Category Archives: Thinking and the Brain

Stress: “I’m so stressed out. I don’t know if I can handle a promotion.”

"Out of the Rough" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

The purpose of stress:

The human stress response evolved as a response to emergencies when fight or flight was necessary for survival. When physical survival is your goal, stress is very helpful. Stress hormones rev up the heart rate and blood pressure, improving blood flow, which allows you to act quickly.

Negative effects of unhealthy stress:

Today, we have few physiological emergencies for we are rarely in mortal danger as we were on the African savannah millions of years ago. Yet we still react with stress for purely psychological reasons, such as worries about mortgage payments, traffic jams, and work problems. Unfortunately, stress hormones streaming through our bodies all of the time can cause all sorts of health problems.

Chronic, ongoing stress has been linked directly to a shorter lifespan and disease. The increased adrenaline and cortisol due to chronic stress kills brain cells, leads to heart problems, clots the blood, and causes kidney and liver damage. Large amounts of cortisol can raise blood sugar and cholesterol, which turn into fat around the belly. Fat retention weight gain is often a stress response.

Positive effects of stress:

Staying Alert:

We wouldn’t want to eliminate stress altogether, because it can alert us to the occasional emergency. Mild doses of stress keep you alert while driving in a snowstorm or while sitting in a business meeting.


At the right level and the right time, adrenaline provides excitement and stimulation. Without any stress response, you couldn’t enjoy a speed sport or falling in love. Many people enjoy a ride on a rollercoaster for the simple reason that it invokes the stress response, but it is safe and short lived.

In small doses, and with adequate control and knowledge that we are not really in danger, stress arouses our sensations and heightens our interest and pleasure. Thus, meeting new people and falling in love can be pleasurable partly because of the stress involved.

How to avoid unhealthy stress:

The goal should be to have the right kind of stress and in the right doses — something that is not too dangerous and is transient rather than ongoing.

Research shows that people who have more control in their lives experience less harmful stress. People in low-ranking jobs with no authority experience substantially MORE unhealthy stress than those in the apparently higher-stress, high-power jobs who have more control over their work. Unhealthy stress increases as level and control in one’s job decreases.

However, there can be relief from unhealthy stress in those who feel subordinate in their jobs. When people in low-level jobs view themselves as having a key role in another area of life, such as being captain of a sports team, a parent, or a crucial player in a volunteer organization, they tend to have reduced levels of stress. The key is that they exhibit leadership qualities in an area of life that they see as valuable and important.

Other ways unhealthy stress can be lowered include increased autonomy, appreciation through monetary reward or praise, social affiliation, exercise, laughter, and the practice of mindfulness. Everyone can benefit by finding something they love to do and people to do it with.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “I need to eliminate all stress from my life.”

Watch: “National Geographic: Stress: Portrait of a Killer.”

“He didn’t mean to hurt me. He just pushed me a little too hard.”

"Bounteous" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

While some people tend to catastrophize, others inappropriately minimize significant actions making them seem unimportant. They refuse to see negative or desirable qualities in their partners or in themselves in order to protect their attachment to their partner, no matter how destructive that attachment may be.

A relationship becomes truly toxic when both partners are minimizers, but each in a different way. The abusive partner downplays his (or her) own misconduct and fallibilities, and denies responsibility in an attempt to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. He belittles his partner’s desirable qualities in an attempt to keep her dependent and make her feel worthless and incapable of finding a better relationship.

On the other hand, the abused partner makes light of verbal or physical abuse because she (or he) fears losing her partner. The longer the abuse continues, the more her self-esteem suffers, causing her to lose the confidence required to stand up for herself or move out on her own.

Understandably, these two types of minimizers feed into each others’ distorted thinking. Thus, it’s difficult for them to foresee and avert the resulting descent into a nightmarish relationship based on fear and contempt.

To avoid spiraling into a self-reinforcing pattern of oppression and suffering, it’s helpful to check your own tendencies to minimize. If those who tend to demean others start looking for positive traits in their partner, they will discover that their relationship can actually become enjoyable and based on desire rather than dependence.

On the other hand, those who tend to understate their own desirable qualities should beware of allowing this perspective to damage their own self-respect. Verbal abuse should not be minimized as it erodes the mutual respect that is the basis of happy and thriving relationships. Physical abuse should never be overlooked or tolerated, as it is antithetical to love, fulfillment, and life itself.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Contempt: ‘Don’t look at me that way.'”

“I need to eliminate all stress from my life.”

"In the Loop" — Jim Furyk by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Is it healthier to have stress or no stress in your life?

It depends. As you would expect, longevity and well-being tend to be greater for those with less stress in their lives rather than more stress but no control over it. Studies found clear signs of accelerated aging in those who reported the least control over their lives.

Surprisingly, however, you tend to live the longest, feel happiest, and have the strongest immune system when you DO have stress if it is under your control rather than if you have practically no stress at all. Stress causes cortisol, and having too little cortisol can be just as unhealthy as having too much. Active participation in directing your life with its inherent difficulties turns out to be better than passive acceptance of an easy life or helplessness in face of a difficult life.

Life is rarely stress-free because it requires us to deal with the unknown. However, the more practice we get in handling the unknown, the more confidently we can approach life. The same holds true for hardships; the more actively we endeavor to handle hardships, the greater our ability to take appropriate action in the future.

A good anti-aging tip, therefore, is to only focus on difficulties you can do something about. Taking control requires taking positive steps to deal with challenges, not simply ignoring them and suppressing the resulting stress. Such steps include
~ prioritizing your life,
~ changing your situation,
~ changing your perspective, and — just as important —
~ relieving the mounting tension in healthy ways such as exercising, relaxing with friends or family, and developing a sense of humor.

The violin makes its most beautiful resonance only when its strings are under enough tension.

~Charlie Stuart

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Watch “Natural Defenses in Preventing and Treating Cancer” by Dr. David Servan-Schreiber.

Read “Oh NO! Not another problem!”

“You never show appreciation.”

"Precision" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Seeing patterns and generalizing from them is a crucial human skill. Scientists, business owners, and most capable people develop the ability to spot patterns in human behavior.

Yet, sometimes we make sweeping generalizations that exaggerate or oversimplify reality. Taking one unfortunate incident and jumping to conclusions can create problems.

Even if someone does tend to repeat certain types of behavior, it is not helpful to make overgeneralizations. People get defensive when you say, “You never show appreciation.” “You spend all your time with your friends instead of with me.” “You always interrupt me.”

It’s more effective to be specific and talk about one incident at a time. Limit yourself to specific facts, and focus on a desired solutions.

For instance, if you seek appreciation, you can ask, “Isn’t this dinner I cooked delicious?”

Instead of complaining about someone’s frequent absence, you could suggest, “I’d like to spend some time with you. When can we get together?”

To get someone to stop interrupting, you could say, “Please let me finish” each time you’re interrupted.

Specific positive requests are more likely to get you what you want than gross generalizations.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Black-and-white thinking. ‘I used to think she was fantastic. But it was all a façade. She’s really horrible.'”

“Live in the now, not in the future!”

"Living Legends Wright Brothers"
by Mimi Stuart, Live the LIfe you Desire

Research studies show that individuals’ time orientation influences their “quality and satisfaction of life, relationships, school and work performances, and a variety of other future outcomes.”*

Most individuals are dominated by a particular time preference. Their focus on the past, present, or future is generally determined by cultural influence, upbringing, and personal experience. Each particular orientation has its benefits, but any one in excess can damage the quality of relationships, work performance, safety, and happiness.

1. Past Oriented

Benefit — People who focus on the past can learn from the past and enjoy the nostalgia. If their view of the past is positive — e.g., one of triumph or successful coping — they are likely to have positive expectations of the future.

Problem — They may hang on to grudges, making it difficult to get beyond negative experiences. They may have a limited view of themselves and others based on past events. Dwelling excessively in the past makes it hard to deal with the present or to plan for the future.

2. Present Oriented

Benefit — People who focus on the present are able to enjoy the moment, connect well with people, and experience pleasure. They are carefree, spontaneous, and completely in the present.

Problem — Studies show that people who are dominated excessively by a present orientation are found to be the least likely of the three types to be successful or to find deep happiness. Their inability to delay gratification can lead to reckless behavior, resulting in harm to themselves and others. Impulsive behavior, including addiction, promiscuity and unethical behavior, ironically often leads to a future lacking in pleasure as well as security.

3. Future Oriented

Benefit — People who focus on the future are able to conceptualize long-term consequences, and thus avoid reckless behavior. They take care of their health, finances and are responsible to their family. Planning for the future often leads to a more secure, comfortable, and desirable future.

Problem — Too much planning for the future can lead to workaholism and worry. People who focus excessively on the future miss out on spontaneity, personal connections, and present enjoyment of beauty and pleasure.

Dwelling exclusively in any one time-orientation thwarts overall happiness and effectiveness. Note that your first concern is your present security. If you are being attacked by a grizzly bear, you won’t be thinking about your IRA.

Ideally, we can balance all three time orientations — past, present and future — with different proportions of each depending on the situation. Work may call for greater future orientation, while spending time with loved ones calls for more present orientation, while the lessons from the past may be more relevant when dealing with uncertainty.

It is when we lose sight of other time orientations that we get in trouble. When we make present-day decisions, we need to keep the future in mind (think about drinking and driving, over-eating and other impulsive behavior.) Likewise, when we are at work or doing any kind of planning for the future, it is important to be in the present moment, so we can connect with the people we deal with, enjoy the small moments of beauty, and not let life pass us by. Life feels more embodied, whole and satisfactory if we can stay aware of all time-orientations rather than getting completely carried away by one.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

*Recommended Reading: “The Time Paradox,” in which Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd discuss how the time-focus individuals emphasize greatly shapes how they think and act.

Read “Impulsivity: ‘I knew the negative consequences, but couldn’t resist.’”

Read “Too Responsible to Enjoy.”

“I knew the negative consequences, but couldn’t resist.”

"Wisdom" — Einstein by Mimi Stuart
Live the Life you Desire

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment was a momentous study on the significance of the ability to delay gratification.* A preschool child would be seated at a table in front of a marshmallow, and was given the choice to eat the marshmallow immediately or to receive a second one if he or she could resist eating it for fifteen minutes.

A minority ate the marshmallow immediately while 30% were able to control their impulses long enough to get the second marshmallow. Most tried to resist temptation but soon gave up.

Many years later, the original researcher, Dr. Mischel, discovered that the children who were able to delay gratification became significantly more competent, emotionally balanced, and dependable than those who could not resist instant gratification. They also scored 250 points higher on the SATs, worked well under pressure and in groups, were more confident, and reported being happier in their lives.

Brain imaging showed key differences between the two groups in two areas: the prefrontal cortex (more active in high delayers) and the ventral striatum (more active in the more impulsive children, an area also linked to addictions.)

Mischel’s studies suggest that the ability to wait for a reward involves the “strategic allocation of attention”, that is, the ability to purposely focus one’s attention away from the desirable object. The successful preschoolers, for instance, would distract themselves by moving around, pretending the marshmallow was a stuffed animal, covering their eyes, tapping their fingers, or looking at anything other than the marshmallow.

They also had the ability to consider and hold in their minds the future outcome rather than being swept away by the present temptation. Either through a genetic predisposition or by having been raised in an environment where they learned to wait for what they wanted, they had the capacity to act on the basis of long-term satisfaction rather than instantaneous pleasure.

Ideally, we can learn to enjoy much of the present while working toward a desirable future. In fact, once we’re able to consider both the present and the future simultaneously, then instant gratification loses some of its allure when we know that it could harm our future.

The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

~Albert Einstein

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

* The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment was conducted in 1972 by psychologist Walter Mischel.

Recommended video showing the Marshmallow test by Dr. Walsch who wrote the book “No: Why Kids–of All Ages–Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It.”

Read “I feel terrible about not being able to buy my kids what all their friends have. But I can’t afford to buy them new ipods and shoes right now.”