Erik Peper and Richard Harvey
COVID-19 can sometimes overwhelm young and old immune systems and in some cases can result in ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome’ pneumonia and death (CDC (2020). The risk is greater for older people who may simultaneously be dealing with cancers, heart disease, diabetes, emphysema or other health issues. As we age the immune system deteriorates (immunosenescence) which reduces the response of the adaptive immune system that needs to respond to the virus infection (Aw, Silva & Palmer, 2007; Osttan, Monti, Gueresi, et al., 2016).
Severity of disease may depend upon initial dose of the virus
In a brilliant article, How does the coronavirus behave inside a patient? We’ve counted the viral spread across peoples; now we need to count it within people, assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and cancer physician Siddhartha Mukherjee points out that severity of the disease may be related to the initial dose of the virus. Namely, if you receive a very small dose (not too many virus particles), they will infect you; however, the body can activate its immune response to cope with the infection. The low dose exposure act similar to vaccination. If on the other hand you are exposed to a very high dose then your body is overwhelmed with the infection and is unable to respond effectively. Think of a forest fire. A small fire can easily be suppressed since there is enough time to upgrade the fire-fighting resources; however, during a fire-storm with multiple fires occurring at the same time, the fire-fighting resources are overwhelmed and there is not enough time to recruit outside fire-fighting resources.
As Mukherjee points out this dose exposure relationship with illness severity has a long history. For example, before vaccinations for childhood illnesses were available, a child who became infected at the playground usually experienced a mild form of the disease. However, the child’s siblings who were infected at home develop a much more severe form of the disease.
The child infected in the playground most likely received a relatively small dose of the virus over a short time period (viral concentration in the air is low). On the other hand, the siblings who were infected at home by their infected brother or sister received a high concentration of the virus over an extended period which initially overwhelmed their immune system. Higher virus concentration is more likely during the winter and in well insulated/sealed houses where the air is recirculated without going through HEPA or UV filters to sterilize the air. When there is no fresh air to decrease or remove the virus concentration, the risk of severity of illness may be higher.
The risk of becoming sick with COVID-19 can only occur if you are exposed to the coronavirus and the competency of your immune system. This can be expressed in the following equation.This equation suggests two strategies to reduce risk: reduce coronavirus load/exposure and strengthen the immune system.
What can you do to reduce the dose of virus exposure
Assume that everyone is contagious even though they may appear healthy. Research suggests that people are already contagious before developing symptoms or are asymptomatic carriers who do not get sick and thereby unknowingly spread the virus. Dutch researchers have reported that, “The proportion of pre-symptomatic transmission was 48% for Singapore and 62% for Tianjin, China (Ganyani et al, 2020). Thus, the intervention to isolate people who have symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, dry cough, etc.) most likely will miss the asymptomatic carriers who may infect the community without awareness. Only if you have been tested, do you know if you been exposed or recovered from the virus. To reduce exposure the dose of virus exposure, do the following.
- Follow the public health guidelines:
- Social distancing (physical distancing while continuing to offer social support)
- Washing your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds.
- Not touching your face to prevent microorganisms and viruses to enter the body through mucosal surfaces of the nose mouth and eyes.
- Cleaning surfaces which could have been touched by other such as door bell, door knobs, packages.
- Wearing a mask and gloves to reduce spreading the virus to others.
- Increase fresh air to reduce virus concentration. By increasing the fresh outside air circulation, you dilute the virus concentration that may be shed by an infected asymptomatic or sick person. Thus, if you are exposed to the virus, you may receive a lower dose and increase the probability that you experience a milder version of the disease. To increase fresh air (this assumes that outside air is not polluted), explore the following:
- Open the windows to allow cross ventilation through your house or work setting. One of the major reasons that the flu season spikes in the winter is that people congregate indoors to escape weather extremes. People keep their windows closed to conserve heat and reduce heating bill costs. Lack of fresh air circulation increases the viral density and risk of illness severity (Foster, 2014).
- Use an exhaust fans to ventilate a building. By continuously replacing the inside “stale” air with fresh outside air, the concentration of the virus in the air is reduced.
- Use High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) air purifiers to filter the air within a room. These devices will filter out particles whose diameter is equal to 0.3 µ m. They will not totally filter out the virus; however, they will reduce it.
- Avoid buildings with recycled air unless the heating and air conditioning system (HAC) uses HEPA filters.
- Wear a mask to protect other people and your community. The mask will reduce the shedding of the virus to others by people with COVID-19 or those who are asymptomatic carriers.
How to strengthen your immune system to fight the virus
The immune system is dynamic and many factors as well as individual differences affect its ability to fight the virus. It is possible that a 40 year-old person may have an immune systems that functions as a 70 year old, while some 70 year-olds have an immune system that function as a 40 year-old. Factors that contribute to immune competence include genetics, aging, previous virus exposure, and lifestyle (Lawton, 2020).
By taking charge of your lifestyle habits through an integrated approach, you may be able to strengthen your immune system (Alschuler et al, 2020; Lawton, 2020). The following tables, adapted from the published articles by Lawton (2020) and Alschuler et al, (2020), list some of the factors that may strengthen or weaken the immune system.
Factors that strengthen the immune system
Factors that may weaken the immune system
These factors have been superbly summarized by the World Health Organization Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom in his presentation, Practical tips how to keep yourself safe.
Ganyani, T., Kremer, C., Chen, D., Torneri, A, Faes, C., Wallinga, J., & Hensm N. (2020). Estimating the generation interval for COVID-19 based on symptom onset data doi:https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.03.05.20031815
Ostan, R., Monti, D., Gueresi, P., Bussolotto, M., Franceschi, C., & Baggio, G. (2016). Gender, aging and longevity in humans: An update of an intriguing/neglected scenario paving the way to a gender-specific medicine. Clinical Science, 130(19), 1711-1725.
This blog is based upon our breathing research that began in the 1990s, This research helped identify dysfunctional breathing patterns that could contribute to illness. We developed coaching/teaching strategies with biofeedback to optimize breathing patterns, improve health and performance (Peper and Tibbetts, 1994; Peper, Martinez Aranda and Moss, 2015; Peper, Mason, and Huey, 2017).
For example, people with asthma were taught to reduce their reactivity to cigarette smoke and other airborne irritants (Peper and Tibbitts, 1992; Peper and Tibbetts, 2003). The participants first learned effortless slow diaphragmatic breathing and then were taught that the moment they would become aware of an airborne irritant such as cigarette smoke, they would hold their breath and relax their body. Then they moved away from the polluted air while exhaling very slowly through their nose and when the air was clearer they would inhale and continue effortless diaphragmatically breathing (Peper and Tibbetts, 1994). From this research we propose that people may reduce exposure to the coronavirus by changing their breathing pattern; however the first step is prevention by following the recommended public health guidelines.
- Social distancing (physical distancing while continuing to offer social support)
- Washing your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds
- Not touching your face
- Cleaning surfaces which could have been touched by other such as door bell, door knobs, packages.
- Wearing a mask and gloves
Reduce your exposure to the virus when near other people by changing your breathing pattern
Normally when startled or surprised, we tend to gasp and inhale air rapidly. When someone sneezes, coughs or exhales near you, we often respond with a slight gasp and inhale their droplets. To reduce inhaling their droplets (which may contain the coronavirus virus), implement the following:
- When a person is getting too close
- Hold your breath with your mouth closed and relax your shoulders (just pause your breathing) as you move away from the person.
- Gently exhale through your nose (do not inhale before exhaling)-just exhale how little or much air you have
- When far enough away, gently inhale through your nose.
- Remember to relax and feel your shoulders drop when holding your breath. It will last for only a few seconds as you move away from the person. Exhale before inhaling through your nose.
- When a person coughs or sneezes
- Hold your breath, rotate you head away from the person and move away from them while exhaling though your nose.
- If you think the droplets of the sneeze or cough have landed on you or your clothing, go home, disrobe outside your house, and put your clothing into the washing machine. Take a shower and wash yourself with soap.
- When passing a person ahead of you or who is approaching you
- Inhale before they are too close and exhale through your nose as you are passing them.
- After you are more than 6 feet away gently inhale through your nose.
- When talking to people outside
- Stand so that the breeze/wind hits both people from the same side so that the exhaled droplets are blown away from both of you (down wind).
These breathing skills seem so simple; however, in our experience with people with asthma and other symptoms, it took practice, practice, and practice to change their automatic breathing patterns. The new pattern is pause (stop) the breath and then exhale through your nose. Remember, this breathing pattern is not forced and with practice it will occur effortlessly.
The following blogs offer instructions for mastering effortless diaphragmatic breathing.
Peper, E. & Tibbetts, V. (1994). Effortless diaphragmatic breathing. Physical Therapy Products. 6(2), 67-71. Also in: Electromyography: Applications in Physical Therapy. Montreal: Thought Technology Ltd.
Adapted from the upcoming book, Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Faass, (in press). Tech Stress: How Technology Is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
Numerous people report that working at the computer at home is more tiring than working in the office. Although there are obvious advantages to working at home, there are also disadvantages (e.g., no space to work, challenging ergonomics, no escape from the family, lack of nonverbal cues used to communicate, less informal sharing at the water cooler, increased multitasking by working and having to take care of the children).
A major challenge is having a comfortable work space in your home. This may mean finding a place to put the computer, keyboard and screen. For some it is the kitchen table, desk in the corner of the bedroom, or coffee table while other it is in a totally separate room.
Incorrect ergonomic arrangement and stressed work style often increases neck, shoulder discomfort and aggravates eye strain and tiredness. Regardless how your digital work space is organized, implement the following life and work style suggestions and ergonomics recommendations to promote health.
LIFE AND WORK STYLE SUGGESTIONS
Take many, many, many breaks. Movement breaks will reduce the covert static tension that builds up as we sit in static positions and work at the computer.
- Every few minutes take a small break such as stand up and wiggle or role your shoulders. When performing the movements, stop looking at the screen and look around the room or out the window.
- Every 30 minutes get up walk around for and move your body. Use timers to notify you every 30 minutes to take a break (e.g., cellphone alarms or personal digital assistants such as Hey Google, Siri, or Alexa).
- Take vision breaks to reduce eye fatigue.
- Every few minutes look away from the screen and into the far distance and blink. If at all possible look outside at green plants which relaxes the near vision induced tension.
- Blink and blink again. When working at the computer we reduce our blinking rate. Thus, blink each time you click on a new link, finishing entering a column of numbers, etc.
- Close your eyes by letting the eye lids drop down as you also relax your jaw. Imagine a hook on top of your head which is pulling your head upward and at the same time drop your shoulders.
- Reduce glare and bright backgrounds
- Arrange your computer screen at 90 degrees to the brightest light source.
- Have a darker background behind you when participating in video conferencing (e.g., Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting, WhatsApp, FaceTime). Your face will be visible.
- When stressed remember to breathe. As you inhale let your stomach expand as you exhale let the air flow out slowly.
- Stop watching and listening to the negative news (check the news no more than once a day). Watch positive and humorous movies.
- Get fresh air, go for a walk, and be in the sun
- Reconnect with friends and share positive experiences.
- Remind yourself, that this too shall pass.
ERGONOMIC RECOMMENDATIONS: MAKE THE WORLD YOURS
Good ergonomics means adapting the equipment and environment to you and not the other way around. Optimizes the arrangement of the chair, desk, keyboard, mouse, camera, screen and yourself as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Recommended arrangement for working at the computer.
Arrange the laptop
The laptop is challenging because if your hands are at the right height for data entry on the keyboard, then you must look down to see the screen. If the screen at the right height, then you have to raise your hands to reach the keyboard. There are two solutions for this challenge.
- Use an external keyboard and mouse, then raise the laptop so that the top of the screen is at eye level. Use a laptop stand or a stack of books to raise the lap top.
- Use an external monitor for display, then use the laptop as your keyboard.
If these solutions are not possible, take many, many, many breaks to reduce the neck and shoulder stress.
Arrange the computer workstation
- Adjust the chair so that your forearms can rest on the table without raising your shoulders. This may mean sitting on a pillow. If the chair is then too high and your legs dangle, create a foot stool on which you can rest your feet.
- Adjust the monitor so that the top of the screen is at eye level. If the monitor is too low, raise it by putting some books underneath it.
- If possible, alternate standing and sitting while working.
Ergonomic suggestions for working at the computer and laptop.
11 tips for working at home
How our digital world activates evolutionary response patterns.
How posture affects health
The coronavirus which causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) appears to be a highly contagious disease. Some older people and those who are immune compromised are more at risk. The highest risk are for older people who already have cardiovascular, diabetes, respiratory disease, and hypertension. In addition, older men over 80 years are much more at risk; however, the majority are smokers who have a compromised pulmonary system. Previous meta analysis showed that smoking was consistently associated with higher risk of hospital admissions after influenza infection. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that over time all most all of us will become exposed to the virus, a few will get very sick, and even fewer will die.
The preliminary data suggests that most people who become infected may not even know they are infectious. The absolute risk that one would die of this disease is low although if you do become very sick it may be more dangerous than the normal flu; however, the fear of this disease may be out of proportion compared to other health risks. For detailed analysis and graphic summaries see the updated research reports on the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) by Our World in Data and Information is beautiful. These reports make data and research on the world’s largest problems understandable and accessible.
It is worthwhile to look at the absolute risk of COVID-19. To read that more than 51,000 people world wide have died in the last three months is terrifying especially with the increasing death rate in Italy and Europe; however, it needs to be understood in context of the size of the population. The epicenter of this disease was Wuhan and Hubei Provence, China with a total population of about 60 million people. Each year about 427,200 people die in the Wuhan and Hubei Province (the annual death rate in China is 7.12 deaths per 1000 people). Without this new viral disease, about 71,200 people would have died during the same two month period. The question that has not been discussed is how much did the total death rate increase. Would it be possible that some of the people who died would have died of other natural causes such as the flu?
The World Health Organization (WHO) and governments around the world should be lauded for their attempt to reduce the spread of the virus. On March 6, 2020, the United States Congress allocated $8. billion dollars to fight and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
This funding will only partially prevent the spread of the virus because some people have no choice but to go to work when they are sick–they do not receive paid sick leave! This is true for about 30 percent of the American workers who have no coverage at work or the millions of self-employed workers (e.g. gig/freelance workers, waiters, cashiers, drivers, nannies, house cleaners).
To reduce the risk of the spreading COVID-19, anyone who feels sick or thinks they have been exposed, should receive paid sick leave so that they can stay home and self-isolate. The paid sick leave should be Federally funded and provide basic income for those whose income would be lost if they did not work. Although it is possible that a few people will cheat and take the paid sick leave when they are well, this is worth the risk to keep the rest of population healthy. To provide possible relief, at the moment the House and Senate are working on a greater than $1 trillion dollar stimulus package.
Personal and government responses to health risks are not always rational.
Funding for health and illness prevention is driven by politics. For example, gun violence results in more than 100,000 people being injured each year and more than 36,000 killed—an average of 100 per day. Gun violence is a much more virulent disease than COVID-19 and more than 1.7 million Americans have died from firearms since 1968.
The Federal Government response to this gun violence epidemic has been minimal. For the first time since 1996 did the 2020 federal budget include $25 million funding for the CDC and NIH to research reducing gun-related deaths and injuries.
It is clear that the government response does not always focuses its resources on what would reduce injury and death rates the most. Look at the difference in the national response to COVID-19 virus that has killed more than 5,780 people in the USA ($8.5 billion for the initial response) as compared gun violence that kills 36,000 people a year in the USA ($25 million).
Be realistic about the actual risk of COVID-19 without succumbing to fear.
COVID-19 is a pandemic and I expect that 30% to 70% of us will be infected this year. Hopefully, in the next 18 months an effective vaccine will be developed. In the mean time, there is no known treatment, thus optimize health and reduce the exposure to the coronavirus. Use the same precautions and treatment as you would do for the flu.
- How to reduce exposure to the coronavirus
- Optimize your health and immune function by eating healthy, getting enough sleep, enjoying some exercise/movement and reducing stress.
- Increase social distance when with other people–greet people by bumping each others elbows or feet instead of a handshake or a kiss on the cheek.
- Wash your hands after touching surfaces that others may have touched or after going out for shopping, work, pleasure and/or meeting other people.
- Avoid touching your face especially your mouth, nose and eyes.
- Sanitize hard surfaces. Malia Jones, PhD, MPH points out that you can make your own inexpensive antimicrobial spray by mixing 1 part household bleach to 99 parts cold tap water. Spray this on surfaces and leave for 10-30 minutes. (Note: this is bleach. It will ruin your sofa).
- If you think you have the disease or have symptoms, contact your healthcare provider. Wear a mask and self-isolate to reduce spreading the virus to others.
- Increase fresh air circulation.
- Reliable information about COVID-19
- World Health Organization (WHO): https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public
- Centers for Disease Control (CDC): https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/index.html
- Graphic representation of the background of the COVID-19 infection and relationship to other diseases
- Summary of what is the corona virus: https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus#citation
- Graphic representation of coronavirus in context to other diseases: https://informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/covid-19-coronavirus-infographic-datapack/
- Accurate information on number of infections, new cases and deaths: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/
To make sense of the danger of COVID-19, look at it in context to the flu. Depending upon the severity the flu, 9,000,000 to 45,000,000 people get sick from flu and between 12,000 to 61,000 die from its complications. as shown below in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The estimated U.S. influenza burden by year (from: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/index.html)
This year the CDC estimates that there have been 20,000 to 40,000 deaths in the United States so far this year. For comparison that is a thousand times more deaths in the United States than have been blamed on the coronavirus so far.
When you woke up this morning, how did you feel? Were you looking forward to the day anticipating with joy what would occur or were you dreading the day as if once again you had to step on the treadmill of life?
Whenever I ask this question of college students in their junior or senior year at an urban university about 20% will answer that they are looking forward to the day. The majority answer, “Well not really”, or even “Oh shit, another day”. For many students the burden of working 40 plus hours a week to pay for rent and tuition, worrying about financial debt, the challenge of commuting, and finding time to do the homework is overwhelming. Focusing on quality of life is not only a challenge for students, but for all of us.
Each day ask yourself, “Am I looking forward to my day and my activities?” If the answer is “No,” begin to explore new options. Ask yourself, “What would I like to do? Start to explore and imagine new options and then begin to plan how to implement them so that you are on the path to where you want to be.
Creating a worthwhile life is an ongoing challenge. An inspiring essay by Steven James articulates this by exploring factors that contribute to sickness and health during the height of the AIDs epidemic. He outline rules that contribute to 1) how to get sick, 2) how to get sicker (if you are already sick), and 3) how to stay well (or get better, if you are not so well to begin with).
|Steven James’s Totally Subjective, Nonscientific Guide to Illness and Health: Ten-Step Programs
How to Get Sick
· Don’t pay attention to your body. Eat plenty of junk food, drink too much, take drugs, have lots of unsafe sex with lots of different partners—and, above all, feel guilty about it. If you are overstressed and tired, ignore it and keep pushing yourself.
· Cultivate the experience of your life as meaningless and of little value.
· Do the things you don’t like, and avoid doing what you really want. Follow everyone else’s opinions and advice, while seeing yourself as miserable and “stuck.”
· Be resentful and hypercritical, especially toward yourself.
· Fill your mind with dreadful pictures, and then obsess over them. Worry most, if not all, of the time.
· Avoid deep, lasting, intimate relationships.
· Blame other people for all your problems.
· Do not express your feelings and views openly and honestly. Other people wouldn’t appreciate it. If at all possible, do not even know what your feelings are.
· Shun anything that resembles a sense of humor. Life is no laughing matter!
· Avoid making any changes that would bring you greater satisfaction and joy.
How to Get Sicker (If You’re Already Sick)
· Think about all the awful things that could happen to you. Dwell upon negative, fearful images.
· Be depressed, self-pitying, envious, and angry. Blame everyone and everything for your illness.
· Read articles, books, and newspapers, watch TV programs, surf the net, and listen to people who reinforce the viewpoint that there is NO HOPE. You are powerless to influence your fate.
· Cut yourself off from other people. Regard yourself as a pariah. Lock yourself up in your room and contemplate death.
· Hate yourself for having destroyed your life. Blame yourself mercilessly and incessantly.
· Go to see lots of different doctors. Run from one to another, spend half your time in waiting rooms, get lots of conflicting opinions and lots of experimental drugs, starting one program after another without sticking to any.
· Quit your job, stop work on any projects, give up all activities that bring you a sense of purpose and fun. See your life as essentially pointless, and at an end.
· Complain about your symptoms, and if you associate with anyone, do so exclusively with other people who are unhappy and embittered. Reinforce each other’s feelings of hopelessness.
· Don’t take care of yourself. What’s the use? Try to get other people to do it for you, and then resent them for not doing a good job.
· Think how awful life is, and how you might as well be dead. But make sure you are absolutely terrified of death, just to increase the pain.
|How to Stay Well (Or Get Better, If You’re Not So Well to Begin With)
· Do things that bring you a sense of fulfillment, joy, and purpose, that validate your worth. See your life as your own creation and strive to make it a positive one.
· Pay close and loving attention to yourself, tuning in to your needs on all levels. Take care of yourself, nourishing, supporting, and encouraging yourself.
· Release all negative emotions—resentment, envy, fear, sadness, anger. Express your feelings appropriately; don’t hold onto them. Forgive yourself.
· Hold positive images and goals in your mind, pictures of what you truly want in your life. When fearful images arise, refocus on images that evoke feelings of peace and joy.
· Love yourself, and love everyone else. Make loving the purpose and primary expression of your life.
· Create fun, loving, honest relationships, allowing for the expression and fulfillment of needs for intimacy and security. Try to heal any wounds in past relationships, as with old lovers, and with your mother and father.
· Make a positive contribution to your community, through some form of work or service that you value and enjoy.
· Make a commitment to health and well-being, and develop a belief in the possibility of wholeness. Develop your own healing program, drawing on the support and advice of experts without becoming enslaved to them.
· Accept yourself and everything in your life as an opportunity for growth and learning. Be grateful. When you fuck up, forgive yourself, learn what you can from the experience, and then move on.
· Keep a sense of humor.
As you go into the New Year, remind yourself that life has choices.
Adapted from: Peper, E., Pollack, W., Harvey, R., Yoshino, A., Daubenmier, J. & Anziani, M. (2019). Which quiets the mind more quickly and increases HRV: Toning or mindfulness? NeuroRegulation, 6(3), 128-133.
Disruptive thoughts, ruminations and worrying are common experiences especially when stressed. Numerous clinical strategies such as cognitive behavioral therapy attempt to teach clients to reduce negative ruminations (Kopelman-Rubin, Omer, & Dar, 2017). Over the last ten years, many people and therapists practice meditative techniques to let go and not be captured by negative ruminations, thoughts, and emotions. However, many people continue to struggle with distracting and wandering thoughts.
Just think back when you’re upset, hurt, angry or frustrated. Attempting just to observe without judgment can be very, very challenging as the mind keeps rehearsing and focusing on what happened. Telling yourself to stop being upset often doesn’t work because your mind is focused on how upset you are. If you can focus on something else or perform physical activity, the thoughts and feelings often subside.
Over the last fifteen years, mindfulness meditation has been integrated and adapted for use in behavioral medicine and psychology (Peper, Harvey, & Lin, 2019). It has also been implemented during bio- and neurofeedback training (Khazan, 2013; Khazan, 2019). Part of the mindfulness instruction is to recognize the thoughts without judging or becoming experientially “fused” with them. A process referred to as “meta-awareness” (Dahl, Lutz, & Davidson, 2015). Mindfulness training combined with bio- and neurofeedback training can improve a wide range of psychological and physical health conditions associated with symptoms of stress, such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and addiction (Creswell, 2015, Khazan, 2019).
Mindfulness is an effective technique; however, it may not be more effective than other self-regulations strategies (Peper et al, 2019). Letting go of worrying thoughts and rumination is even more challenging when one is upset, angry, or captured by stressful life circumstances. Is it possible that other strategies beside mindfulness may more rapidly reduce wandering and intrusive thoughts? In 2015, researchers van der Zwan, de Vente, Huiznik, Bogels, & de Bruin found that physical activity, mindfulness meditation and heart rate variability biofeedback were equally effective in reducing stress and its related symptoms when practiced for five weeks.
Our research explored whether other techniques from the ancient wisdom traditions could provide participants tools to reduce rumination and worry. We investigated the physiological effects and subject experiences of mindfulness and toning. Toning is vocalizing long and sustained sounds as a form of mediation. (Watch the video the toning demonstration by sound healer and musician, Madhu Anziani at the end of the blog.)
COMPARING TONING AND MINDFULNESS
The participants were 91 undergraduate college students (35 males, 51 females and 5 unspecified; average age, 22.4 years, (SD = 3.5 years).
After sitting comfortably in class, each student practiced either mindfulness or toning for three minutes each. After each practice, the students rated the extent of mind wandering, occurrence of intrusive thoughts and sensations of vibration on a scale from 0 (not all) to 10 (all the time). They also rated pre and post changes in peacefulness, relaxation, stress, warmth, anxiety and depression. After completing the assessment, they practice the other practice and after three minutes repeated the assessment.
The physiological changes that may occur during mindfulness practice and toning practice was recorded in a separate study with 11 undergraduate students (4 males, 7 females; average age 21.4 years. Heart rate and respiration were monitored with ProComp Infiniti™ system (Thought Technology, Ltd., Montreal, Canada). Respiration was monitored from the abdomen and upper thorax with strain gauges and heartrate was monitored with a blood volume pulse sensor placed on the thumb.
After the sensors were attached, the participants faced away from the screen so they did not receive feedback. They then followed the same procedure as described earlier, with three minutes of mindfulness, or toning practice, counterbalanced. After each condition, they completed a subjective assessment form rating experiences as described above.
RESULTS: SUBJECTIVE FINDINGS
Toning was much more successful in reducing mind wandering and intrusive thoughts than mindfulness. Toning also significantly increased awareness of body vibration as compared to mindfulness as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Differences between mindfulness and toning practice.
There was no significant difference between toning and mindfulness in the increased self-report of peacefulness, warmth, relaxation, and decreased self-report of anxiety and depression as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. No significant difference between toning and mindfulness practice in relaxation or stress reports.
RESULTS: PHYSIOLOGICAL FINDINGS
Respiration rate was significantly lower during toning (4.6 br/min) as compared to mindfulness practice (11.6 br/min); heart rate standard deviation (SDNN) was much higher during toning condition (11.6) (SDNN 103.7 ms) than mindfulness (6.4) (SDNN 61.9 ms). Two representative physiological recording are shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Representative recordings of breathing and heart rate during mindfulness and toning practice. During toning the respiration rate (chest and abdomen) was much slower than during mindfulness and baseline conditions. Also, during toning heart rate variability was much larger than during mindfulness or baseline conditions.
Toning practice is a useful strategy to reduce mind wandering as well as inhibit intrusive thoughts and increase heart rate variability (HRV). Most likely toning uses the same neurological pathways as self-talk and thus inhibits the negative and hopeless thoughts. Toning is a useful meditation alternative because it instructs people to make a sound that vibrates in their body and thus they attend to the sound and not to their thoughts.
Physiologically, toning immediately changed the respiration rate to less than 6 breaths per minute and increases heart rate variability. This increase in heart rate variability occurs without awareness or striving. We recommend that toning is integrated as a strategy to complement bio-neurofeedback protocols. It may be a useful approach to enhance biofeedback-assisted HRV training since toning increases HRV without trying and it may be used as an alternative to mindfulness, or used in tandem for maximum effectiveness.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE
1) When people report feeling worried and anxious and have difficulty interrupting ruminations that they first practice toning before beginning mindfulness meditation or bio-neurofeedback training.
2) When training participants to increase heart rate variability, toning could be a powerful technique to increase HRV without striving
TONING DEMONSTRATION AND INSTRUCTION BY SOUND HEALER MADHU ANZIANI
For the published article see: Peper, E., Pollack, W., Harvey, R., Yoshino, A., Daubenmier, J. & Anziani, M. (2019). Which quiets the mind more quickly and increases HRV: Toning or mindfulness? NeuroRegulation, 6(3), 128-133.
Kopelman-Rubin, D., Omer, H., & Dar, R. (2017). Brief therapy for excessive worry: Treatment model, feasibility, and acceptability of a new treatment. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 29(3), 291-306.
van der Zwan, J. E., de Vente, W., Huizink, A. C., Bogels, S. M., & de Bruin, E. I. (2015). Physical activity, mindfulness meditation, or heart rate variability biofeedback for stress reduction: A randomized controlled trial. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 40(4), 257-268. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-015-9293-x
Erik Peper, PhD and Rachel Zoffness, PhD*
KM was 14 years old when he came to my (Zoffness) office for treatment. He’d been diagnosed with migraine and cyclical vomiting syndrome and had been in bed for about 3 years. He had long, unwashed hair; was a sickly, pasty white; and rocked himself back and forth from the pain. He’d seen 15 doctors and had been prescribed 30 medications, including occipital nerve injections and Thorazine. Nothing had worked. Like most teens with chronic pain, KM was depressed, stressed, and terrified he’d never get his life back.
We started Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), beginning with pain neuroscience education. This involved teaching KM and his family how pain works in the brain, and how thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and behaviors work together to trigger and maintain flares. He then learned a variety of cognitive, behavioral and mind-body techniques to help manage and change pain. His parents received parent-training to support him behind the scenes. After a few weeks of treatment, KM was able to get out of bed and walk to the corner mailbox. After a few more weeks, he was able to walk his dog to the dog park and get a haircut. Within a few months he was jogging around the block, then running. As his functioning increased, his brain desensitized and his body strengthened, his pain started to recede. Gradually he returned to school and social relationships, eventually rejoining his soccer team. I attended his high school graduation a year ago. He got onstage and told the audience that, if you’d told him 4 years ago that he’d graduate high school, he’d never have believed you. He is currently in college, successfully managing his pain, living his important life.
Chronic pain (CP) in teens can be devastating. Teens are already tasked with managing the turbulence of hormone changes, social stress, academic stress, social media, family dynamics, and developing autonomy and independence. CP impacts not only the teen, but also the entire family. Because CP is framed as a biomedical problem, it is frequently treated with opioids and other minimally-helpful (and sometimes harmful) medications. Opioids are ineffective for long-term treatment of chronic pain, and are only useful in acute crises or to control pain at the end of life (Dowell, 2016; King et al, 2011).
Although we typically think of chronic pain as an issue primarily affecting adults coping with issues such as post-surgical pain and arthritis, CP affects up to 1 in 3 youth in the USA – more than 10 million children and teens (Friedrichsdorf, 2016; ). Pain impacts self-esteem, hope, and functioning, relegating teens to their beds and denying them normal educations and healthy social interactions. Like adults, teens often feel powerless and blamed. In a superb workbook, The Chronic Pain & Illness Workbook for Teens, psychologist Rachel Zoffness describes what pain is; how pain is constructed by the brain; how mind, body and emotions interact to affect pain; and offers a sequence of assessments and practices to reduce pain and improve health in language children and teens can easily understand. The approach combines cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with imagery, mindfulness, breathing, handwarming with biofeedback, and somatic practices (Turk & Gatchel, 2018; Peper, Gibney, & Holt, 2002).
This simple graphic of the pain cycle is helpful to clients (see Fig. 1).
Fig 1. CBT Pain Cycle
The pragmatic practices in this book offer tools and guided instructions that any child or teen can use for themselves, with parents, or with health providers. Therapists can use and adapt these activities with their clients of all ages. Although these scientifically-supported pain management techniques are written for teens, they can equally be used with adults. Below are two of many different practices described in the book that are useful for chronic pain.
Practice 1: Assessment: What sets off your pain?
The first step is to help youth identify factors that “trigger” – or set off – their pain. It’s helpful to define a trigger as a difficult emotion, situation, or event that causes pain to increase. Difficult situations and events of all kinds – biological, social, etc (situational triggers) can trigger difficult thoughts and emotions (cognitive and emotional triggers), and vice versa. For example, Adam was recovering from back surgery (situational trigger), got into a big fight with his sister about the car (situational trigger), and became angry and frustrated (emotional trigger). He felt the anger in his body, his muscles got hot and tight, and his back started spasming. Gina is an example of the reverse. She believed that nothing could cure her fibromyalgia (cognitive trigger), which made her feel depressed and hopeless (emotional trigger). She stayed home for weeks on end without school, friends, or distractions (situational trigger), and started feeling worse.
We can help youth with pain by asking:
- What emotions trigger your pain?
- What situations trigger your pain?
- Not getting enough sleep
- Arguing with family members
- Inflammation after physical therapy
- Missing fun events because you’re sick
- Thinking about upcoming exams
- Doctor’s appointments and hospital visits
Sometimes, the teen needs to keep a log for a week to identify the situations or triggers related to the pain. Once these have been identified then the teen can explore strategies to reduce the negative reactivity triggered by the emotions or situations.
Practice 2: Changing the voice of pain (Note: this is a summary of a longer activity)
One technique we use in CBT for chronic pain is identifying and tracking cognitive distortions, also known as “thinking traps.” I (Zoffness) call these traps “Pain Voice.” This is the catastrophic, pessimistic, critical, and negative voice that tells us awful, worrisome things, particularly about our pain or health.
Pain Voice pretends she can predict the future, and says it’s going to be terrible. She says: “You’ll never get better. Nothing will ever help you.” But since she can’t predict the future (who can?), Pain Voice is a liar! Pain Voice is also very bossy about what you can and can’t do: “You can’t see your friends this week,” or “You can’t go for a bike ride, and you definitely can’t have any fun.” Science teaches us that negative thoughts increase pain by turning up the brain’s “pain dial,” so we must make sure not to listen to or believe them. To stop Pain Voice, we first catch negative thoughts.
As soon as you learn how to recognize Pain Voice, you gain the power to change negative thoughts into more helpful “Wise Voice” thoughts. One way to bust Pain Voice is to start tracking your negative thoughts. First, list these critical, self-defeating, catastrophic Pain Voice thoughts. Notice if they’re helpful or harmful. Then check and question them, thoughtfully determining whether they’re the truth or a trap. Next, gather evidence as to why Pain Voice might be wrong by asking yourself, is this thought a fact? What evidence do I have that this thought might not be true? What else might happen other than what I’m predicting? Write out your Wise Voice responses, and use them to fight back every time you hear Pain Voice!
Jason’s example: Jason had terrible, daily back pain and hadn’t gone outside in 6 weeks. His friends texted, inviting him to watch a movie. Immediately he heard the thought, “I can’t go, I’m broken. If I leave my house my pain will spike and I won’t be able to function.” He recognized this as his Pain Voice and knew he had to fight back. He sat down with his worksheet and filled in the answers: yes, the thoughts were harmful, not helpful, and they were trying to trap him! He examined the evidence and wrote the Wise Voice thought, “This negative prediction is not a fact, it’s a trap. I’ve had back pain for 2 years, and sometimes going out and seeing friends actually reduces my pain.” Tuning into his Wise Voice gave him the strength to get the social support and distraction he needed to feel a little better! He went to his friend’s house, watched movies, ate popcorn, giggled, and had a great time. For the first time in 6 weeks, his pain went down. An example of his log is shown in table 1.
|Helpful or Harmful?||
|Returning to school after missing 3 weeks||If I go back to school, I’ll be so far behind that I won’t understand anything the teacher is talking about.||Harmful||Trap||This negative prediction is not a fact. I’m smart and competent, I’ll probably understand some things. Last time I was behind, I made up the work and everything was fine.|
|I can’t handle this!||Harmful||Trap||This negative prediction is not a fact. I’ve had 42 pain flare-ups this year, and I handled all of them. I’ve proven that I’m strong and resilient. There is a 0% chance I can’t handle this.|
Table 1. Example from Jason’s log
Summary: There is hope for youth with chronic pain. Interventions like CBT, mindfulness, biofeedback and other mind-body approaches are scientifically-supported and have evidence of effectiveness. Adhering to the biopsychosocial model – targeting biological, psychological and social factors – is proven to be the most effective treatment for chronic pain across conditions and ages. For more information, see Rachel Zoffness’ book, The chronic pain & illness workbook for teens, for pragmatic treatment practices and user-friendly pain education.
Friedrichsdorf, S. J., Giordano, J., Desai Dakoji, K., Warmuth, A., Daughtry, C., & Schulz, C. A. (2016). Chronic Pain in Children and Adolescents: Diagnosis and Treatment of Primary Pain Disorders in Head, Abdomen, Muscles and Joints. Children (Basel, Switzerland), 3(4), 42. doi:10.3390/children3040042
King, S., Chambers, C., Huguet, A., MacNevin, R., McGrath, P., Parker, L., & MacDonald, A. (2011). The epidemiology of chronic pain in children and adolescents revisited: a systematic review. Pain, 152(12), 2729-2738.
*Dr. Rachel Zoffness is a pain psychologist, consultant, writer and educator in Northern California’s East Bay specializing in chronic pain and illness.