Fuming in anger, exploding in rage, shaking in fear, or trembling with anxiety, what can you do? How can you control your emotions and what can you do if you are reacting to a friend or colleague who is out of control? There are many useful self-directed approaches and traditional advice such as, “Count to 10 before you speak,” ”Sleep on it before acting on the decision you have made,” “Practice stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness meditation,” “Leave the situation,” or “Wait 24 hours before clicking “send” on an angry email response.”
These suggestions aim to reduce the strong negative emotions which could cause people to lash out at or totally withdraw from the perceived threat. Under perceived threat, we may react defensively and impulsively to protect ourselves. During those times we may say the meanest things to hurt the person as a substitute for inflicting actual physical harm.
In almost most cases when angry or frightened we may react automatically. Thus having skills to recognize and interrupt the escalating cycle of negative emotions can facilitate resolving conflicts. These skills allow us to react more cool headed, rationally, and recognize how our responses would impact other people and prevent future blow back from our excessive emotional response. It could also interrupt an escalating argument. Despite our best efforts, it is often difficult to change our emotional reaction especially when we feel threatened, hungry and tired.
Emotion regulation as described by Professor James Gross, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, consists of 1) awareness that there is a need for an unhelpful emotion to be regulated such as noticing an increase in heart rate or worry, 2) selecting a strategy to regulate the emotion such as thinking about positive memories such as a loving grandparent or practicing breathing, 3) implementing and acting on this strategy which means doing the strategy at that moment when we don’t want to and all our impulses are saying “I am right, don’t change,” and 4) constant follow-up to check if what we are doing is effective and if not, what needs to be improved (Gross, 213).
This approach can be very effective and may work even better by combining multiple strategies instead of only one technique. The more skills you have and practiced the easier it becomes to master motional regulation. Sometimes, psychological behavioral approaches may underestimate the role of biological factors such as diet, exhaustion and exercise that underlie emotional regulation.
Think of a four-year child throwing a temper tantrum. As a parent, it not useful to discuss with the child what is going on. Each suggestion may increase the tantrum. Instead the parent thinks, “My child is exhausted or hungry” (how many tantrums don’t occur when the child stays up after bed time or just before dinner?). The millennium’s phrase, “hangry,” is the combination of hunger and anger.
The knowledge that food may prevent or reduce conflict is reflected in the cultural wisdom of most countries except the USA. In the Middle East you are offered tea and sweets before buying a small rug at the bazaar; in Japan or China, you are invited to a meal before beginning a business transaction. The food and may slightly raise your blood glucose levels and encourage digestion which triggers a physiological state that is the opposite of that triggered by anger or fear. It may also evoke positives feelings associated with eating such as family gatherings and parties. As the food and drink are a gift, it may allow you to perceive the other person more positively. Thus, it is easier to be collegial and react more positively in challenging situations. The influence of rest and food has also been observed in Judicial rulings. Judges are much more likely to accept prisoners’ requests for parole at the beginning of the session–right after breakfast or lunch–than later in the session (Danzier, Levav & Avnaim-Pesso, 2011).
What can you do?
One useful mental strategy when you are out of control is to remind yourself that you are acting like a four-year-old child who is having a tantrum. Begin in the same way as you would with a four-year-old: take time out, eat some food, and get rest. Then in the clear light of the next day, after having eating a nutritious breakfast– not just a cup of coffee with a muffin–discuss and resolve what happened the day before that triggered the outburst. Similarly, when another person is out of control, do not to take it personally, he/she may be a momentary acting like four-year-old.
Keep in mind, whatever other people said or did during an outburst, they may have responded automatically because they experienced their survival being threatened. Remember, how in a past moment of anger, you have said something very hurtful? At the moment the words left your mouth, you wished you could have reeled them back in as you realized that it would be almost impossible to repair the damage.
From a biological perspective you were hijacked by the amygdala which is part of our emotional brain (Goleman, 2006). The amygdala processes information 22 milliseconds earlier than the rational brain and acts protectively before our rational brain, the neocortex, can assess the situation and respond. This reaction occurs because the information signals “we are in danger” and evokes the automatic defense reaction as shown Figure 1.
Figure 1. Triggering of a defense reaction is 22 milliseconds quicker from the amygdala than from the cortex. Thus we sometimes react without recognizing the consequences (adapted from Ropeik, 2011)
Implement the cultural wisdom of eating together first and then discussing business or challenging issues. Do not send negative messages by email or mail since that allows people to react asynchronously without having the social feedback to modulate their emotions.
Self-regulation of unhelpful emotions is challenging because negative emotions trigger the body’s defense reactions to prepare it for flight and fight. At that point, it is more and more difficult to perceive the long term consequences of our action– our only goal is to survive. Even our cognitions change and we tend to interpret any information more negatively and may assume harmful intent. The more we are captured by our emotions, the more challenging is it to implement emotional self-regulation strategies.
Once the defense reaction has been activated, it is not the time to resolve conflict. Dr. Gottman and colleagues at the Seattle Love lab, discovered that when couples argued and their heartrate went over a hundred (a possible biological marker of sympathetic activation) arguments could escalate. If the person whose heart rate went up spontaneously took a time out and did self-soothing, the couple had a lower divorce rate and higher marital happiness than those couples who continue the arguments (Gottman & Gottman, 2008).
One of the effective ways to begin emotion regulation is to leave the situation and first complete the fight/flight defense reaction. If possible, this means interrupting whatever you are doing and exercise vigorously. After you have done a vigorous workout, emotional regulation is much easier as the ruminating thoughts have decreased or stopped.
Complete the alarm reaction with exercise
When you are upset take a break. If possible, take a time out and exercise to complete the fight/flight response that was activated by the negative emotions. This is not always possible in a business or social gathering; instead, excuse yourself and go to the bathroom. In the bathroom do the following five-minute exercise that was taught by Rinpoche Tarthang Tulku of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism as an approach to stop ruminating thoughts as shown in Figure 2.
Stand on your toes with the heels touching each other and lifted off the floor with your knees bent. Place your
hands on your sides, breathe slowly and deeply. Do this next to wall to reach with your hand to steady you if you lose your balance. Stay in this position for as long as 5 minutes. Do not straighten up, keep squatting.
In a very short time your attention will be drawn and captured by the burning sensation in your thighs. Continue. After five minutes stop, shake your legs and relax.
After this exercise your thoughts have stopped and continue with the more cognitive approach of emotional self-regulation or return to the meeting. Warming: Do not do this if you have hip, knee or ankle difficulty.
Use heart rate biofeedback to signal you that you may be losing control.
Wear a heart rate monitor to signal you when your heart rate increases twenty to thirty beats above your personal baseline rate during a discussion or conflict. Use that feedback to stop and take time out and implement self-regulation practices such as exercise, breathing or meditation to allow your arousal to decrease. When feeling more calm, return to the meeting.
Food and exercise are powerful tools to augment emotional self-regulation and health. In our research, Lena Stampfli and I have observed that many students who miss meals, have an unhealthy diet, do not the exercise, are sometimes irritable and experience difficulty in concentration. When San Francisco State University students implemented a four-week self-healing project as part of a class experience, the students who changed their eating behavior (eating breakfast, not skipping meals, reducing caffeine and simple carbohydrates and increase proteins, fats and fresh vegetables) and implemented daily physical exercise (e.g., yoga, jogging, and dancing), reported significant improvements in their energy level, fewer emotion outbursts and improved quality of life. They report some of the following:
“I thought I did not particularly like exercising and eating healthy, but when it is over I feel like I am on cloud nine!… I started to look forward to doing my exercises.” –A.M.
“I started to eat breakfast, I started biking to work and did a few [meditation] exercises before bed… I felt happier and more have energy to get through the day.” –C.B.
“I have learned that letting go of what no longer serves me allow room for healing and opportunities for growth… I can only imagine what years of healthy living could do for my well-being.” –K.S.
*I thank Pardis Miri, PhD, for her constructive comments.
The blog was adapted from Peper, E. (2017). Emotional control through mindfulness as path to mental health? Western Edition HP Journal. October. http://thewesternedition.com/admin/files/magazines/WE-October-2017.pdf
Danziger, S., Levav, J.& Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of Amereidcal, 108(17), 6889-6892. doi:10.1073/pnas.1018033108
Sedentary behavior is the new norm as most jobs do not require active movement. Sitting in a car instead of walking, standing on the escalator instead of walking up the stairs, using an electric mixer instead of whipping the eggs by hand, sending a text instead of getting up and talking to a co-worker in the next cubicle, buying online instead of walking to the brick and mortar store, watching TV shows, streaming movies, or playing computer games instead of socializing with actual friends, are all examples how the technological revolution has transformed our lives. The result is sitting disease which we belief can mitigate by daily exercise.
The research data is very clear– exercise does not totally reverse the health risks of sitting. In the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, researchers Matthews and colleagues (Matthews et al, 2012) completed an 8.5 year follow up on 240,819 adults (aged 50–71 year) who at the beginning baseline surveys did not report any cancer, cardiovascular disease, or respiratory disease.
The 8.5 year outcome data showed that the time spent in sedentary behaviors such as sitting and watching TV was positively correlated with an increased illness and death rates as shown in Figure 1. More disturbing, moderate vigorous exercises does not totally reverse the health risks of sitting and watching television (Matthews et al, 2012).
Figure 1. The more you sit the higher the risk of mortality even if you if you attempt to mitigate the effect with moderate vigorous exercise (Matthews et al, 2012). From: https://www.washingtonpost.com/apps/g/page/national/the-health-hazards-of-sitting/750/
The harmful impact of sedentary behavior and simple ways to improve health have been superbly described and illustrated by Bonnie Berkowitz and Patterson Clark (2014), in their January 20, 2014, Washington Post article, The health hazards of sitting, Their one page poster should be posted on the office walls and given to all clients. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/health/sitting/Sitting.pdf
As they point out, sitting disease increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, muscle degeneration especially weaker abdominal muscles and gluteus muscles, back pain and reduced hip flexibility, poor circulation in the legs which may cause edema in the ankles and deep vein thrombosis, osteoporosis, strained neck, shoulder and back pain. The effects are not only physical. Sitting reduces subjective energy level and attention as our brain becomes more and more sleepy.
The solution is both very simple and challenging. To reduce the risks, do less sedentary behavior and sitting and do more physical movement during the day. Continuously interrupt sitting with standing and movement. After sitting at the computer for 30 minutes, get up and move. Even skipping in place for 30 seconds, significantly will increase your energy and mood (Peper and Lin, 2012). There are many ways to remind and support yourself and others to move. For example, use reminder programs on the computer such as StretchBreakTM to remind you to get up and stretch. Employees who do episode movements, report fewer symptoms and have more energy (Peper & Harvey, 2008). As one of the employees state after implementing the break program, “There is life after five.” Meaning he was no longer exhausted when he finished work.
Although challenging, wean yourself away from the addicting digital screen and being a couch potato at home. At those moments when you feel drained and all you want to do is veg out by watching another TV series, go for a walk. After walking for 20 minutes, in most cases your energy will have returned and your low mood has been transformed to see new positive option. Plan the walks with neighbors and friends who provide the motivation to pull you out of your funk and go out.
Berkowitz, B. & Clark, P. (Jan 20, 2014). The health hazard of sitting. The Washington Post. Retrieved July 29, 2017.https://www.washingtonpost.com/apps/g/page/national/the-health-hazards-of-sitting/750/
Matthews, C. E., George, S. M., Moore, S. C., Bowles, H. R., Blair, A., Park, Y., … Schatzkin, A. (2012). Amount of time spent in sedentary behaviors and cause-specific mortality in US adults. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 95(2), 437–445. http://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.111.019620
Through millions of years, movement was part of our biological necessity.. Movement was necessary to hunt, to escape predators, to explore and to find a mate. Organisms developed a brain (nervous system) to coordinate movement as eloquently explain by neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert in his 2011 TED talk, The Real Reasons for Brains.
It is only recently that we limit movement by sitting, driving, taking the escalator, or controlling equipment that performs the actual physical labor. We interfere with our evolutionary developed physiology when we reduce or even eliminate movement for the sake of efficiency. Lack of movement, “sitting disease”, is a significant contributor and causal factor in illness. It also increases the stress response, negative mood and depression and reduces cognitive activity. Take charge and reduce illness when you integrate purposeful exercise (walking, running, dancing, etc.) into your life style.
Exercise is the most effective behavioral technique for self-regulation of mood in healthy people as summarized in the superb article, The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review, Dr. Julia C. Basso and Wendy A. Suzuki of the Center for Neural Science, New York University, New York, NY, USA. The robust research findings show that acute exercise improves mood, significantly reduces depression, tension, anger, fatigue, and confusion. In addition, acute exercise improves symptoms associated with psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Exercise decreases the risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stress-related blood pressure response by inhibiting the sympathetic nervous system response to stress. For a detailed summary, see the blogs, What is the best single thing we can do for our health and Healthy movement is the new aging.
Finally, the authors also review the relevant neurophysiological, and neurochemical processes that are affected by exercise. What is most interesting are the findings that “acute exercise primarily enhances executive functions dependent on the prefrontal cortex including attention, working memory, problem solving, cognitive flexibility, verbal fluency, decision making, and inhibitory control. These positive changes have been demonstrated to occur with very low to very high exercise intensities, with effects lasting for up to two hours after the end of the exercise bout.”
As the authors state, “We show that the three most consistent cognitive/behavioral effects of a single bout of exercise in humans are improved executive functions, enhanced mood states, and decreased stress levels.”
Even though the findings are clear that movement/exercise is a powerful “drug” to improve our health, most health professionals focus on sitting treatment and prescribing pharmaceutical agents. Possibly, a treatment session should start with fun physical exercise and followed by therapy. Remember, if you feel blah, have lower energy, feel frustrated or irritated, get up and move. Movement and exercise will change your mood. You will experience what Peper and Lin (2012), have shown that less than minute of skipping in place will significantly improve your subjective energy level and mood. Get up and skip in place, then observe how much better you feel. Then sit again read the article by Dr. Julia C. Basso and Wendy A. Suzuki, http://content.iospress.com/download/brain-plasticity/bpl160040?id=brain-plasticity%2Fbpl160040
Born on 26 November 1911, Mr Robert Marchand and 105 years old, managed cycling 22.55 km (14 miles) at the national velodrome and set a new record for the furthest distance cycled in one hour for riders over 105. (Reynolds, 2017).
Meet 105-year-old Robert Marchand, the centenarian cyclist chasing a new record: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey48j6dDNEo
As people age there is an increase in Western Diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, gout, cancer, dementia and decreases in physical fitness (Milanović et al, 2013; Tauber, 2016). To assume that the cause of these illnesses is the natural process of aging may be too simplistic. Although aging does affect physiology, there are other factors that contribute to the increase in “Western Diseases” such as diet, lifestyle and genetics.
A significant contributing factor of Western Diseases is diet especially the increase in sugar and simple carbohydrates. Whether you are Pima, Tohono O’odham, and Navajo American Indian Tribes in Arizona, Intuits in Northern Canada, Japanese Americans, or indigenous populations of Kenya, when these people stopped eating their traditional diet and adapted the western high glucose/fructose/simple carbohydrate diet, the degenerative Western Diseases exploded (Bjerregaard et al, 2004; Burkitt & Trowell, 1975; Knowler et al, 1990; Tauber, 2016). Diabetes, hypertension, and cancer which were previously rare skyrocketed within one generation after adapting the Western life style diet. In some of these populations, 30% or more of the adults have diabetes and a significant increase in breast cancer.
The reduction of episodic high intensity physical activity and being sedentary are additional risk factors for the onset of diabetes and cardiovascular disease (Dulloo et al, 2017). As Mensing & Mekel (2015) state, “Sitting is the new smoking.” Sitting encourages more sitting which leads to nonuse of muscles and causes neural and muscle atrophy. Our physiology is efficient and will prune/eliminate what is redundant. This is reflected in the popular phrase, “Use it or lose it.” As we sit for hours in front of digital devices, use escalators, elevators, or drive cars, we are not using the muscles involved in dynamic movement. We are usually unaware of this degenerative process. Instead, we may experience difficulty walking up the stairs which encourages us to take the escalator or elevator. When we do not use the muscles or are limited in movement by discomfort and pain, we move less. As we move less, we become weaker which is often labeled as aging instead of non use.
Just, because most people loose fitness, it may not represent what is possible or optimum. Instead, we may want to emulate the diet and fitness program of Mr. Robert Marchand who at age 103 set a new world record and improved the distance bicycled in one hour from 24.25 km at the age of 101 to 26.92 km at the age of 103. A 11% improvement! As New York Times science writer Gretchen Reynolds reports, “Lifestyle may also matter. Mr. Marchand is “very optimistic and sociable,” The researcher who did the study, Dr. Billat says, “with many friends,” and numerous studies suggest that strong social ties are linked to a longer life. His diet is also simple, focusing on yogurt, soup, cheese, chicken and a glass of red wine at dinner (Reynolds, 2017).
The improvement in bicycling performance and physiological indicators such as ⩒O2max increased (31 to 35 ml.kg-1min-1; +13%), appeared to be due to a change in his training regimen (Billat et al 2016). At age 101 he changed his bicycling training program from riding at a steady speed for one hour to riding 80% at an easy pace and 20% at high intensity. This is a type of interval training and includes enough recovery allows the body the recover and strengthen. This analogous to our evolutionary movement pattern of walking interspersed with short distance high intensity running.
As a hunter and gather we often moved steadily and then had to run very fast to escape a predator or catch an animal. After extreme exertion, we would rest and regenerate (if we did not escape we would be lunch for the predator). Thus episodic high intensity activity with significant rest/regenerative periods is the movement pattern that allowed our species to survive and thrive. Research studies have confirmed that high intensity interval training offers more physiological benefits–increases cardiorespiratory fitness which is a strong determinant of morbidity and mortality– than moderate intensity continuous training (Weston et al, 2014).
Thus when Mr. Marchard changed his exercise pattern from moderate intensity continuous training to high intensity interval training with enough recovery time he set a new world record at age 103. Two years later he set a new world record at age 105.
Exercise improves brain function and interval training appears to improve brain function most. When rats had prolonged exercise, the brain’s stores of energy is significantly lowered in the frontal cortex and hippocampus all areas which area involved in thinking and memory. If on the other hand, the animals had a single intense bout of exercise and were allowed to rest and feed than the brain levels of glycogen was 60% high in the frontal and hippocampus areas. This suggest that the brain can then function better (Matsui et al, 2012).
This perspective is supported by the evolutionary hypothesis discussed by Neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert who points out that brains evolved, not to think or feel, but to direct movement. When movement is no longer needed the brain shrinks and gets reabsorbed which is illustrated by the sea squirt. This animal swims as a juvenile and then anchors on a rock and is passively moved by the currents. Once anchored, it no longer needed to coordinate movement and reabsorb its own nervous system. See Daniel Wolpert’s remarkable TED talk, The real reasons for brains.
The remarkable feat of Mr. Marchand offers suggestions for our own health. Enjoy healthy movement and exercise and incorporate our evolutionary movement patterns: episodic high intensity followed by regeneration. At the same time include a healthy diet by reducing sugars and simple carbohydrates. Finally, it helps to have the right genes.
Billat, V. L., Dhonneur, G., Mille-Hamard, L., Le Moyec, L., Momken, I., Launay, T., & Besse, S. (2016). Case Studies in Physiology: Maximal Oxygen Consumption and Performance in a Centenarian Cyclist. Journal of Applied Physiology, jap-00569. http://jap.physiology.org/content/jap/early/2016/12/29/japplphysiol.00569.2016.full.pdf
Bjerregaard, P., Kue Young, T., Dewailly, E., & Ebbesson, S. O. (2004). Review Article: Indigenous health in the Arctic: an overview of the circumpolar Inuit population. Scandinavian Journal of Social Medicine, 32(5), 390-395. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51366099_Indigenous_Health_in_the_Arctic_An_Overview_of_the_Circumpolar_Inuit_Population
Burkitt, D.P. & Trowell, H.C. eds. (1975). Refined carbohydrate foods and disease: Some implications of dietary fibre. New York: Academic Press.
Dulloo, A. G., Miles‐Chan, J. L., & Montani, J. P. (2017). Nutrition, movement and sleep behaviours: their interactions in pathways to obesity and cardiometabolic diseases. Obesity Reviews, 18(S1), 3-6.
Knowler, W. C., Pettitt, D. J., Saad, M. F., & Bennett, P. H. (1990). Diabetes mellitus in the Pima Indians: incidence, risk factors and pathogenesis. Diabetes/metabolism reviews, 6(1), 1-27.
Matsui, T., Ishikawa, T., Ito, H., Okamoto, M., Inoue, K., Lee, M. C., … & Soya, H. (2012). Brain glycogen supercompensation following exhaustive exercise. The Journal of physiology, 590(3), 607-616.
Mensing, M., & Mekel, O. C. L. (2015). Sitting is the new smoking-Modelling physical activity interventions in North Rhine-Westphalia. The European Journal of Public Health, 25(suppl 3), ckv171-037.
Milanović, Z., Pantelić, S., Trajković, N., Sporiš, G., Kostić, R., & James, N. (2013). Age-related decrease in physical activity and functional fitness among elderly men and women. Clinical interventions in aging, 8, 549-556.
Reynolds, G. (2017, February 8). Lessons on Aging Well, From a 105-Year-Old Cyclist. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/08/well/move/lessons-on-aging-well-from-a-105-year-old-cyclist.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fhealth&action=click&contentCollection=health®ion=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=5&pgtype=sectionfront
Taubes, G. (2016). The Case Against Sugar. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Weston, K. S., Wisløff, U., & Coombes, J. S. (2014). High-intensity interval training in patients with lifestyle-induced cardiometabolic disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British journal of sports medicine, 48(16), 1227-1234. http://www.rcsi.ie/files/facultyofsportsexercise/20141201122758_High-intensity%20interval%20traini.pdf
Wolpert, D. (2011) The Real Reason for Brains. http://www..com/tatedlks/daniel_wolpert_the_real_reason_for_brains.html
Youtube video: Meet 105-year-old Robert Marchand, the centenarian cyclist chasing a new record: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey48j6dDNEo
A healthy diet is much more than just focusing on a single food. People focus so often on adding one type of food or eliminating another such as, “Don’t eat ice cream!”, “Eat chia seeds.” “No red meat.” In almost all cases, it is not just one thing, instead a healthy diet is embedded in awareness and healthy life style choices. Watch the superb common sense white board video presentation by Doctor Mike Evans, What’s the Best Diet? Healthy Eating 101. In this short presentation, he summarizes the best practices known. Implement his approach and your health will significantly improve.
Dead bird on Midway Island in the North Pacific, 2000 miles from any other islands. The bird mistook attractive coloring of plastics that float in the ocean as food. From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtJFiIXp5Bo
Being captured by a digital device. From: http://images.gameskinny.com/gameskinny/c9689c75994e58a03dbc5e489d346e55.jpg
How come birds on Midway Island are dying?
How come your son keeps playing computer games even after he said he would stop?
How come you ate all the French fries and the dessert even though you promised yourself to reduce your calorie intake?
How come you procrastinated and did not get up from the couch to exercise?
How come you watched pornography?
The usual answer is absence of will, self-control or self-discipline. The person is automatically blamed for making poor life choices. If you had more self-worth than you would not let yourself get obese, addicted to computer games, or watch pornography. Blaming the victim is easy, however, there are other factors that underlie the person’s covert/unconscious choices. Many of these illness producing behaviors (e.g., overeating, playing the computer games, sitting and sitting) are responses to external cues that in prehistoric times promoted survival, reproduction and health. To respond rapidly and appropriately to those cues offered a reproductive advantages while not reacting would reduce your survival. In many cases there are no upper limits to turn off our responses to these cues because the more the person responded to those cues the more was there a reproductive advantage. Now, however, our adaptive preferences have become maladaptive because the cues that trigger the same behaviors lead to lower fitness and illness (Schlaepfer et al, 2002; Robertson et al, 2013). The cues have become evolutionary/ecological traps!
Some of the recent evolutionary/ecological traps include:
Vigilance for survival. While playing a computer games, the person rapidly responds and continuously experiences immediate rewards (e.g., successful shooting the target, points, next game level). This process activates the same survival mechanisms that hunter used for thousands of generations. A visual or auditory stimuli represents sources of food or danger (a game animal to hunt for food, an attack by a predator or an enemy). The visual/auditory cue captures the person’s attention and if the person reacts to that cue he would probably survive. On the other hand, if he did not react, he may not survive and reproduce. In our modern world, similar stimuli now hijack the neurological pathways that in earlier times supported survival. Over activation of these pathways is a cofactor in the development of ADHD and other disorders (Peper, 2014). For a superb discussion of how cellphones, computers, gaming and social medial are changing our brains, read Dr. Mari Swingle’s new book, i-Minds (Swingle, 2015)
Energy for survival: Eating carbohydrate/sugary and fat foods are necessary for survival as humans constantly searched for energy sources to support life. Breast milk and almost any fruit that is sweet contain calories and supports growth. If the food was bitter it was usually harmful. For most of our evolutionary past, we would eat as much as possible because food was scarce. There was no evolutionary advantage to limit food intake as the stored calories would supply enough calories to survive during periods of famine. In our modern world, our survival mechanisms have been hijacked by advertising and the oversupply of foods which contribute to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes.
Being a couch potato and not moving again is again survival mechanism. In a prehistoric world with limited food supply, the less movement (the fewer calories you burned), the longer you could survive. You would move when you needed to build shelter or search for food. Again in a world where shelter and food are often abundant, there is no intrinsic mechanism to initiate movement.
Sexual arousal for reproduction: Men are often captured by pornography. They can watch for hours and feel aroused. The whole porn industry is based upon hijacking our sexual drive for reproduction.
Our brain does not discriminate between actual visual and auditory stimuli, imagined or film/video images. Until the late 19th century everything we saw and heard was real. Only in the 20th century could we produce images and sounds that appeared real. These film, TV , and the ever present digital displays activate the same neurophysiological pathways as when the stimuli were actually real. A scene on a digital screen triggers the same biological pathways and responses that for thousands of generations supported survival. If we did not respond we would not have survived. If you have any doubt, watch a scary horror movie and check how you feel afterwards. You may feel more scared, your sleep may be disturbed, your heart rate increased, and you probably interpreted any noise around you as possible danger. Thus, cues in the environment may become evolutionary/ecological traps in the same way that birds on Midway Island in the North Pacific, 2000 miles from any other islands, mistook the attractive coloring of plastics as food. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtJFiIXp5Bo. Should the birds be blamed because they have no self-control?
What can you do!
Recognize that modern industries for the sake of profits have hijacked our cues that had evolved to aid survival (Kemp, 2014).
Recognize that not reacting to product cues means inhibiting the intrinsic biological triggered survival responses. Yes, it is possible not react to the stimuli and demonstrate self-control; however, it is not only a problem of will. It is a problem that our cues have been hijacked and tricked for commercial profit.
Society may need to protect its own populations from commercial exploitation of evolutionary/ecological traps. A young child is automatically drawn to the visual stimuli on a smartphone and tablet which parents use to quiet the child during dinner. In this process they are activating the pre-wired biological pathways that captured attention for survival. By over activating these pathways, the brain is changing in response to this activation which increases the risk of developing ADHD, autism, and mood deregulation including anxiety, depression, and anger management, and other forms of addictive behavior (Swingle, 2015). In addition, school performance and memory retention are reduced when students take notes using their keyboard or read text from digital screens (OCallaghan, 2014). It will take the family and society to limit the availability of these cues until self-control has been developed. Similarly, the availability of cheap calories in large food portions, sugars in soft drinks and sugar and fats in snacks, need to be limited if the epidemic of obesity and diabetes is to be reversed.
It may be unreasonable to think that people can easily interrupt their biological responses to cues that have been created to increase profits. We need to take collective responsibility and limit the availability of commercially augmented evolutionary traps and cues in the same way we need to limit the plastic in the ocean so that the birds at Midway Island may be able survive. Without respecting our evolutionary past, our future may not be different from those Midway Island birds.
Kemp, C. (2014). Trapped!. New Scientist, 221(2960), 43-45
OCallaghan, T. (2014). Goodbye, paper: What we miss when we read on screen. New Scientist.224 (2993). 41-43.
Peper, E. (2014). Support Healthy Brain Development: Implications for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Psychophysiology Today, 9(1), 4‐15.
Robertson, B. A., Rehage, J. S., & Sih, A. (2013). Ecological novelty and the emergence of evolutionary traps. Trends in ecology & evolution, 28(9), 552-560.
Swingle, M.K. (2015). i-Minds. Portland, OR: Inkwaterpress.com ISBN-13 978-1-62901-213-1
Schlaepfer, M. A., Runge, M. C., & Sherman, P. W. (2002). Ecological and evolutionary traps. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 17(10), 474-480.
After a catastrophic event occurs a person often becomes depressed as the future looks bleak. One may keep asking, ”Why, why me?” When people accept–acceptance without resignation— and concentrate on the small steps of the journey towards their goal, remarkable changes may occur. The challenge is to focus on new possibilities without comparing to how it was in the past. The limits of possibility are created by the limits of our beliefs. We may learn from athletes who aim to improve performance whereas clients usually come to reduce symptoms. As Wilson and Peper (2011) point out, “Athletes want to go beyond normal—they want to be superb, to be atypical, to be the outlier. It is irrelevant what the athlete believes or feels. What is relevant is whether the performance is improved, which is a measurable and documented event”. They have described some of the factors that distinguish work with athletes from work with clients which includes intensive transfer of learning training, often between 2 and 6 hours of daily practice across days, weeks, and months. This process is described by the Australian cross-country skier, Janine Shepherd, who had hoped for an Olympic medal — until she was hit by a truck during a training bike ride. She shares a powerful story about the human potential for recovery. Her message: You are not your body, and giving up old dreams can allow new ones to soar. Watch Janine Shepherd’s 2012 Ted talk, A broken body isn’t a broken person.
Wilson, V.E. & Peper, E. (2011). Athletes Are Different: Factors That Differentiate Biofeedback/Neurofeedback for Sport Versus Clinical Practice. Biofeedback, 39(1), 27–30.
Shepherd, J. (2012). A broken body isn’t a broken person. Ted talk. http://www.ted.com/talks/janine_shepherd_a_broken_body_isn_t_a_broken_person