It’s fun being a psychologist. Just as an engineer is fascinated by the true mechanics of electrical circuitry, we mental health professionals are intensely curious about the human brain.
What people feel and what those feelings mean; why people do what they do; it’s all of interest to us. In the process of doing our job day after day, we can often pick up on patterns and connections that give us flashes of a bigger picture. We see causes and effects and develop insights, understandings and intuitions that tell us basic human truths.
Sometimes new research studies come out that make us say, “Aha! I knew it!” Below are four such psychological principles. All four are the common knowledge of most mental health professionals. All are currently being studied and proven, and all are immensely useful information that everyone should have.
- Our brains have a helpful chemical response when we see someone we care about. Have you ever felt a little anxious or uncomfortable at a conference or party while making small talk with acquaintances and strangers? Then, someone you know well and care about enters the room, and you suddenly feel more at ease? Studies have shown that at the moment your eyes alight upon a “known and felt” person, your brain releases a shot of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone which reduces fear and anxiety, and increases both your eye contact and your feelings of trust and generosity. (Kai McDonald, 2008.)
The implications: Having emotional connections and healthy relationships with people increases the likelihood that you will experience the release of oxytocin in your brain, and also cause it in the brains of people you care about. So putting time and energy into forming and keeping healthy, solid bonds with the people in our lives can contribute to a calmer, healthier existence for all of us.
- The most significant highs and lows in life are not caused by individual achievements and failures. Promotions, test failures, raises, business losses; none of these were rated as the most significant life events by subjects in a recent study. Instead, people rated relationship connections and disconnections as their most important life experiences. Falling in love, break-ups, happy and sad times with friends and loved ones all trumped individual achievements and failures. (Jaremka et al., 2010).
The Implications: We should place less value on career and financial failures and successes, and acknowledge what really matters: the people in our lives.
- Mindful people are healthier and happier: A Brown University Study by Loucks, et al., 2014 showed that people who are more aware of what they are thinking and feeling in the moment (these researchers’ definition of mindfulness) have lower BMI (body mass index), lower fasting glucose, less smoking and higher levels of physical activity.
Another study by Kidwell, et al., 2014 found that teaching people to pay attention to their emotions helped them lose weight better than educating them about nutrition.
Still another study by Carlson, et al., 2014 found an actual difference on a cellular level between breast cancer patients who learned and practiced mindfulness and those who did not. In only three months of practicing mindfulness, the patients were able to lengthen their “telomores,” which are protein complexes which book-end the chromosomes.
The Implications: Paying attention to what you feel and why you’re feeling it pays off. It’s a skill, and it can be learned. People who have it are better at managing their impulses and reading their own physical and emotional needs. They are overall healthier both physically and emotionally.
- Psychological abuse and neglect in childhood are just as (or more) damaging as physical and sexual abuse. A study which (Spinazzola, et al, 2014) followed over 5,000 children for twelve years found that those who received emotional or verbal abuse or were ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect) showed equal or higher levels of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and suicidality when compared with children who were physically or sexually abused.
The Implications: If you struggle with anxiety, low self-esteem, depression or suicidal feelings, do not under-estimate the power of Emotional Neglect or emotional abuse in your childhood. You don’t have to be hit or molested in childhood to cause significant adult distress. Please note that all of these experiences and effects can be significantly improved by facing them head on, especially if you seek help as needed.