Erik Peper and Amber Yang
“Instead of zoning out and being on my phone half the time. I felt more engaged in the class and like I was actually learning something.” -21 year old college student
Before the pandemic, roughly, two-thirds of all social interactions were face-to-face—and when the shelter-in-place order hit our communities, we were all faced with the task of learning how to engage virtually. The majority of students reported that taking online classes instead of in person classes is (“taking online classes” is singular) significantly more challenging. It is easier to be distracted and multitask online—for example, looking at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, texting, surfing the internet, responding to notifications, listening to music, or drifting to sleep. Hours of watching TV and/or streaming videos have conditioned many people to sit and take in information passively, which discourages them from actively responding or initiating. The information is rapidly forgotten when the next screen image or advertisement appears. Effectively engaging on Zoom requires a shift from passively watching and listening to being an active, creative participant.
Another barrier to virtual engagement is that communicating online does not engage all senses. A considerable amount of our communication is nonverbal—sounds, movement, visuals, physical structures, touch, and body language. Without these sensory cues, it can be difficult to feel socially connected on Zoom, to sustain attention and to focus. Another challenge to virtual learning is that without the normal environment of a classroom, many students across the country are forced to learn in emotionally and/or physically challenging environments, which gets in the way of maintaining attention and focus. The Center for Disease Prevention (CDC) reported that anxiety disorder and depressive disorder have increased considerably in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic (Leeb et al, 2020). Social isolation, stay-at-home orders, and coping with COVID-19 are contributing factors affecting mental health especially for minority and ethnic youth. Stress, anxiety and depression can greatly affect students’ ability to learn and focus.
The task of teaching has also become more stressful since many students are not visible or appear still-faced and non-responsive. Teaching to non-responsive faces is significantly more stressful since the presenter receives no social feedback. The absence of social feedback during communication is extremely stressful. It is the basis of Trier Social stress test in which a person presents for five minutes to a group of judges who provide no facial or verbal feedback (Allen et al, 2016; Peper, 2020).
The Zoom experience especially in a large class can be a no win situation for the presenter and the viewer. To help resolve this challenge, we explored a strategy to increase student engagement and reduce social stress of the teacher. In this exploration, we asked students to rate their subjective energy level, attention and involvement during a Zoom conducted class. For the next Zoom class, they were asked to respond frequently with facial and body expressions to the presentation. For example, students would expressively shake their head no or yes and/or use facial expressions to signal to the teacher that they were engaged and listening. Other strategies included giving thumbs up or thumbs down, making sounds, and changing your body posture as a response to the presentation. Watch the superb non-judgmental instructions adapted for high school students by Amber Yang.
When college students purposely implement animated facial and body responses during a Zoom class, they report a significant increase in energy level, attention and involvement (p<0.002) as compared just attending normally in class as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Change in subjective energy, attention and involvement when the students significantly increase their facial and body animation by 108% as compared to their normal non-expressive class behavior (from: Peper, Martin, Rosegard, & Harvey, unpublished).
“I never realized how my expressions affected my attention. Class was much more fun” -22 year old college student
“I can see how paying attention and participation play a large role in learning material. After trying to give positive facial and body feedback I felt more focused and I was taking better notes and felt I was understanding the material a bit better.” –28 year old medical student
These quotes are a few of the representative reports by more than 80% of the students who observed that being animated and responsive helped them to stay present and learn much more easily and improve retention of the materials. For a few students, it was challenging to be animated as they felt shy, self-conscious and silly and kept wondering what other students would think of them.
Having students compare two different ways of being in Zoom class is a useful assignment since it allows students to discover that being animated and responsive with facial/body expression improves learning. So often we forget how our body impacts our thoughts and emotions. For example, when students are asked to sit in a slouched position, they reported that it was much easier to recall hopeless, helpless, powerless and defeated memories and more difficult to perform mental math in the slouched position. While in the upright position it was easier to access positive empowering memories and easier to perform mental math (Peper et al, 2017; Peper et al, 2018).
Experience how body posture affects emotional recall and feeling (adapted from Alda, 2018).
1) Stand up and configure your body in a position that signals defeat, hopelessness and depression (slouching with the head down). While holding this position, recall a memory of hopelessness and defeat. Notice any negative emotions that arise from this.
2) Shift and configure your body into a position that signals joy, happiness and success (standing tall, looking up with a smile). While holding this position, recall a memory of joy and happiness. Notice any positive emotions that arise from this.
3) Configure your body in a position that signals defeat, hopelessness and depression (slouching with the head down). While holding this position, recall a joy, happiness and success. Do not change your body position. End this configuration after holding it for a little while.
4) Shift and your body in a position that signals joy, happiness and success (standing tall, looking up with a smile). While holding this position, recall a memory of hopelessness and defeat. Do not change your body position. End this configuration after holding it for a little while.
When body posture and expression are congruent with the evoked emotion, it is almost always easier to experience the emotions. On the other hand, when the body posture expression is the opposite of the evoked emotion (e.g., the body in a positive empowered stance while recalling hopeless defeated memories) it is much more difficult to evoke and experience the emotion. This same concept applies to learning. When slouching and lying on the bed while in a Zoom class, it is much more difficult to stay present and not drift off. On the other hand, when sitting erect and upright and actively responding to the presentation, the body presence/posture invites the brain to focus for optimized learning.
In a Zoom environment, it is easy to slouch, drift away, and become non-responsive—which can exacerbate zoom fatigue symptoms and also decrease our capacity to learn, focus, and feel connected with the people around us on Zoom. Actively participating in class by sitting up, maintaining an empowered posture, and using nonverbal facial and body expressions to communicate helps us take charge of optimizing our learning experience as we face the day-to-day challenges of the pandemic and beyond.
I noticed I was able to retain information better as well as enjoy the class more when I used facial-body responses. At times, where I would try to wonder off into bliss, I would catch myself and try to actively engage in the class with body movements even if there is no discussion. Animated face/body was a better learning experience. –21-year old college student.
Leeb, R.T., Bitsko, R,H,, Radhakrishnan. L., Martinez, P., Njai, R., & Holland, K.M. (2020). Mental Health–Related Emergency Department Visits Among Children Aged <18 Years During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 1–October 17, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep, 69,1675–
Peper, E., Martin, M., Rosengard, E., & Harvey, R. (unpublished). Be present and productive–Take charge of screen lethargy and zoom exhaustion
Adapted from the book, TechStress: How Technology
is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics, by Erik Peper, Richard Harvey and Nancy Faass.
Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Faass, N. (2020), TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
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.
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.
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
How to optimize ergonomics
Hot to prevent and reduce neck and shoulder discomfort
How to prevent screen fatigue and eye discomfort
How to improve posture and prevent slouching
How to improve breathing and reduce stress
How to protect yourself from EMF
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.
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.
- 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.
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).
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.
- Practice breathing lower and slower to reduce sympathetic activation. Every few minutes remember to breathe slowly in and out through the nose. See the following blogs for more detailed instructions:
- Blink many times. Blink each time you click on a link, after typing a paragraph or after entering a few numbers.
- Get up, move, stretch and wiggle.
- Every few minutes do a small movement such as rotating your shoulders, dropping your hands to your lap.
- Every twenty minutes get up, stretch and walk around to reduce the chronic muscle tension.
- Install the free Stretch Break software on your computer or laptop to remind you to stretch… and then shows you how. Download free version from: https://stretchbreak.com/.
- Use small portable muscle biofeedback devices to learn awareness of the covert muscle tension and how to work without unnecessary muscle tension. For detailed training procedures see the free downloadable book by Erik Peper and Katherine Gibney, Muscle Biofeedback at the Computer- A Manual to Prevent Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) by Taking the Guesswork out of Assessment, Monitoring and Training.
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.
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.
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., 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.
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.
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.
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, and people with serious heart conditions (e.g., heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies), cancers, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, COPD, chronic kidney disease, hypertension, smoking, immune suppression or other health issues (CDC, 2020a) as well as young people who vape or smoke and those with immunological defects in type I and II interferon production (Gaiha, Cheng, & Halpern-Felsher, 2020; van der Made, 2020). As we age the immune system deteriorates (immunosenescence) that 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). On the other hand, for young people and children the risk is very low and similar for Covid-19 as for seasonal influenza A and B in rates for hospitalization, admission to the intensive care unit, and mechanical ventilator ( Song et al, 2020).
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 (Heid, 2020).
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.
How to reduce the coronavirus load/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 (Furukawa, Brooks, Sobel, 2020). 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 to the virus, avoid the “Three C’s” — closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded places and close contact—and do the following:
- Follow the public health guidelines:
- Social distance (physical distancing while continuing to offer social support)
- Wear a mask and gloves to reduce spreading the virus to others.
- Wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds.
- Avoid touching your face to prevent microorganisms and viruses to enter the body through mucosal surfaces of the nose mouth and eyes.
- Clean surfaces which could have been touched by other such as door bell, door knobs, packages.
- Avoid the person’s slipstream that may contain the droplets in the exhaled air. The purpose of social distancing is to have enough distance between you and another person so that the exhaled air of the other person would not reach you. The distance between people depends upon their activities and the direction of airflow.
In a simulation study, Professor Bert Blocken and his colleagues at KU Leuven and Eindhoven University of Technology reported that the plume of the exhaled air that potentially could contain the virus droplets could extend much more than 5 feet. It would depends upon the direction of the wind and whether the person is walking or jogging as show in Figure 1 (Blocken, 2020).
Figure 1. The plume of exhaled droplets that could contain the virus extends behind the person in their slipstream (photo from KU Leuven en TU Eindhoven).
The plume of exhaled droplets in the person’s slipstream may extend more than 15 feet while walking and more than 60 feet while jogging or bicycling. Thus. social distancing under these conditions is much more than 6 feet and it means avoiding their slipstream and staying much further away from the person.
- Increase fresh air to reduce virus concentration. The CDC recommends ventilation with 6 to 12 room air changes per hour for effective air disinfection (Nardell & Nathavitharana, 2020). By increasing the fresh outside air circulation, you dilute the virus concentration that may be shed by an infected asymptomatic or sick person (Qian & Zheng, 2018). 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. Almost all people who contract COVID-19 are exposed indoors to the virus. In the contact tracing study of 1245 confirmed cases in China, only a single outbreak of two people occurred in an outdoor environment (Qian et al, 2020). 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 masks 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. This is superbly illustrated by Prather, Wang, & Schooley (2020) that not masking maximizes exposure, whereas universal masking results in the least exposure.
- Avoid long-term exposure to air pollution. People exposed to high levels of air pollution and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) are more at risk to develop chronic respiratory conditions and COVID-19 death rates. In the 2003 study of SARS, ecologic analysis conducted among 5 regions in China with 100 or more SARS cases showed that case fatality rate increased with the increment of air pollution index (Cui, Zhang, Froines, et al. , 2003). The higher the concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), the higher the death rate (Conticini, Frediani, & Caro, 2020). As researchers, Xiao Wu, Rachel C. Nethery and colleagues (2020) from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health point out, “A small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate, with the magnitude of increase 20 times that observed for PM2.5 and all cause mortality. The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.“
- Breathe only through your nose. The nose filters, warms, moisturizes and slows the airflow so that airway irritation is reduced. Nasal breathing increases nitric oxide production that significantly increases oxygen absorption in the body. During inspiration through the nose the nitric oxide helps dilate the airways in your lungs and blood vessels (McKeown, 2016). More importantly for dealing with COVID-19, Nitric Oxide, produced and released inside the nasal cavities and the lining of the blood vessels, acts as an antiviral and a secondary strategy to protect against viral infections (Mehta, Ashkar & Mossman, 2012).
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).
It is estimated that 70-80% mortality caused by Covid-19 occurred in people with comorbidity who are: over 65, male, lower socioeconomic status (SES), non white, overweight/obesity, cardiovascular heart disease, and immunocompromised. Although children comprised only a small percentage of the seriously ill patients, 83% of those children in the intensive care units had comorbidities and 60% were obese. The majority of contributing factors to comorbidities and obesity are the result of economic inequality and life style patterns such as the Western inflammatory diet (Shekerdemian et al, 2020; Zachariah, 2020; Pollan, 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), Alschuler et al, (2020) and Jaffe (2020), list factors that support or decrease the immune system.
Factors that decrease immune competence
Factors that support immune competence
Phytochemicals and vitamins that support immune competence
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Thus, to reduce the risk of covid-19 disease severity, implement strategies to reduce viral dosage exposure and strengthen the immune system. Many of these factors are within our control. Thus, increase fresh air circulation, reduce stress, decrease foods that tend to increase inflammation (the industrialized western diet that significant contributes to the development of chronic disease), and increase foods, vitamins and nutrients that support immune competence.
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.
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Neupane, B., Jerrett, M., Burnett, R.T., Marrie, T., Arain, A., Loeb, M. (2018). Long-term exposure to ambient air pollution and risk of hospitalization with community-acquired pneumonia in older adults. Am J Respir Crit Care Med, 181(1), 47‐53.
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Price MA, Butow PN, Bell ML, et al. Helplessness/hopelessness, minimization and optimism predict survival in women with invasive ovarian cancer: a role for targeted support during initial treatment decision-making?. Support Care Cancer. 2016;24(6):2627‐2634.
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This post has been adapted from Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Hamiel, D. (2019). Transforming thoughts with postural awareness to increase therapeutic and teaching efficacy. NeuroRegulation, 6(3), 153-169. doi:10.15540/nr.6.3.1533-1
When locked into a position, options appear less available. By unlocking our body, we allow our brain to unlock and become open to new options.
Changing positions may dissolve the rigidity associated with a fixed position. When we step away from the conflict, take a walk, look up at the treetops, roof lines and clouds, or do something different, we loosen up and new ideas may occur. We may then be able see the conflict from a different point of view that allows resolution.
When stressed, anxious or depressed, it is challenging to change. The negative feelings, thoughts and worries continue to undermine the practice of reframing the experience more positively. Our recent study found that a simple technique, that integrates posture with breathing and reframing, rapidly reduces anxiety, stress, and negative self-talk (Peper, Harvey, Hamiel, 2019).
Thoughts and emotions affect posture and posture affects thoughts and emotions. When stressed or worried (e.g., school performance, job security, family conflict, undefined symptoms, or financial insecurity), our bodies respond to the negative thoughts and emotions by slightly collapsing and shifting into a protective position. When we collapse/slouch, we are much more at risk to:
- Feel helpless (Riskind & Gotay, 1982).
- Feel powerless (Westfeld & Beresford, 1982; Cuddy, 2012).
- Recall and being more captured by negative memories (Peper, Lin, Harvey, & Perez, 2017; Tsai, Peper, & Lin, 2016),
- Experience cognitive difficulty (Peper, Harvey, Mason, & Lin, 2018).
When we are upright and look up, we are more likely to:
- Have more energy (Peper & Lin, 2012).
- Feel stronger (Peper, Booiman, Lin, & Harvey, 2016).
- Find it easier to do cognitive activity (Peper, Harvey, Mason, & Lin, 2018).
- Feel more confident and empowered (Cuddy, 2012).
- Recall more positive autobiographical memories (Michalak, Mischnat,& Teismann, 2014).
Experience how posture affects memory and the feelings (adapted from Alan Alda, 2018)
Stand up and do the following:
- Think of a memory/event when you felt defeated, hurt or powerless and put your body in the posture that you associate with this feeling. Make it as real as possible . Stay with the feeling and associated body posture for 30 seconds. Let go of the memory and posture. Observe what you experienced.
- Think of a memory/event when you felt empowered, positive and happy put your body in the posture that you associate with those feelings. Make it as real as possible. Stay with the feeling and associated body posture for 30 seconds. Let go of the memory and posture. Observe what you experienced.
- Adapt the defeated posture and now recall the positive empowering memory while staying in the defeated posture. Observe what you experience.
- Adapt the empowering posture and now recall the defeated hopeless memory while staying in the empowered posture. Observe what you experience.
Almost all people report that when they adapt the body posture congruent with the emotion that it was much easier to access the memory and feel the emotion. On the other hand when they adapt the body posture that was the opposite to the emotions, then it was almost impossible to experience the emotions. For many people, when they adapted the empowering posture, they could not access the defeated hopeless memory. If they did access that memory, they were more likely be an observer and not be involved or emotionally captured by the negative memory.
Comparison of Posture with breathing and reframing to Reframing
The study investigated whether changing internal dialogue (reframing) or combining posture change and breathing with changing internal dialogue would reduce stress and negative self-talk more effectively.
The participants were 145 college students (90 women and 55 men) average age 25.0 who participated as part of a curricular practice in four different classes.
After the students completed an anonymous informational questionnaire (history of depression, anxiety, blanking out on exams, worrying, slouching), the classes were divided into two groups. They were then asked to do the following:
- Think of a stressful conflict or problem and make it as real as possible for one minute. Then let go of the stressful memory and do one of the two following practices.
- Practice A: Reframe the experience positively for 20 seconds.
- Practice B: Sit upright, look up, take a breath and reframe the experience positively for 20 seconds.
- After doing practice A or practice B, rate the extent to which your negative thoughts and anxiety/tension were reduced, from 0 (not at all) to 10 (totally).
- Now repeat this exercise except switch and do the other practice. (Namely, if you did A now you do B; if you did B now you do A).
Overwhelmingly students reported that sitting erect, breathing and reframing positively was much more effective than only reframing as shown in Figure 1 and 2.
Figure 1. Percentage of students rating posture, breath and reframing practice (PBRP) as more effective than reframing practice (RP) in reducing negative thoughts, anxiety and stress. Figure 2. Self-rating of reduction of negative thoughts and anxiety/tension
Stop reading. Do the practice yourself. It is only through experience that you know whether posture with breathing and reframing is a more beneficial than simply reframing the language.
Implications for education, counseling, psychotherapy.
Our findings have implications for education, counseling and psychotherapy because students and clients usually sit in a slouched position in classrooms and therapeutic settings. By shifting the body position to an erect upright position, taking a breath and then reframing, people are much more successful in reducing their negative thoughts and anxiety/stress. They report feeling much more optimistic and better able to cope with felt stress as shown by representative comments in table 1.
|Reframing||Posture, breath and reframing|
|After changing my internal language, I still strongly felt the same thoughts.||I instantly felt better about my situation after adjusting my posture.|
|I felt a slight boost in positivity and optimism. The negative feelings (anxiety) from the negative thoughts also diminished slightly.||The effects were much stronger and it was not isolated mentally. I felt more relief in my body as well.|
|Even after changing my language, I still felt more anxious.||Before changing my posture and breathing, I felt tense and worried. After I felt more relaxed.|
|I began to lift my mood up; however, it didn’t really improve my mood. I still felt a bit bad afterwards and the thoughts still stayed.||I began to look from the floor and up towards the board. I felt more open, understanding and loving. I did not allow myself to get let down.|
|During the practice, it helped calm me down a bit, but it wasn’t enough to make me feel satisfied or content, it felt temporary.||My body felt relaxed overall, which then made me feel a lot better about the situation.|
|Difficult time changing language.||My posture and breathing helped, making it easier to change my language.|
|I felt anger and stayed in my position. My body stayed tensed and I kept thinking about the situation.||I felt anger but once I sat up straight and thought about breathing, my body felt relaxed.|
|Felt like a tug of war with my thoughts. I was able to think more positively but it took a lot more brain power to do so.||Relaxed, extended spine, clarity, blank state of mind.|
Table 1. Some representative comments of practicing reframing or posture, breath and reframing.
The results of our study in the classroom setting are not surprising. Many us know to take three breaths before answering questions, pause and reflect before responding, take time to cool down before replying in anger, or wait till the next day before you hit return on your impulsive email response.
Currently, counseling, psychotherapy, psychiatry and education tend not to incorporate body posture as a potential therapeutic or educational intervention for teaching participants to control their mood or reduce feelings of powerlessness. Instead, clients and students often sit slightly collapsed in a chair during therapy or in class. On the other hand, if individuals were encouraged to adopt an upright posture especially in the face of stressful circumstances it would help them maintain their self-esteem, reduce negative mood, and use fewer sadness words as compared to the individual in a slumped and seated posture (Nair, Sagar, Sollers, Consedine, & Broadbent, 2015).
THE VALUE OF SELF-EXPERIENCE
What makes this study valuable is that participants compare for themselves the effects of the two different interventions techniques to reduce anxiety, stress and negative thoughts. Thus, the participants have an opportunity to discover which strategy is more effective instead of being told what to do. The demonstration is even more impressive when done in groups because nearly all participants will report that changing posture with breathing and reframing is more beneficial.
This simple and quick technique can be integrated in counseling and psychotherapy by teaching clients this behavioral technique to reduce stress. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), sitting upright can help the individual replace a thought with a more reasonable one. In third wave CBT, it can help bypass the negative content of the original language and create a metacognitive change, such as, “I will not let this thought control me.”
It can also help in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) since changing one’s body posture may facilitate the process of “acceptance” (Hayes, Pistorello, & Levin, 2012). Adopting an upright sitting position and taking a breath is like saying “I am here, I am present, I am not escaping or avoiding.” This change in body position represents movement from inside to outside, movement from accepting the unpleasant emotion related to the negative thoughts toward a “commitment” to moving ahead, contrary to the automatic tendency to follow the negative thought. The positive reframing during body position or posture change is not an attempt to color reality in pretty colors, but rather a change of awareness, perspective, and focus that helps the individual identify and see some new options for moving ahead toward commitment according to one’s values. This intentional change in direction is central in ACT and also in positive psychology (Stichter, 2018).
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
We suggest that therapists, educators, clients and students get up out of their chairs and incorporate body movements when they feels overwhelmed and stuck. Finally, this study points out that mind and body are affected by each other. It provides another example of the psychophysiological principle enunciated by Elmer Green (1999, p 368):
“Every change in the physiological state is accompanied by an appropriate change in the mental-emotional state, conscious or unconscious; and conversely, every change in the mental-emotional state, conscious or unconscious is accompanied by an appropriate change in the physiological state.”
The findings of this study echo the ancient spiritual wisdom that is is central to the teaching of the Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh. He recommends that his students recite the following at any time:
Breathing in I calm my body,
Breathing out I smile,
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know it is a wonderful moment.
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.