May Neuroscience Round-Up for Mindful Leaders

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For this month’s Round-Up, we look at how mindfulness relates to neuroticism and cognitive failures, how to stop choking under pressure, effective ways for overcoming “stresslaxation” and depressive relapses, and the challenges facing covid-19 healthcare workers. We have summarized the main ideas and key takeaways below with links to the full articles.

1. Mindfulness Can Help Explain the Relationship Between Neuroticism and Cognitive Failures, Study Suggests

According to the Five Factor Model of Personality (also known as the Big Five), neuroticism, or emotional stability, is strongly linked to cognitive failures, such as inattentiveness, difficulty concentrating, and memory lapses. Mindfulness has been linked to both lower neuroticism and lower cognitive failure scores. A new study published by Anthony J. Kondracki and colleagues suggests that mindfulness may directly explain the relationship between neuroticism and cognitive failure. The research team measured trait neuroticism, cognitive failure, and mindfulness in over 1,000 undergraduate students, both male and female. In both sexes, higher neuroticism was associated with lower mindfulness and lower mindfulness with increased cognitive failures. Only in females was there a direct correlation between higher neuroticism and more cognitive failures. 

Key Points:

  • Most importantly, when mindfulness scores were added to the statistical analyses, the direct effect of neuroticism on cognitive failure disappeared. In other words, mindfulness mediates, or explains, the relationship between neuroticism and cognitive failure. 
  • While it is possible that a third, unmeasured variable could be independently affecting both these measures (i.e. anxiety/depression causes lower mindfulness and more cognitive failures), these results indicate that low mindfulness is likely responsible for increased cognitive failures in relation to high neuroticism and that mindfulness-based training could possibly benefit both neuroticism and cognitive failures.

Read the full article here.

2. The Science of Choking Under Pressure  

Almost everyone has experienced “choking under pressure”: freezing and underperforming when it matters most despite having the necessary skills, knowledge, and practice to perform well. This phenomenon has been well-observed and studied in the sports world, but the same science and techniques used by athletes and other professionals in high-stakes situations can be applied to the workplace. When you suddenly “freeze,” your body enters into a threat-protection mode, releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that increase heart rate, cause sweating, dilate pupils, and negatively impact working memory. You’re most likely to find yourself choking when the external demands or pressure of the situation exceed your ability to use coping resources. Unfortunately, this imbalance can happen unconsciously, causing you to fail even when you think you’re ready. Fortunately, there are skills and steps you can take to better handle and prevent choking in daily life.

Key Points:

  • Mental imagery can be a powerful tool to prevent choking. Visualization has been shown to enhance strength, accuracy, and endurance, reduce anxiety, and increase feelings of control.
  • Practice under pressure so you’re prepared to handle unexpected conditions and work through a potential choke-response. You might practice your work presentations by asking colleagues to interrupt you with a negative comment or switching off your computer midway and continuing without your slides.
  • Avoid “paralysis by analysis” with mindfulness training, learning how to acknowledge your surroundings while remaining calm, alert, and attentive. Mindfulness and meditation have also been shown to calm the nervous system, reduce anxiety, and increase performance.
  • Adopt pre-performance routines, such as a few minutes of mindful breathing, stretching, or listening to a favorite song, before an important event like a work presentation.

Read the full article here.

3. 'Stresslaxation' is Real. Science Explains Why It Happens and How to Get Passed It  

Stresslaxation – the experience of trying to relax only to find yourself having negative thoughts and feeling more stressed and overwhelmed  – is a new term, but the phenomenon it describes is not. In the scientific world, stresslaxation is known as relaxation-induced anxiety and has been studied for years. Approximately 30-50% of people experience feelings of stress when they attempt to do relaxing things, which can cause a vicious cycle where de-stressing becomes impossible, thus increasing negative feelings and panic attacks. Understanding why it happens can help you work through it and embrace the benefits of relaxation. 

Key Points:

  • Denying you’re stressed keeps your body in constant stress mode, which causes physiological changes like increased heart rate. Acknowledge that these symptoms can be helpful (i.e. greater blood flow to the brain can help you solve the stressful problem), and try to uncover the root cause of your stress by journaling, talking with a friend or loved one, or using an online resource.
  • Ask yourself why you’re motivated to do the things you do – are you passionate about work or a hobby because it brings you joy or because you’re seeking praise or recognition from others? If you find yourself feeling like you’re “wasting time” relaxing when you could be pursuing that passion instead, or otherwise pushing yourself too much, consider taking a short mental break from the activity you’re passionate about.
  • If you get overwhelmed trying to decide which relaxing activity to do, try to limit the number of decisions you need to make on the day you want to relax by planning out exactly how or when you’ll relax. Most importantly, find a relaxing activity that you enjoy and remind yourself that doing this thing you love benefits your health and wellbeing.

Read the full article here.

4. Feeling Sensations, Including Ones Connected to Sadness, May be Key to Depression Suppression  

While it feels unpleasant in the moment to experience the feelings that accompany sadness, shutting down these sensory emotions can cause more harm to our well-being in the long run. A recent study published in NeuroImage: Clinical reports a link between sensory-avoidance and depression relapse. In this neuroimaging study, participants who had recovered from depression but were still at risk for a future episode underwent cognitive therapy treatments. In between sessions, the brain activity of participants was measured through fMRI scans as they watched non-emotional tv clips (lifestyle HGTV shows) and emotionally-charged scenes (1983’s Terms of Endearment). Sessions ended after eight weeks, but researchers continued to follow up with patients every two months for the next two years, specifically noting if and when depression relapse occurred; they found a correlation between sensory shut down (i.e. stopping feelings of sadness when they began) and relapse.

Key Points:

  • Participants who relapsed had a higher tendency to “shut down” during the emotionally-charged video clips; their fMRI scans showed less brain activity in the regions responsible for controlling and processing sensations.
  • Those who reported higher levels of sadness during the movie clips were not any more likely to suffer a relapse. Instead, it was the extent to which that sadness was accompanied by a sensory shutdown that predicted depression levels.
  • When we shut out sensory information, we can only make sense of the situation with our thoughts, and without that sensory information, we can quickly become trapped in our own negative thoughts and feelings, making it more likely that something minor (like receiving criticism at work) can trigger a depressive relapse.
  • Future assessments and treatments should consider sensory inhibition as a risk marker for depression and train patients to identify patterns of sensory avoidance so they can get the necessary help and support before a complete relapse.

Read the full article here.

5. Study Compares Moral Injury in Health Care Workers and Veterans  

The pandemic has taken a significant toll on health care workers, and a recent study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine reveals that they are experiencing similar levels of potential moral injury (PMI) as military combat veterans. PMI refers to the strong emotional and cognitive response that can arise after an individual experiences events that violate their personal moral code, such as fighting on the front lines of a war or global pandemic. In this study, 46.1% of veterans and 50.7% of healthcare workers reported PMI, and it was associated with significantly higher depressive symptoms and worse quality of life in both groups. Additionally, PMI was linked to higher burnout among healthcare workers.

Key Points:

  • PMI occurred largely when individuals felt they were expected to do things that made them question their participation. For healthcare workers, this included not being able to provide their intended level of care due to covid-19 circumstances.
  • Mental health providers can collaborate with chaplains so that better support can be offered when individuals struggling with PMI seek out guidance.
  • Most importantly, these findings confirm just how stressful these past few years have been on healthcare workers and reinforce the need for mindfulness around these issues. We must continue our efforts to provide beneficial interventions in support of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.

Read the full article here.

Which of these articles did you find the most interesting? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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1 comment

Very helpful insights 

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