April Neuroscience Round-Up for Mindful Leaders

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By the Mindful Leader Team

For this month’s Round-Up, we explore ways to combat doomscrolling and burnout, how to get healthier dopamine highs, tricks to enhance your wisdom, and the future of mindfulness intervention science. We have summarized the main ideas and key takeaways below with links to the full articles.

1. Ukraine Doomscrolling Can Harm Your Cognition As Well As Your Mood – Here’s What to do About it

Doomscrolling – spending excessive amounts of time reading and consuming negative news – can lead us to feel like there is never any good news and can increase feelings of anxiety and depression. When we are constantly exposed to sad and tragic events on the news, such as the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, our mood is easily impacted, and we may start to ruminate on negative thoughts from over empathizing. Over time, this can lead to significant negative effects on our cognition, reducing attention, memory, and retention skills, and decreasing our cognitive flexibility, which then makes it difficult for us to change our patterns of thinking and escape feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. Compounding the problem is the fact that technology (which is mainly how we are consuming such news) can also negatively impact our attention and mental health, particularly making us more anxious. Importantly, you can reset your brain to avoid obsessive doomscrolling and become more resilient instead. 

Key Points:

  • Gain resilience by scheduling a de-stressing and relaxing activity daily, like reading a book, visiting a friend, or practicing mindfulness. Activities like exercise or learning a new skill will help to improve both your mood and cognition.
  • Another way to fight feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness is to take action and perform an act of kindness, which activates a reward system in the brain and gives you a sense of control of the situation.
  • If doomscrolling is severely impacting your wellbeing, consider contacting a clinical psychologist or other professional to receive help through cognitive behavioral therapy and other treatments.

Read the full article here

2. There's a Chance Burnout Could Change Your Brain. Here's What to do

Understanding that burnout is a natural phenomenon, a process in which your brain changes under conditions of chronic stress with the intention of protecting you (even though it is actually making things worse in this case), can be a helpful first step in breaking the vicious cycle of self-blame. Chronic stress (burnout) decreases grey matter in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, impacting our high-order cognitive functions like attention, memory, and complex decision-making. At the same time, chronic stress also enlarges the amygdala, the brain region largely responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response. As a result, our brain simultaneously becomes more primitive with an increased fear response. Luckily, it is possible to reverse these changes, particularly with cognitive behavioral therapy or by engaging in healthy, stress-reducing activities, but we can also prevent the damage from occurring in the first place if we feel in control of the stressor. 

Key Points

  • Burnout is characterized by three symptoms: exhaustion, inefficacy (feeling like you’re not accomplishing anything), and cynicism or a sense of alienation from work or people.
  • Recover from burnout by giving yourself grace and engaging in self-care activities, particularly healthy activities like exercise and meditation. Avoid alcohol and benzodiazepines – the temporary stress relief will actually make you feel even worse and more burned out the next day.
  • Even small gestures of compassion (both towards yourself and others) can have a positive effect on reducing burnout, even as soon as the next day. 

Read the full article here

3. New Research Explores How Wisdom Is Different In Men And Women

A recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology explored how men and women differ in the subdomains of wisdom by asking 650 participants to complete common measures of wisdom, the San Diego Wisdom Scale and 3-Dimensional Wisdom Scale. The researchers observed higher scores on compassion, self-reflection, and other pro-social components of wisdom in women, while men tended to score higher on decisiveness and emotional regulation. They hypothesize that these differences are likely due to both socio-cultural and biological factors, such as societal definitions of a “wise woman” versus “wise man” and hormonal differences. From these findings and those of future wisdom research, we can develop wisdom interventions to improve the quality of life and well-being for people of different ages, groups, and backgrounds.

Key Points:

  • Greater wisdom is associated with better mental health, well-being and life satisfaction, and even greater longevity. 
  • Wisdom can be broken down into the following subcomponents: empathy & compassion, control over one’s emotions, self-reflection, accepting uncertainty, decisiveness, advising others who seek guidance, and spirituality
  • The following are ways to boost your own wisdom:
    • Seek to understand the perspectives of others who are different from you or have different viewpoints.
    • Develop compassion – participate in a cause for a greater good or help members in your community.
    • Practice effective decision-making by slowing down and considering all the evidence during the process. 

Read the full article here.

4. How to Get Healthier Dopamine Highs

Dopamine, an important neurotransmitter, plays a significant role in feelings of pleasure and motivation, but when our dopamine levels rise too high, this can lead us to suffer from painful crashes and develop addictive behavior. Luckily, there are ways to encourage “healthy dopamine highs” and mitigate these negative effects. The first step is to develop self-awareness by tracking your daily activities and identifying which behaviors might be compulsive and harmful (for instance, constantly checking your smartphone). From there, expert psychiatrists recommend engaging in abstinence, noting that different individuals will need anywhere from one week to one month to reset the reward pathways in their brain. During the reset period, focus on engaging in healthy dopamine-raising activities, such as exercise and meditation, or hormetic behaviors – initially painful experiences (such as taking a cold shower, backcountry camping, or marathon training) that subsequently drive an upswing in dopamine and pleasure, minus the crash. 

Key Points:

  • Be cautious about combining pleasurable activities (for instance, constantly blasting your favorite music while exercising or enhancing activities with caffeine) too frequently, as over time it will become predictable, boring, and ultimately lower your dopamine levels. Instead, indulge in highly pleasurable combos sporadically. 
  • Mindfulness meditation, such as intentionally enjoying a sunset, has been shown to raise dopamine levels without spikes and effectively treat opioid addiction.
  • Flow states – when you become so absorbed in a task you lose track of yourself – also result in a steady dopamine uptick, but you will likely need to leave your comfort zone and struggle through hours of painful or unpleasant practice to achieve flow (ex: training for a marathon or writing a memoir). 

Read the full article here.  

5. Harnessing Life's Slings and Arrows: The Science and Opportunities for Mindfulness Meditation During a Global Pandemic and Beyond

The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the issues of social isolation, loneliness, and mental illness while also highlighting the disparities in healthcare and wellbeing among different populations. In the past two decades, mindfulness-based interventions have demonstrated promising success in improving physical and mental health and protecting against the negative effects of chronic life stressors. Now more than ever, it is clear that we need to develop a rigorous, evidence-based mindfulness intervention science so we can design, test, and implement appropriate behavioral interventions across various groups. The scientists of this editorial literature review reveal the many challenges still facing this field: how do we accurately measure mindfulness in our studies, when should we use active vs. placebo control groups, and how do the effects of mindfulness intervention change between digital and in-person delivery methods? By using high-quality methods when designing experiments, the scientific community can begin to fill the gaps regarding our knowledge of mindfulness and start to effectively translate the science into meaningful practice throughout society.

Key Points:

  • Innovative mindfulness research can be used to address the biggest issues facing us today: how to best help the most socially at-risk populations; ways to treat chronic pain and combat addiction; and techniques for promoting healthy behaviors, both physical and mental. 
  • By using implementation science principles (including high-quality methods), we can develop successful mindfulness interventions embedded throughout different communities and help the people who need it most. 

Read the full article here.


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