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Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a confirmed couch potato. Not that I am proud of that fact–I just seem to have a stubbornly sluggish physiology. I like the idea of exercise; it’s the ooze of sweat and the burn of lactic acid that turn me off. Add to that the fact that I am not good at sport—or movement, for that matter—and the reason for my inactivity should be apparent. With my obvious lack of basic coordination, I make orcs look graceful.

At my high school graduation, one of my happiest realisations was that I would NEVER again have to endure PE and its associated shames. What a joyous day that was! I was too tuckered out to burn my joggers, though, and leaping for joy was way too strenuous.

Now, many years (many, many years) later,  in my couch potato-ly wisdom, I focus on doing the things I’m good at. Like reading.

In my extensive reading I have discovered—to my consternation—that exercise actually has some desirable side-effects. Apparently, one of the benefits of exercise is a mood lift. I am highly sceptical about that one, because it is way beyond my powers of imagination to see how sweat and pain can improve your mood. However, diehard runners and cyclists I know assure me it is true! Go figure.

Scientists point to brain chemicals to explain this phenomenon. Exercise causes the pituitary gland to trigger the release of powerful chemicals called endorphins, the body’s natural pain killer. Their release results in a rush of pleasure, commonly known as a “runner’s high.” I also discovered in my reading that this endorphin release happens only AFTER thirty (that’s 3-0) minutes of strenuous exercise, which probably explains why I’ve never experienced it.

Regular exercise, according to one source, is so good for mood enhancement that some researchers are claiming it is as useful as anti-depressant medication in the treatment of depression in laboratory conditions. Many doctors prescribe both—medication and exercise together. Neuro-researchers are studying the little understood side effect of exercise called neurogenesis and its positive effects on the depressed brain. Amazingly, aerobic exercise actually triggers the growth of new nerve cells called neurons and enhances their connectivity. (So, begging your pardon for my gross oversimplification: Exercise makes important parts of your brain grow denser and function better!)

Here’s the real kicker: the effects of exercise are shown to improve learning and memory in laboratory conditions. We’re talking rats—in little Lycra gym suits and itty-bitty sweat bands. Compared to the couch-potato rats, the gym-junky rats learn better, perform better, and have denser brain tissue. And they’re not cranky or morose either—at least not until they lose their enhanced brains and active lifestyle to the scalpel! Scientists are not suggesting that working out will create geniuses (so put down that barbell, Einstein!) Unfortunately, the accelerated learning plateaus in the exercising lab rats.

The benefits of exercise are not limited to adults. Children’s learning can be enhanced as fine and gross motor skills are developed through play and physical activity. Kids who are fit generally experience better health and higher self-esteem than their unfit peers. Social skills and team work are picked up on the playing field and the playground. At a time in history when teenagers are more sedentary than ever before, the moodiness of today’s teens is legendary. It doesn’t take a scientist to see a crucial link between their lack of activity and adolescent irritability.

Even a confirmed couch potato like me has to concede that the benefits of exercise, sharper memory and better mood , are well worth the sweat. You might not be able to exercise your way to brilliance, but you can definitely exercise yourself happy!

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Highly Sensitive People. It sounds like a group to avoid—at all costs.

The truth is, highly sensitive people are not awful, nor are they dramatic, hysterical or controlling. High sensitivity is not necessarily referring to excessive emotional output but rather to a physiological profile. The highly sensitive person is one who, from birth, reacts quickly and strongly to external stimuli and who takes a longer time than normal to return to homeostasis. The physiological sensitivity can be objectively quantified by monitoring heart rate, pupil dilation, breathing, and hormone levels.

Researchers believe one in five babies are born with this high physiological sensitivity and that it is an enduring trait in most cases.  Research has found there is an even distribution of high sensitivity amongst men and women. Australian psychologist and researcher Dr Paula Barrett lists high physiological sensitivity as the most significant risk factor in child development, as it often contributes to problems with anxiety and depression in adolescence and adulthood.

A highly sensitive person is acutely attuned to the physical environment. He or she has an awareness of subtleties that are off the radar of people of average sensitivity. Light, smells, textures, air quality, temperature, space, mood, and time constraints are factors that the highly sensitive person constantly unconsciously moderates. The HSP’s senses are not necessarily keener; his or her brain processes the information more thoroughly. This sensitivity is both a blessing and a curse.

On the positive side, highly sensitive people (HSP) tend to be thorough, highly creative, and productive. They enjoy a deep inner life and have a profound appreciation and experience of colour, beauty, music, flavours, and nature. Their thoughtful processing and careful work can produce excellent results.

The downside to high sensitivity is that the high levels of sensory input can be overwhelming. HSPs tend to become overstimulated in crowds and in situations involving noise, pollution, and bright lights. Zoning out can be a sign of overwhelm or a coping mechanism to avoid fatigue. Either way, such withdrawal can seem unsociable or overly shy.

Psychologists have been inclined to use words like shy, inhibited or introverted to describe HSPs. They generally use a spectrum which has “bold” on the positive end and “shy” on the negative end, connoting shyness as a pathology of some sort and boldness as the optimum standard. Indeed, our culture prizes toughness and nerve over sensitivity.  However, one look at actors like Jim Carey and it becomes quite clear that boldness in the extreme can be obnoxious and equally as problematic as shyness in the extreme.

This alternative paradigm of high physiological sensitivity is useful because it removes the judgement from this temperament, allowing for and describing not only weaknesses but strengths as well. Moreover, researchers have discovered that approximately 30% of HSPs are in fact extroverts, a fact which proves that the label “shy” is not always appropriate or accurate.

Highly sensitive people are not flaky, as the name unfortunately implies; they simply have a nervous system that is biologically more vigilant. It is like comparing a generic brand telescope with the Hubble telescope and implying the Hubble is odd and defective because of its sensitivity. When people appreciate high sensitivity for what it is and isn’t—a physiological sensitivity rather than an emotional proclivity—they will be able to live and work with people with compassion and understanding.

A highly sensitive person needs understanding. They have to deal with a lot more sensory input than the other 80% of the population, and the load can be tiring. HSPs require time and space to recuperate after highly stimulating events. Solitude, quiet, low lighting, and greenery are restorative.

Parents of children who are highly sensitive (HSC) will do well to teach their child self-soothing techniques, such as time out (not the punishment, but rather time alone), playing with a pet, journalling with words or art, play time outdoors, and utilising tactile soothing strategies, such as stroking a soft toy or squeezing a stress ball. Teachers can learn to recognise signs of overstimulation and make allowances for individual learning styles.  Allowing the use of an IPod or time with the head on the desk can be supportive of the HSC. Some students doodle to self-soothe or assist in processing information, a fact that teachers should consider before prohibiting it outright.

For more information on high sensitivity, books by Dr Elaine N Aron are helpful. One of the pioneers of the highly sensitive person profile, her work is thorough, empirically based and gaining recognition in the world of psychology.  http://www.hsperson.com/ 

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