Inna Khazan, PhD, interviews the authors of TechStress

Go behind the screen and watch Inna Khazan, PhD, faculty member at Harvard Medical School and author of Biofeedback and mindfulness in everyday life: Practical solutions for improving your health and performance, interview Erik Peper, PhD and Richard Harvey, PhD. coauthors of the new book, TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics. 

Dr. Inna Khazan interviews Dr. Erik Peper about his new book Tech Stress. We talk about some of the ways in which technology overuse affects our health and what we can do about it.

Dr. Inna Khazan interviews Dr. Rick Harvey about his new book Tech Stress, the way technology overuse can affect adults and children, and what we can do about it.


Ways to reduce TechStress

We are excited about our upcoming book, TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics, that will be published August 25, 2020.

authors Erik and Rick1

Evolution shapes behavior — and as a species, we’ve evolved to be drawn to the instant gratification, constant connectivity, and the shiny lights, beeps, and chimes of our ever-present devices. In earlier eras, these hardwired evolutionary patterns may have set us up for success, but today they confuse our instincts, leaving us vulnerable and stressed out from fractured attention, missed sleep, skipped meals, aches, pains, and exhaustion and often addicted to our digital devices.

Tech Stress offers real, practical tools to avoid evolutionary pitfalls programmed into modern technology that trip us up. You will find a range of effective strategies and best practices to individualize your workspace, reduce physical strain, prevent sore muscles, combat brain drain, and correct poor posture. The book also provides fresh insights on reducing psychological stress on the job, including ways to improve communication with coworkers and family.

Although you will have to wait until August 25th to have the book delivered to your home, you can already begin to implement ways to reduce physical discomfort, zoom/screen fatigue and exhaustion. Have a look the blogs below.

How evolution shapes behavior 

Evolutionary traps: How screens, digital notifications and gaming software exploits fundamental survival mechanisms 

How to optimize ergonomics

Reduce TechStress at Home

Cartoon ergonomics for working at the computer and laptop 

Hot to prevent and reduce neck and shoulder discomfort

Why do I have neck and shoulder discomfort at the computer? 

Relieve and prevent neck stiffness and pain 

How to prevent screen fatigue and eye discomfort

Resolve Eyestrain and Screen Fatigue 

How to improve posture and prevent slouching

“Don’t slouch!” Improve health with posture feedback 

How to improve breathing and reduce stress

Anxiety, lightheadedness, palpitations, prodromal migraine symptoms?  Breathing to the rescue! 

How to protect yourself from EMF

Cell phone radio frequency radiation increases cancer risk

book cover

Available from: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/232119/tech-stress-by-erik-peper-phd/


Why do I have neck and shoulder discomfort at the computer?

Adapted from the upcoming book, TechStress: How Technology is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics, by Erik Peper, Richard Harvey and Nancy Faass.shoulder pain

While working in front of screens, many of us suffer from Zoom/screen fatigue, iNeck, shoulder and back discomfort, tired eyes, exhaustion and screen addiction (Peper, 2020; Fosslien & Duffy, 2020; So, Cheng & Szeto, 2017; Peper & Harvey, 2018). As we work, our shoulders and forearms tense and we are often not aware of this until someone mentions it. Many accept the discomfort and pain as the cost of doing work–not realizing that it may be possible to work without pain.

Observe how you and coworkers work at the computer, laptop or cellphone. Often we bring our noses close to the screen in order to the text more clearly and raise our shoulders when we perform data entry and use the mouse. This unaware muscle tension can be identified with physiological recording of the muscles electrical activity when they contract (electromyography) (Peper & Gibney, 2006; Peper, Harvey & Tylova, 2006). In most cases, when we rest our hands on our laps the muscle tension is low but the moment we even rest our hands on the keyboard or when we begin to type or mouse, our muscles may tighten, as shown in Figure 1. The muscle activity will also depend on the person’s stress level, ergonomic arrangement and posture.

EMGFigure 1. Muscle tension from the shoulder and forearm increased without any awareness when the person rested their hands on the keyboard (Rest Keyboard) and during typing and mousing. The muscles only relaxed when the hands were resting on their lap (Rest Lap) (reproduced by permission from Peper, Harvey, and Faass, 2020).

Stop reading from your screen and relax your shoulders.  Did you feel them slightly drop and relax?

If you experienced this release of tension and relaxation in the shoulders, then you were tightening your shoulders muscles without awareness. It is usually by the end of the day that we experience stiffness and discomfort. Do the following exercise as guided by the video or described in the text below to experience how discomfort and pain develop by maintaining low-level muscle tension.

While sitting, lift your right knee two inches up so that the foot is about two inches away from the floor. Keep holding the knee up in this position. Did you notice your breathing stopped when you lifted your knee? Are you noticing increasing tension and discomfort or even pain?  How much longer can you lift the knee up?

Let go, relax and observe how the discomfort dissipates.

Reasons for the discomfort

The discomfort occurred because your muscles were contracted, which inhibited the blood and lymph flow through the tissue. When your muscles contracted to lift your knee, the blood flow in those muscles was reduced. Only when your muscles relaxed could enough blood flow occur to deliver nutrients and oxygen as well as remove the waste products of metabolism (Wan et al, 2017). From a physiological perspective, muscles work most efficiently when they alternately contract and relax. For example, most people can walk without discomfort since their muscles contract and relax with each step.  However, you could  hold your knee up for a few minutes before experiencing discomfort in those same muscles.

How to prevent discomfort.

To prevent discomfort and optimize health, apply the same concept of alternating tensing and  relaxing to your neck, shoulder, back and arm muscles while working. Every few minutes move your arms and shoulders and let them relax. Interrupt the static sitting position with movement. If you need reminders to get up and move your body during the workday or long periods sitting in front of a device, you can download and install the free app, StretchBreak.

For more information, read and apply the concepts described in our upcoming book, TechStress: How Technology is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. The book explains why TechStress develops, why digital addiction occurs, and what you can do to prevent discomfort, improve health and enhance performance. Order the book from Amazon and receive it August 25th. Alternatively,  sign up with the publisher and receive a 30% discount when the book is published August 25th. https://www.northatlanticbooks.com/shop/tech-stress/

book cover

References

Fosslien, L. & Duffy, M. W. (2020). How to combat Zoom fatigue. Harvard Business Review. April 29, 2020.

Peper, E. (2020). Resolve eye strain and screen fatigue. The peperperspective ideas on illness, health and well-being. Blog published June 29, 2020. 

Peper, E. & Gibney, K. H. (2006). Muscle Biofeedback at the Computer: A Manual to Prevent Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) by Taking the Guesswork out of Assessment, Monitoring and Training. Amersfoort: The Netherlands: Biofeedback Foundation of Europe. ISBN 0-9781927-0-2. Free download of the the book: http://bfe.org/helping-clients-who-are-working-from-home/

Peper, E. & Harvey, R. (2018). Digital addiction: increased loneliness, depression, and anxiety. NeuroRegulation5(1),3–8

Peper, E., Harvey, R. & Faass, N. (2020). TechStress: How Technology is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Peper, E., Harvey, R. & Tylova, H. (2006). Stress protocol for assessing computer related disorders.  Biofeedback. 34(2), 57-62.

So, B.C.L., Cheng, A.S.K., & Szeto, G.P.Y. (2017). Cumulative IT use is associated with psychosial stress factors and musculoskeletal symptoms. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 201714(12), 1541

Wan, J. J., Qin, Z., Wang, P. Y., Sun, Y., & Liu, X. (2017). Muscle fatigue: general understanding and treatment. Experimental & molecular medicine49(10), e384. https://doi.org/10.1038/emm.2017.194

 


Resolve Eyestrain and Screen Fatigue

Adapted from: Peper, E., Harvey, R. & Faass, N. (2020). TechStress: How Technology is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

eyes
Forty percent of adults and eighty percent of teenagers report experiencing significant visual symptoms (eyestrain, blurry vision, dry eyes, headaches, and exhaustion) during and immediately after viewing electronic displays. These ‘technology-associated overuse’ symptoms are often labeled as digital eyestrain or computer vision syndrome (Rosenfield, 2016; Randolph & Cohn, 2017). Even our distant vision may be affected— after working in front of a screen for hours, the world looks blurry. At the same time, we may experience an increase in neck, shoulders and back discomfort. These symptoms increase as we spend more hours looking at computer screens, laptops, tablets, e-readers, gaming consoles, and cellphones for work, taking online classes, watching streaming videos for entertainment, and keeping connected with friends and family (Borhany et al, 2018; Turgut, 2018; Jensen et al, 2002).

Eye, head, neck, shoulder and back discomfort are partly the result of sitting too long in the same position and attending to the screen without taking short physical and vision breaks, moving our bodies and looking at far objects every 20 minutes or so.  The obvious question is, “Why do we stare at and are captured by, the screen?”  Two answers are typical: (1) we like the content of what is on the screen; and, (2) we feel compelled to watch the rapidly changing visual scenes.

From an evolutionary perspective, our sense of vision (and hearing) evolved to identify predators who were hunting us, or to search for prey so we could have a nice meal.  Attending to fast moving visual changes is linked to our survival.  We are unaware that our adaptive behaviors of attending to a visual or auditory signals activate the same physiological response patterns that were once successful for humans to survive–evading  predictors,  identifying food, and discriminating between friend or foe. The large and small screen (and speakers) with their attention grabbing content and notifications have become an evolutionary trap that may lead to a reduction in health and fitness (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).

Near vision stress

To be able to see the screen, the eyes need to converge and accommodate. To converge,  the extraocular muscles of the eyes tighten; to focus (accomodation), the ciliary muscle around the lens tighten to increase the curvature of the lens.  This muscle tension is held constant as long as we look at the screen. Overuse of these muscles results is near vision stress that contributes to computer vision syndrome, development of myopia in younger people, and other technology-associated overuse syndromes (Sherwin et al, 2012; Enthoven et al, 2020).

Continually overworking the visual muscles related to convergences increases tension and contributes to eyestrain. While looking at the screen, the eye muscles seldom have the chance to relax.  To function effectively, muscles need to relax /regenerate after momentary tightening. For the eye muscles to relax, they need to look at the far distance– preferably objects green in color. As stated earlier, the process of  distant vision occurs by relaxing the extraocular muscles to allow the eyes to diverge along with relaxing the ciliary muscle to allow the lens to flatten.  In our digital age, where screen of all sizes are ubiquitous, distant vision is often limited to the nearby walls behind a screen or desk which results in keeping the focus on nearby objects and  maintaining muscular tension in the eyes.

As we evolved, we continuously alternated between between looking at the far distance and nearby areas for food sources as well as signals indicating danger. If we did not look close and far, we would not know if a predator was ready to attack us.  Today we tend to be captured by the screens.  Arguably, all media content is designed to capture our attention such as data entry tasks required for employment, streaming videos for entertainment, reading and answering emails, playing e-games, responding to text notifications, looking at Instagram and Snapchat photos and Tiktok videos, scanning Tweets and using social media accounts such as Facebook. We are unaware of the symptoms of visual stress until we experience symptoms. To illustrate the physiological process that covertly occurs during convergence and accommodation, do the following exercise.

Sit comfortably and lift your right knee a few inches up so that the foot is an inch above the floor.  Keep holding it in this position for a minute…. Now let go and relax your leg.

A minute might have seemed like  a very long time and you may have started to feel some discomfort in the muscles of your hip.  Most likely, you observed that when you held your knee up, you most likely held your breath and tightened your neck and back. Moreover, to do this for more than a few minutes would be very challenging. 

Lift your knee up again and notice the automatic patterns that are happening in your body. 

For muscles to regenerate they need momentary relaxation which allows blood flow and lymph flow to occur. By alternately tensing and relaxing muscles, they can work more easily for longer periods of time without experiencing fatigue and discomfort (e.g., we can hike for hours but can only lift our knee for a few minutes).

Solutions to relax the eyes and reduce eye strain 

  • Reestablish the healthy evolutionary pattern of alternately looking at far and near distances to reduce eyestrain, such as:
    • Look out through a window at a distant tree for a moment after reading an email or clicking link.
    • Look up and at the far distance each time you have finished reading a page or turn the page over.
  • Rest and regenerate your eyes with palming. While sitting upright, place a pillow or other supports under our elbows so that your hands can cover your closed eyes without tensing the neck and shoulders.palming
    • Cup the hands so that there is no pressure on your eyeballs, allow the base of the hands to touch the cheeks while the fingers are interlaced and resting your forehead.
    • Close your eyes, imagine seeing black. Breathe slowly and diaphragmatically while feeling the warmth of the palm soothing the eyes. Feel your shoulders, head and eyes relaxing. Palm for 5 minutes while breathing at about six breaths per minute through your nose.  Then stretch and go back to work.

Palming is one of the many practices that improves vision. For a comprehensive perspective and pragmatic exercises to reduce eye strain, maintain and improve vision, see the superb book by Meir Schneider, PhD., L.M.T., Vision for Life, Revised Edition: Ten Steps to Natural Eyesight Improvement.

Increased sympathetic arousal

Seeing the changing stimuli on the screen evokes visual attention and increases sympathetic arousal. In addition, many people automatically hold their breath when they see novel visual or hear auditory signals; since, they trigger a defense or orienting response. At the same time, without awareness,  we may tighten our neck and shoulder  muscles as we bring our nose literally to the screen.  As we attend and concentrate to see what is on the screen, our blinking rate decreases significantly.  From an evolutionary perspective, an unexpected movement in the periphery could be a snake, a predator, a friend or foe and the body responds by getting ready: freeze, fight or flight. We still react the same survival responses. Some of the physiological reactions that occur include:

  • Breath holding or shallow breathing. These often occur the moment we receive a text notification, begin concentrating and respond to the messages, or start typing or mousing.  Without awareness,  we activate the freeze, flight and fight response. By breath holding or shallow breathing, we reduce or limit our body movements, effectively becoming a non-moving object that is more difficult to see by many animal predators.  In addition, during breath holding, hearing become more acute because breathing noises are effectively reduced or eliminated.
  • Inhibition of blinking. When we blink it is another movement signal that in earlier times could give away our position. In addition, the moment we blink we become temporarily blind and cannot see what the predator could be doing next.
  • Increased neck, shoulder and back tension. The body is getting ready for a defensive fight or avoidance flight.

Experience some of these automatic physiological responses described above by doing the following two exercises.

Eye movement neck connection:  While sitting up and looking at the screen, place your fingers on the back of the neck on either side of the cervical spine just below the junction where the spine meets the skull.

neck

Feel the muscles of neck along the spine where they are attaching to the skull. Now quickly look to the extreme right and then to the extreme left with your eyes. Repeat looking back and forth with the eyes two or three times.

What did you observe?  Most likely, when you looked to the extreme right, you could feel the right neck muscles slightly tightening and when you looked the extreme left, the left neck muscles slightly tightening.  In addition, you may have held your breath when you looked back and forth.

Focus and neck connection:  While sitting up and looking at the screen, place your fingers on the back of the neck as you did before. Now focus intently on the smallest size print or graphic details on the screen.  Really focus and concentrate on it and look at all the details.

What did you observe?  Most likely, when you focused on the text, you brought your head slightly forward and closer to the screen, felt your neck muscles tighten,  and possibly held your breath or started to breathe shallowly.

As you concentrated, the automatic increase in arousal, along with the neck and shoulder tension and reduced blinking contributes to developing discomfort. This can become more pronounced after looking at screens to detailed figures, numerical data, characters and small images for hours (Peper, Harvey & Tylova, 2006; Peper & Harvey, 2008; Waderich et al, 2013).

Staying alert, scanning  and reacting to the images on a computer screen or notifications from text messages, can become exhausting. in the past, we scanned the landscape, looking for information that will help us survive (predators, food sources, friend or foe)  however today, we react to the changing visual stimuli on the screen. The computer display and notifications have become evolutionary traps since they evoke these previously adaptive response patterns that allowed us to survive.

The response patterns occur mostly without awareness until we experience discomfort. Fortunately, we  can become aware of our body’s reactions with physiological monitoring which makes the invisible visible as shown in the figure below (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).

biofeedback

Representative physiological patterns that occur when working at a computer, laptop, tablet or cellphone are unnecessary neck and shoulder tension, shallow rapid breathing, and an increase in heart rate during data entry. Even when the person is resting their hands on the keyboard, forearm muscle tension, breathing and heart rate increased.

Moreover, muscle tension in the neck and shoulder region also increased, even when those muscles were not needed for data entry task.  Unfortunately, this unnecessary tension and shallow breathing contributes to exhaustion and discomfort (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).

With biofeedback training, the person can learn to become aware and control these dysfunctional patterns and prevent discomfort (Peper & Gibney, 2006; Peper et, 2003).  However, without access to biofeedback monitoring, assume that you respond similarly while working. Thus, to prevent discomfort and improve health and performance, implement the following.

Finally, for a comprehensive overview based on an evolutionary perspective that explains why TechStress develops, why digital addiction occurs. and what can be done to prevent discomfort and improve health and performance, see our new book by Erik Peper, Richard Harvey and Nancy Faass, Tech Stress-How Technology is Hijack our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics.

book cover

References

Borhany, T., Shahid, E., Siddique, W. A., & Ali, H. (2018). Musculoskeletal problems in frequent computer and internet users. Journal of family medicine and primary care7(2), 337–339. 

Enthoven, C. A., Tideman, W.L., Roel of Polling, R.J.,Yang-Huang, J., Raat, H., & Klaver, C.C.W. (2020). The impact of computer use on myopia development in childhood: The Generation R study. Preventtive Medicine, 132, 105988.

Jensen, C., Finsen, L., Sogaard, K & Christensen, H. (2002). Musculoskeletal symptoms and duration of computer and mouse use,  International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 30(4-5), 265-275.

Peper, E. & Gibney, K. (2006). Muscle Biofeedback at the Computer- A Manual to Prevent Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) by Taking the Guesswork out of Assessment, Monitoring and Training. The Biofeedback Federation of Europe. Download free PDF version of the book:  http://bfe.org/helping-clients-who-are-working-from-home/

Peper, E. & Harvey, R. (2008). From technostress to technohealth.  Japanese Journal of Biofeedback Research, 35(2), 107-114.

Peper, E., Harvey, R. & Faass, N. (2020). TechStress: How Technology is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Peper, E., Harvey, R. & Tylova, H. (2006). Stress protocol for assessing computer related disorders.  Biofeedback. 34(2), 57-62. 

Peper, E., Wilson, V.S., Gibney, K.H., Huber, K., Harvey, R. & Shumay. (2003). The Integration of Electromyography (sEMG) at the Workstation:  Assessment, Treatment and Prevention of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 28 (2), 167-182.

Randolph, S.A. & Cohn, A. (2017).  Computer vision syndrome. Workplace, Health and Safety, 65(7), 328.

Rosenfield, M. (2016). Computer vision syndrome (a.k.a. digital eye strain). Optometry in Practice, 17(1), 1 1 – 10. 

Schneider, M. (2016). Vision for Life, Revised Edition: Ten Steps to Natural Eyesight Improvement. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books. https://self-healing.org/shop/books/vision-for-life-2nd-ed

Sherwin, J.C., Reacher, M.H., Keogh, R. H., Khawaja, A. P., Mackey, D.A.,& Foster, P. J. (2012). The association between time spent outdoors and myopia in children and adolescents. Ophthalmology,119(10), 2141-2151.

Turgut, B. (2018). Ocular Ergonomics for the Computer Vision Syndrome. Journal Eye and Vision, 1(2).

Waderich, K., Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Sara Sutter. (2013). The psychophysiology of contemporary information technologies-Tablets and smart phones can be a pain in the neck. Presented at the 44st Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. Portland, OR.

 

 


Reduce TechStress at Home

Adapted from the upcoming book, Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Faass, (2020). Tech Stress: How Technology Is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

fig 1 extended neck

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).

Improve vision.

  • 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.

Regenerate

  • 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.

Workstation-Setup1

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. If possible, alternate standing and sitting while working.

RESOURCES

Book

Tech Stress: How Technology Is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics provides insight in how discomfort, symptoms and media addiction develops and what you can do about it.  It incorporates the role of evolutionary traps, how biofeedback makes the unaware aware, experiential physical and cognitive practices, and ergonomic recommendations to optimize health and productivity. A must book for anyone using digital devices. Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Faass, (2020). Tech Stress: How Technology Is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Ergonomic suggestions for working at the computer and laptop.

https://peperperspective.com/2014/09/30/cartoon-ergonomics-for-working-at-the-computer-and-laptop/

https://peperperspective.com/2014/02/24/optimizing-ergonomics-adapt-the-world-to-you-and-not-the-other-way-around/

11 tips for working at home

https://www.bakkerelkhuizen.com/knowledge-center/11-productivity-tips-for-homeworkers/?utm_campaign=US+-+19+03+20&utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email

How our digital world activates evolutionary response patterns.

https://peperperspective.com/2020/01/17/evolutionary-traps-how-screens-digital-notifications-and-gaming-software-exploits-fundamental-survival-mechanisms/

https://peperperspective.com/2018/02/10/digital-addiction/

How posture affects health

https://peperperspective.com/2019/07/01/dont-slouch-improves-health-with-posture-feedback/

https://peperperspective.com/2019/05/21/relieve-and-prevent-neck-stiffness-and-pain/

https://peperperspective.com/2017/11/28/posture-and-mood-implications-and-applications-to-health-and-therapy/

https://peperperspective.com/2019/01/23/head-position-it-matters/


Toning quiets the mind and increases HRV more quickly than mindfulness practice

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 1.0 Intrusive wandering thoughts comparison

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.0 relax comparison

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.

0 physiological comparison black white a

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.

DISCUSSION

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.

REFERENCES

Creswell, J. D. (2015). Mindfulness Interventions. Annual Review of Psychology, 68, 491-516.

Dahl, C. Lutz, A., & Davidson, R. J. (2015). Reconstructing and deconstructing the self: Cognitive mechanisms in meditation practice. Trends in Cognitive Science, 19(9), 515-523.

Khazan, I. Z. (2013). The Clinical Handbook of Biofeedback: A Step-by-Step Guide for Training and Practice with Mindfulness. John Wiley & Sons.

Khazan, I. Z. (2019). Biofeedback and Mindfulness in Everyday Life.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

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. 

Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Lin, I-M. (2019).  Mindfulness training has themes common to other technique. Biofeedback. 47(3),

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

 


Hope for teens with pain

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).

pain cycle

 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?
    • Frustration
    • Anger
    • Stress
    • Anxiety
    • Loneliness
    • Sadness
  • 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.

For example:

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.

 Situation

Pain Voice

Helpful or Harmful?

Trap or

Truth

Wise Voice
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.
 

 

Pain flare-up

 

 

 

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. 

book cover

References

Dowell, D., Haegerich, T. M., & Chou, R. (2016). CDC guideline for prescribing opioids for chronic pain—United States, 2016. JAMA315(15), 1624-1645.

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. Pain152(12), 2729-2738.

Peper, E. Gibney, K.H., & Holt, C.F. (2002). Make Health Happen-Training Yourself to Create Wellness. Kendall Hunt Publishing. ISBN-13: 978-0787293314

Turk, D. C., & Gatchel, R.J. (2018). Psychological approaches to pain management-A Practionere’s Handbook.  New York: The Guilford Press, ISBN-13: 978-1462528530

Zoffness, R. (2019). The Chronic Pain & Illness Workbook for Teens. Oakland, CA; New Harbinger Publications, ISBN: 978168403352

*Dr. Rachel Zoffness is a pain psychologist, consultant, writer and educator in Northern California’s East Bay specializing in chronic pain and illness.

 


Do self-healing first

20170611_160113

“I am doing very well, and I am very healthy. The vulvodynia symptoms have never come back. Also,my stomach (gastrointestinal discomfort) has gotten much, much better. I don’t really have random pain anymore, now I just have to be watchful and careful of my diet and my exercise, which are all great things!”  —A five-year follow-up report from a 28-year-old woman who had previously suffered from severe vulvodynia (pelvic floor pain).

Numerous clients and students have reported that implementing self-healing strategies–common sense suggestions often known as “grandmother’s therapy”—significantly improves their health and find that their symptoms decreased or disappeared (Peper et al, 2014). These educational self-healing approaches are based upon a holistic perspective aimed to reduce physical, emotional and lifestyle patterns that interfere with healing and to increase those life patterns that support healing. This may mean learning diaphragmatic breathing, doing work that give you meaning and energy, alternating between excitation and regeneration, and living a life congruent with our evolutionary past.

If you experience discomfort/symptoms and worry about your health/well-being, do the following:

  • See your health professional for diagnosis and treatment suggestions.
    • Ask what are the benefits and risks of treatment.
    • Ask what would happen if you if you first implemented self-healing strategies before beginning the recommended and sometimes invasive treatment?
  • Investigate how you could be affecting your self-healing potential such as:
    • Lack of sleep
    • Too much sugar, processed foods, coffee, alcohol, etc.
    • Lack of exercise
    • Limited social support
    • Ongoing anger, resentment, frustration, and worry
    • Lack of hope and purpose
  • Implement self-healing strategies and lifestyle changes to support your healing response. In many cases, you may experience positive changes within three weeks. Obviously, if you feel worse, stop  and reassess. Keep a log and monitor what you do so that you can record changes.

This self-healing process has often been labeled or dismissed as the “placebo effect;” however, the placebo effect is the body’s natural self-healing response (Peper & Harvey, 2017).  It is impressive that many people report feeling better when they  take charge and become active participants in their own healing process. A process that empowers and supports hope and healing. When participants change their life patterns, they often feel better. Their health worries and concerns become reminders/cues to initiate positive action such as:

  • Practicing self-healing techniques throughout the day (e.g., diaphragmatic breathing, self-healing imagery, meditation, and relaxation)
  • Eating organic foods and eliminating processed foods
  • Incorporating daily exercise and movement activities
  • Accepting what is and resolving resentment, anger and fear
  • Taking time to regenerate
  • Resolving stress
  • Focusing on what you like to do
  • Be loving to yourself and others

For suggestions of what to do, explore some of the following blogs that describe self-healing practices that participants implemented to improve or eliminate their symptoms.

Acid reflux (GERD) https://peperperspective.com/2018/10/04/breathing-reduces-acid-reflux-and-dysmenorrhea-discomfort/

Anxiety https://peperperspective.com/2019/03/24/anxiety-lightheadedness-palpitations-prodromal-migraine-symptoms-breathing-to-the-rescue/

Dyspareunia https://peperperspective.com/2017/03/19/enjoy-sex-breathe-away-the-pain/

Eczema https://peperperspective.com/2015/03/07/interrupt-chained-behaviors-overcome-smoking-eczema-and-hair-pulling/

Headache https://peperperspective.com/2016/11/18/education-versus-treatment-for-self-healing-eliminating-a-headaches1/

Epilepsy https://peperperspective.com/2013/03/10/epilepsy-new-old-treatment-without-drugs/

Irritability/hangry https://peperperspective.com/2017/10/06/are-you-out-of-control-and-reacting-in-anger-the-role-of-food-and-exercise/

Hot flashes and premenstrual symptoms https://peperperspective.com/2015/02/18/reduce-hot-flashes-and-premenstrual-symptoms-with-breathing/

Internet addiction https://peperperspective.com/2018/02/10/digital-addiction/

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) https://peperperspective.com/2017/06/23/healing-irritable-bowel-syndrome-with-diaphragmatic-breathing/

Math and test anxiety https://peperperspective.com/2018/07/03/do-better-in-math-dont-slouch-be-tall/

Neck stiffness https://peperperspective.com/2017/04/06/freeing-the-neck-and-shoulders/

Neck tension https://peperperspective.com/2019/05/21/relieve-and-prevent-neck-stiffness-and-pain/

Posture and mood https://peperperspective.com/2017/11/28/posture-and-mood-implications-and-applications-to-health-and-therapy/

Psoriasis https://peperperspective.com/2013/12/28/there-is-hope-interrupt-chained-behavior/

Smoking https://peperperspective.com/2015/03/07/interrupt-chained-behaviors-overcome-smoking-eczema-and-hair-pulling/

Surgery https://peperperspective.com/2018/03/18/surgery-hope-for-the-best-but-plan-for-the-worst/

Trichotillomania (hair pulling) https://peperperspective.com/2015/03/07/interrupt-chained-behaviors-overcome-smoking-eczema-and-hair-pulling/

Vulvodynia https://peperperspective.com/2015/09/25/resolving-pelvic-floor-pain-a-case-report/

References

Peper, E., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., Gilbert, M., Gubbala, P., Ratkovich, A., & Fletcher, F. (2014). Transforming chained behaviors: Case studies of overcoming smoking, eczema and hair pulling (trichotillomania). Biofeedback, 42(4), 154-160.

Peper, E. & Harvey, R. (2017). The fallacy of the placebo-controlled clinical trials: Are positive outcomes the result of “indirect” treatment effects? NeuroRegulation, 4(3–4), 102–113.

 


Relieve and prevent neck stiffness and pain

Is your neck stiff, uncomfortable and painful?

When driving is it more difficult to turn your head?

Neck and shoulder pain affect more than 30% of people (Fejer et al, 2006; Cohen, 2015).  This blog explores some strategies to reduce or prevent neck stiffness and discomfort and suggests practices to reduce discomfort and increase flexibility if you already are uncomfortable.

Shifts in posture may optimize neck flexibility

In our modern world, we frequently engage in a forward head position while looking at electronic devices or typing on computers. Prolonged smart phone usage has the potential to negatively impact posture and breathing functions (Jung et al., 2016) since we tilt our head down to look at the screen. Holding the head in a forward position, as displayed in Figure 1, can result in muscle tension in the spine, neck, and shoulders.

head forward alignedFig 1. Forward head and neck posture in comparison to a neutral spine. Source: https://losethebackpain.com/conditions/forward-head-posture/

Whenever you bring your head forward to look at the screen or tilt it down to look at your cellphone, your neck and shoulder muscles tighten and your breathing pattern become more shallowly.  The more the head is forward, the more difficulty is it to rotate your  head as is describe in the blog, Head position, it matters! (Harvey et al, 2018). Over time, the head forward position may lead to symptoms such as headaches and backpain. On the other hand, when we shift to an aligned upright position throughout the day, we create an opportunity to relieve this tension as shown in Figure 2.

EMG head forward uprightFigure 2. EMG and respiration recording from a subject sitting with a forward head position and a neutral, aligned head position.  The neck and shoulder muscle tension was recorded from the right trapezius and left scalene muscles (Mason et all, unpublished).    .

The muscle tension recorded from scalene and trapezius muscles (neck and shoulder) in Figure 2 shows that as the head goes forward or tilts down, the muscle tension significantly increases. In most cases participants are totally unware that their neck tightens. It is only after looking at the screen or focus our eyes until the whole day that we notice discomfort in the late afternoon.

Experience this covert muscle tension pattern in the following video, Sensing neck muscle tension-The eye, head, and neck connection.

Interrupt constant muscle tension

One possible reason why we develop the stiffness and discomfort is that we hold the muscles contracted for long time in static positions. If the muscle can relax frequently, it would significantly reduce the probability of developing discomfort. Experience this concept of interrupting tension practice by practicing the following:

  • Sit on a chair and lift your right foot up one inch up from the floor. Keep holding it up? For some people, as soon as five seconds, they will experience tightening and the onset of discomfort and pain in the upper thigh and hip.

How long could you hold your foot slight up from the floor?  Obviously, it depends on your motivation, but most people after one minute want to put the foot down as the discomfort become more intense.  Put the foot down and relax.  Notice the change is sensation and for some it takes a while for the discomfort to fade out.

  • The reason for the discomfort is that the function of muscle is to move a joint and then relax. If tightening and relaxation occurs frequently, then there is no problem
  • Repeat the same practice except lift the foot, relax and drop it down and repeat and repeat. Many people can easily do this for hours when walking.

What to do to prevent neck and shoulder stiffness.

Interrupt static muscle neck tension by moving your head neck and shoulder frequently while looking at the screen or performing tasks.  Explore some of the following:

  • Look away from the screen, take a breath and as you exhale, wiggle your head light heartedly as if there is a pencil at reaching from the top of your head to the ceiling and you are drawing random patterns on the ceiling. Keep breathing make the lines in all directions.
  • Push the chair back from the desk, roll your right shoulder forward, up and back let it drop down and relax. Then roll you left shoulder forward up and back and drop down and relax. Again, be sure to keep breathing.
  • Stand up and skip in place with your hands reaching to the ceiling so that when your right foot goes up you reach upward with your left hand toward the ceiling while looking at your left hand. Then, as your left foot goes up your reach upward to the ceiling with your right hand and look at your right hand.  Smile as you are skipping in place.
  • Install a break reminder program on your computer such as Stretch Break to remind you to stretch and move.
  • Learn how to sit and stand aligned and how to use your body functionally such as with the Gokhale Method or the Alexander Technique (Gokhale, 2013; Peper et al, in press, Vineyard, 2007).
  • Learn awareness and control neck and shoulder muscle tension with muscle biofeedback. For practitioners certified in biofeedback BCB, see https://certify.bcia.org/4dcgi/resctr/search.html
  • Become aware of your collapsed and slouching wearing a posture feedback device such as UpRight Go on your upper back. This device provides vibratory feedback every time you slouch and reminds you to interrupt slouching and be upright and alighned.

Improve ergonomics

Arrange your computer screen and keyboard so that the screen is at eye level instead of having to reach forward or look down. Similarly, hold your cell phone so that it is at eye level as shown in Figure 3 and 4.

laptop ergonomicsFigure 3. Slouching forward to see the laptop screen can be avoided by using an external keyboard, mouse and desktop riser. Reproduced by permission from www.backshop.nl

Cellphone

Figure 4.  Avoid the collapsed while looking down at a cell phone by resting the arms on a backpack or purse and keeping the spine and head alighned. Photo of upright position reproduced with permission from Imogen Ragone, https://imogenragone.com/

Check vision

If you are squinting, bringing your nose to the screen, or if the letters are too small or blurry, have your eyes checked to see if you need computer glasses.  Generally do not use bifocals or progressive glasses as they force you to tilt your head up or down to see the material at a specific focal length. Other options included changing the display size on screen by making the text and symbols larger may allow you see the screen without bending forward.  Just as your muscle of your neck, your eyes need many vision breaks.  Look away from the screen out of the window at a distant tree or for a moment close your eyes and breathe.

What to do if you have stiffness and discomfort

My neck was stiff and it hurt the moment I tried to look to the sides.  I was totally surprised that I rapidly increased my flexibility and reduced the discomfort when I implemented the following two practices.

Begin by implementing the previous described preventative strategies. Most important is to interrupt static positions and do many small movement breaks. Get up and wiggle a lot. Look at the blog, Freeing the neck and shoulder, for additional practices.

Then, practice the following exercises numerous times during the day to release neck and shoulder tension and discomfort. While doing these practices exhale gently when you are stretching.  If the discomfort increases, stop and see your health professional.

 

REFERENCES

Cohen, S.P. (2015). Epidemiology, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Neck Pain. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 90 (2), 284-299. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2014.09.008

Fejer, R., Kyvik, K.Ohm, & Hartvigesen, J. (2006). The prevalence of neck pain in the world population: a systematic critical review of the literature. European Spine Journal, 15(6), 834-848. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00586-004-0864-4

Gokhale, E. (2013). 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back. Pendo Press.

Harvey, R., Peper, E., Booiman, A., Heredia Cedillo, A., & Villagomez, E. (2018). The effect of head and neck position on head rotation, cervical muscle tension and symptoms. Biofeedback. 46(3), 65–71.

Mason, L., Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Hernandez, W. (unpublished). Healing headaches. Does success sustain over time?

Peper, E., Krüger, B., Gokhale, E., & Harvey, R. (in press). Comparing Muscle Activity and Spine Shape in Various Sitting Styles. Biofeedback.

 Vineyar, M. (2007). How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live: Learning the Alexander Technique to Explore Your Mind-Body Connection and Achieve Self-Mastery. Boston: Da Capo Lifelong Books.


Optimize success: Enrich treatment with placebo-the body’s own natural healing response*

When randomized controlled studies of pharmaceuticals or surgery find that the treatment is no more effective than the placebo, the authors conclude that surgery or drugs have no therapeutic value (Moseley et al, 2002; Jonas et al, 2015).  Even though the patients may have gotten better, the researchers often do not explore questions such as, why did some of the patients improve just with the placebo treatment; what are the components of the placebo process; and, how can clinicians integrate placebo components into their practice to enhance the body’s own natural healing response.

To explore these topics further, listen to Shankar Vedantam’s outstanding podcast, A Dramatic Cure, from the NPR program, Hidden Brain-A conversation about life’s unseen patterns. Also, read the background materials on the website https://www.npr.org/2019/04/29/718227789/all-the-worlds-a-stage-including-the-doctor-s-office

Presentation1Placebo effects can be a powerful healing strategy as demonstrated by numerous research studies that have persuasively explored the central features of the placebo effect. The research has found that the more dramatic and impressive the procedure, the more powerful the placebo effect.  For example, branded medicine with brightly colored packaging is more effective than generic medicine in plain boxes, an injection of a saline or sugar solution is more effective than taking a sugar pill, and placebo surgery is more effective than simply receiving an injection (Branthwaite & Cooper, 1981; Colloca & Benedetti, 2005).  For a detailed exploration of placebo, nocebo and the important role of active placebo, see the blog, How effective is treatment? The importance of active placebos.

To see the effect of the placebo in action, watch the well-known British stage hypnotist and illusionist, Derren Brown’s video, Fear and Faith  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hfDlfhHVvTY).  He magically weaves together a narrative that  addresses the powerful influences of the natural, physical, and clinical environment and language used during a ‘therapeutic’ interaction. He shows how the influences of role modeling, the words that increase hope, trust and social compliance, and other covert factors promote healing. It uses the cover of a drug trial to convince various members of the public to overcome their fears using a placebo medicine called “Rumyodin” (which is a made-up name of a fake pharmaceutical) and demonstrates that the limits of experience are the limits of your belief.

This blog post serves as a reminder to ask ourselves as educators and therapists, ‘what can I do to include placebo enhancing components into my practice so that my clinical and educational outcomes are more effective?’  Explore ways to optimize your clinical environment, language use during  ‘therapeutic’ interactions, and role modeling to increase hope, trust and social compliance and thereby optimize your clients’ own natural healing response.

References:

Branthwaite A, Cooper P. (1981). Analgesic effects of branding in treatment of headaches. Br Med J Clin Res Ed. 282, 1576-8

Colloca, L. & Benedetti, F. (2005). Placebos and painkillers: is mind as real as matter? Nat Rev Neurosci. 6, 545-552.

Jonas, W. B., Crawford, C., Colloca, L. , et al.(2015). To what extent are surgery and invasive procedures effective beyond a placebo response? A systematic review with meta-analysis of randomised, sham controlled trials. BMJ Open, 5: e009655. doi:10.1136/ bmjopen-2015-009655

Moseley, J.B., et al, (2002). A controlled trial of arthroscopic surgery for osteoarthritis of the knee. New England Journal of Medicine. 347(2), 81-88.

*I thank Richard Harvey, PhD., for his constructive feedback and James Fadiman, PhD., for reminding me to reframe the term placebo into “the body’s natural healing response.”