Polyvagal Theory Part 1: The Wandering Nerve

The polyvagal theory is a neurobiological theory relating social engagement, physiology, and developmental outcomes. When I was first learning the theory, I struggled to understand some of the theory’s basic terms and could not find a resource that simplified it. Therefore, this three–part series of articles is intended to serve as an introduction to the theory. In this article I will introduce the physiology behind stress. In the second I’ll discuss specific stress responses, and…

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Emotions and Health: Not Just a “First-World Problem”

French writer and philosopher Voltaire said something along the lines of “I have decided to be happy because it is good for my health.” Is this just a vague philosophical aphorism or does it have any basis in science? In fact, decades of research point to the idea that emotions are indeed related to health in many ways. Negative emotions, such as feeling depressed, are related to numerous negative health outcomes (e.g., pain, disease, mortality).…

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Social Relationships and Your Health

Whatever you may think of the Hallmark cards and heart-shaped chocolate clichés, Valentine’s Day and the accompanying “love is all you need” glow of February are great reminders that the relationships in our lives are worth being celebrated. Aside from just making us feel good, our relationships may also be helping to keep us healthy. For example, people who are more socially isolated or lonely are more likely to develop diseases like cardiovascular disease, visit…

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5 Reasons to Add Sleeping More to Your Holiday Wish List

“I planned out our whole day!” Will Ferrell’s character prefaces his list of holiday activities in Elf. Even if your holiday season to-do list isn’t quite as festive as Buddy the Elf’s, you likely know the feeling of having a lot to do around this time of year. One item that rarely makes the to-do list is getting enough sleep. As your holiday season gets busier and busier, here are a few reminders for why…

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Why It’s Important to Continue Being Grateful Even After Thanksgiving

Aside from eating copious amounts of turkey and pumpkin pie, Thanksgiving also represents a time of reflection and gratitude for many of us. Even though November and the Thanksgiving season are winding down, we may want to consider extending our gratitude into December and beyond. The idea of being grateful for what we have not only sounds like a good sanity check in the midst of a crazy holiday season, but research has also shown…

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On Essena O’Neill, #fitspo, and the “real-ness” of social media.

If you’ve been on social media in the past 48 hours, you may have seen one of several articles making the rounds about Essena O’Neill, the former teen Instagram model (yes, that’s a thing!) who gained popularity for her bikini-clad selfies and fitness tips. Essena made the decision to quit Instagram after growing disillusioned and unhappy with the staged nature of her social media presence. Before deleting her Instagram account, Essena recaptioned all of her…

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Benefitting Ourselves While Benefitting Others: The Importance of Generativity

  “How to Talk About Dying” was the name of one of the “Most Emailed” articles on The New York Times website in early July. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, written by bestselling author and MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Dr. Atul Gawande, has an average of 5 out of 5 stars with nearly 3,000 reviews on Amazon.com. What used to be a very unsexy topic in our culture – having a…

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A Meditation On Meditation: Behavioral Flexibility and Success

As an undergraduate I worked for a man who was, if nothing else, compelling. Tall and trim, with a bushy handlebar mustache, slicked back hair, and a propensity for pulling out and smoking an e-cigarette in the middle of lab meetings, my adviser could often be heard shouting expletives at his computer from down the hall. I quite liked him. These, of course, were not his only defining character traits. Like many in academia, he…

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Feeling the Love [Hormone]: the Oxytocin Receptor

Oxytocin has gotten a lot of hype as the biological basis of our favorite human emotion, Love. Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus and released by the posterior pituitary gland. The oxytocin system is involved in HPA axis and autonomic nervous system functions as well as reproductive functions and social behaviors.  We are coming to understand how the structure of the the receptor for the hormone oxytocin influences oxytocin’s effects and social behavior, including love.

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The anti-inflammatory effects of music

Can music help us heal? The first piece of research evidence that turned me on to my field was a finding presented in a Health Psychology course as an undergraduate.  Researchers found that after surgery, patients healed faster, and were released from the hospital sooner, if they had a window that looked out on to trees from their hospital window.

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What is Sleep Health?

We all know what poor sleep looks like (see: zombie apocalypse), but do we have a good understanding of what healthy sleep is? Most psychological and medical research on sleep has been focused on sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea, but healthy sleep is not necessarily the absence of these disorders. Since 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO) has defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely…

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Acute vs. Chronic Stress: Can it ever be both?

In the field of health psychology, there is still much debate as to what constitutes an acute stressor versus a chronic stressor. The importance of this clarification is crucial for researchers in this field, because stress is a key factor in many areas of research including coping processes, health behavior, disease progression, and psychoneuroimmunology among others. Many researchers have defined acute vs. chronic stress in the context of their own work, but these definitions varied…

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Happy Monday Morning!

Mondays. The hardest part about Mondays is waking up in the morning. Kudos to those to feel otherwise. Getting back to the rhythm of our early weekday start is typically more difficult for people who are naturally night owls. Each of us has a unique circadian rhythm and are characterized as early, intermediate or late chronotypes. Late chronotypes that are forced to wake up earlier than their body would incline to suffers from what researchers…

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Social Facilitation and Food: Your Friends are Bigger than Your Stomach

Eating is fundamental aspect of human life, but what are the factors that influence our eating behavior? Scientists have explored this question for over a century, and early studies focused solely on physiological influences on food intake. For example, in 1912 Walter Cannon and his student Washburn discovered that stomach contractions accompanied feelings of hunger. In the 21st century, many people still attribute their eating behavior primarily to factors such as hunger and taste. However,…

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Solving the problem of adverse childhood stress

Recently an article in the New York Times caught my eye. It was about something called “toxic stress” and its effect on children. Exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACE), like abuse, neglect, and domestic violence, has long term impacts on a child’s psychological and physical well-being. These negative experiences can induce what researchers at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University call a “toxic stress response”. Before I go much further into what…

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