-jo-bu!" ["Everbody cut footloose"]


Where would the business based rom-com [from The Pajama Game to MadMen, which, don’t kid yourself, is a comedy, whatever its Emmy category] be, without the office party, or better yet, the off-site office picnic? Nowheresville, that’s where! (Hold that thought.)

How do drug/bomb/corpse-sniffing dogs learn their trade? Through rewards for accurate scent detection, sure; but what’s the most commonly used reward? Why, play time with the “Boss.”

In the Navy, we mice learned at “salute school,” there are 3 basic postures, in the presence of the Boss Cats: “Attention on deck” [stand up straight, “eyes in the boat,” and don’t move]; “At ease” or “Fall out” [you are free to mill about smartly]; and (for me) a useless middle-ground position, because it was less comfortable than standing to attention [hands folded at the small of one’s back, as if handcuffed] “Parade rest.”

Lili’s trainer [a former Marine] taught us to tell her “Zen-zen” [literal translation, “Never”] for the “Don’t move” command, which we were encouraged to extend, for distance and duration, as we left her in the “Down/stay” position in an open space. The release command, “Dai-jo-bu!” [literally, “All right!”] is more festive than merely “At ease,” or “Fall out.” It means “Party time!” It’s an exhortation to “cut footloose,” to do a little dance of joy, to “play with the Boss Cat,” not just to follow orders.

And therein lies the conundrum. In the Navy, a junior officer used to parse a “command performance” [an “invitation” to a social event that one could not refuse, without negative consequences], using a Germanic funny voice, “You will come! You will enjoy it!” So, too, do some reluctant attendees to the company party/picnic mutter to themselves, “Aye, aye, sir. Three bags full, sir. It’s not ‘play’ if it’s required, no matter how much booze is on offer.” The well-meant but ham-fisted proclamation of the Boss Cat(s), “Let the revelries begin!” is experienced as an intrusion into one’s private time off. Worse, if one “befriends Ethyl” [gets drunk] to get through the event, one risks humiliation or even the fear of the Boss Cats’ displeasure.

So, what’s the upside of such jollifications? Well, believe it or not, they work best if the captive merry-makers are divided [randomly] into teams, to compete in a bit of low-stakes zero-sum-gaming [ranging from silly, pseudo-athletic events to charades and Trivial Pursuit]. To promote the “We’re all in this together” spirit, the Boss Cats have to muck in with the mice [at least one per team], thereby showing what Jolly Good Eggs they are, really. To encourage reference group cohesion, each team should devise a clever name for itself [not necessarily by democratic means]. If all goes well, the use of the Poetic Speech function [jokes, plays on words, mimicry, and general Mick-taking] will increase, and laughter will follow. Stress will decrease. Cortisol production will be slowed.

The “play drive” in dogs has long been recognized and used strategically by their Boss Cats, to increase on-duty “productivity.” [“All work and no play makes Jack a burnt-out, distracted dog.”] It is also a powerful motivator in humans, as taught in Management Courses for Boss Cats. No matter how deadly serious the mission we’re on, inside of each of us there is a Party Animal, waiting for a moment of comic relief. Waiting for the release command, “Dai-jo-bu!”

Leave a comment

Filed under comic relief, reference group, stress and cortisol

Caged Beasts


Even if you don’t live in the DC area, you are no doubt aware that we here are waay past “Winter Wonderland,” and into “Wonder When It Will Ever End?” Let me count the ways this heinous weather pattern has gotten up all our noses. Intrusion: we are all under house arrest today, no matter how many hours we have already spent shoveling our driveways. Fear: as the howling winds threaten to blow our tall, spindly trees onto our house [and maybe even our heads]. As I write, we have so far been spared loss of power; but thousands have not, and are already enduring the pain & suffering of no heat, no light and [here in the countryside] no water. But, as usual, it is humiliation that seems to have turned the area’s no-ruder-than-most drivers into what-are-they-thinking-damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead suicidal/homicidal maniacs. As today’s [soggy] Washington Post Op-Ed article put it, “The snow has fallen, and the flakes are on the road.”

Unlike folks in, say, Michigan, who have grasped through years of trial & error [and no-fault collisions], the humbling fact that 4-wheel drive vehicles are not laws-of-physics-defying Batmobiles which can overcome anything Mother Nature can dish out, these Mid-Atlantic road warriors…have not. Yesterday, for a change, it wasn’t even actively snowing; and I witnessed 3 harrowing collisions, not to mention many flip-overs, all involving SUVs. They “didn’t spend all that money on an all-weather’ vehicle, to wuss around at half-speed just cuz of a little snow!” It’s loss of face they can’t abide, not loss of traction.

Meanwhile, this Winter of Our Discontent has taken its toll on Lili, who is used to her daily one-hour constitutional, featuring brisk trotting and exuberant running. Chris & I found one plowed section of road on the school grounds [about 100 meters long] over the weekend, and ran her to-and-fro between us like a yo-yo, commanding her, “A so ko” [over there] and “Oy i [d]e” [come to me], until [like the old mare, Dusk] she slowed to a walk. No such cleared road exists in our county today, however, so it’s plow through the 4-ft-deep snow in our yard, or pout on the porch, for our caged beast.

So far, I must say, she has maintained her “good sense, good judgment and self-control,” better than most of the snow-bound humans around here have. [I figure, it’s because she is dealing with less humiliation, innit?]

Leave a comment

Filed under born to run, gets right up my nose, limbic system, stress and cortisol

Janus, the Gatekeeper


As the month named for the Greek god of “Shut it!” draws to a close, here’s a meditation on knowing when to say “Enough, already!” An article in the LA Times this week reports the results of an Australian study [through whose methodology one could drive a “ute,” but, oh, well] published in Circulation [as in cardiovascular, not newspaper] asserting, on the basis of subjects’ self-report of their hours spent watching telly in one week [What if it had been this week, and the Australian Open Tennis Tournament was on? S’truth!], that those who watched more than 4 hours per day were “18% more likely to die” than those who watched under 2 hours a day. So, what, if you have no access to telly, you’re going to live forever? Outta sight!

Their point was meant to be that prolonged sitting leads to poor circulatory health. “Switch the bloody thing off and go walkabout!” Sound advice, even if not convincingly proven by their data. I have another theory, having to do with the content of the programmes [it was Oz, after all] watched. In the photo accompanying the news release in the LA Times, a guy was doing a vigorous workout at the gym, while viewing a widescreen telly tuned to a 24-hour news channel. Was this a wry editorial decision, on the part of the newspaper of record for the TV & movie capital of the world, to undercut the message that telly viewing precludes exercise? Pretty cute, if so. Also, it’s grist for the mill for my alternative theory of what’s hazardous to one’s health: 24-hour news channels. All that vicariously traumatizing news, infinitely looped, ineptly analyzed, spun, repeated [you should excuse the expression] ad nauseam: it’s a major producer of cortisol [which the researchers did measure in their 4-hour-plus subjects, and lo, it was sky high].

I’ll wager that 4 hours spent watching comedies, well-made dramas, or sporting events [including horse racing, which produces adrenaline, not cortisol] would be much less toxic than 4 hours of looped news. Wonder if the researchers asked their subjects to list shows by name, or even by genre. Some great data-mining to be had, in them thar hills…

Whenever my clients complain of insomnia, I advise them to reduce their intake, not of caffeine, but of TV news. It is designed to hook you, to instill Fear Of Missing Out in you, to compel you to keep watching. I suggest substituting a cooler medium [in the Marshall McLuhen sense], such as newspapers [or online news sites]. They are less “in your face.” They give you the option to skim, or even [gasp!] skip, cortisol-agenic news items. To be the gatekeeper of your vicarious trauma. To say, “Enough, already!” and get back to your own, possibly less distressing and certainly more relevant, life challenges. I’m not saying you should care less about the calamities of your fellow earthlings. I’m saying you should watch less.

It’s not too late for a New Year’s resolution…

Leave a comment

Filed under confounds, murky research, stress and cortisol, vicarious trauma

Gratitude


No doubt, most gatherings of family, friends & invited strangers seated around the table on this Thanksgiving were given an opportunity to express their gratitude, either individually or collectively, either sincerely or flippantly [depending on the group demographics]. Whatever was identified as a cause for giving thanks, the very act of doing so [according to Martin Seligman and other mavens of Positive Psychology] did the “thanks-giver” good.

In fact, the more unfortunate and hard-done by an individual is feeling [like Lili on the Penalty Box Rug], the more beneficial it is, to “Accentuate the Positive” [as the lyrics of a Depression-era song advised]. Irony is almost unavoidable, and totally okay, in this exercise. Such as, in the genre of joke that ends “…unless you consider the alternative.” [Usually, being dead.] I wonder if there is, even now, a jolly japester fashioning zombie & vampire jokes in this vein…

As part of my dawn get-ready-to-face-the-day routine, while zoning out for 50 minutes of aerobic exercise [in the convenience & privacy of my basement, for which, I give thanks], my iPod playlist includes at least one tongue-in-cheek [but also sincere] “gratitude” song. For years, it has been a song off of The Holloways’ album, So This Is Great Britain? [“Generator”], the refrain of which is, “May I remind you that you don’t live in poverty? You got your youth, and you got food in your belly.” [Well, c’mon, folks, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad, nar’mean?] These days, it tends to be a song off of Paolo Nutini’s 2nd album, Sunnyside Up [“Pencil Full of Lead”], which is a Dixeland-meets-Gilbert & Sullivan-patter-song enumerating the things for which the diminutive Glaswegian son-of-a-fishmonger is grateful, featuring the chorus, “I’ve got food in my belly and a license for my telly.” I feel the BBC should be grateful that young Poalo makes the payment of Britain’s mandatory TV & radio license fee [of 139 pounds, 50 pence, Sterling] sound so fabuloso, with every refrain.

Beyond any metaphysical benefit daily gratitude bestows upon the thanks-giver, at the corporeal level, it blocks the production of cortisol and encourages the production of endorphins. I find it a helpful antidote to the 4 horsemen of what-gets-up-my-nose, on any given day. “It’s 5.15 in the bleedin’ morning, and you’re alive & able-bodied enough to be down here working up a sweat.” [There! Intrusion and pain & suffering neutralized, with one co-ordinate clause.] “While I’m busy here in “the bike room,” Lili is having a barkfest at Arnold, her neighboring German shepherd, thereby adding some joyful chaos to the morning.” [Boom! Intrusion and humiliation re-framed and diminished.]

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Leave a comment

Filed under Epictetus said..., limbic system, stress and cortisol