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Natural Awakenings Fairfield & Southern Litchfield Counties

Vitality Part II: The V in Positive Psychology

Jul 30, 2021 11:00AM ● By Ann C. Reeves
Positive Psychology (PP) is the scientific study of optimal human functioning, its research encompassing neurobehavioral, cognitive behavioral and physiological science. The acronym used in PP is PERMA-V. We continue to explore V, or Vitality, an overriding factor that encourages and supports the success of Positivity, Engagement, Relationship, Meaning and Achievement/Accomplishment in bringing about a deep sense of well-being.

Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is the variation in time between each heartbeat. A higher HRV or significant variation in time between heartbeats is optimal, with a lower HRV being associated with anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s and cardiac disease. HRV reacts to negative emotional arousal such as acute time pressure anxiety, worry and stress. One can buy a device online to track personal HRV, many compatible with Apple and Android phones.

Other ways to increase HRV include decreasing inflammation through diet, yoga, mindfulness and meditation to reduce stress; improving sleep hygiene (see below); and Box or Square Breathing—inhaling to a count of four, pausing for a count of four, exhaling for a count of four, and pausing for a count of four, repeating at least 10 times. Other helpful breathing exercises will be covered in next month’s offering. Some have found biofeedback training helpful for raising HRV. Tough workouts or strenuous competition can lower HRV. The body needs time to rest and recover. If HRV is low, it is wise to dial back on tough training until it is raised again.

Establishing positive sleep hygiene is another key to vitality. When we are sleep deprived, we experience more stress, which raises the amount of cortisol, the “stress” hormone, in our bodies. Cortisol levels are also related to weight gain. Leptin is a hormone produced by the fat cells in our bodies. It regulates fat storage and the number of calories we eat and burn. Ghrelin is another hormone that is produced in the gut. Its purpose is to get us to seek out food. Research suggests that leptin is decreased and ghrelin is increased in people who are sleep-deprived. 

When we create a sleep debt, we have to pay it back, or we are more likely to experience headaches, stomach discomfort, obesity, heart problems, colds or diabetes. People need 16 to 17 hours of being awake and then they require sleep for their bodies to restore homeostasis. There are different sleep types in terms of hours needed. Three kinds of sleepers include Larks (awake 5 to 6am and asleep by 9 to 10pm), Owls (awake 9 to 10am and asleep past midnight) and Humming Birds (awake 6:30 to 7:30am and asleep 10:30 to 11:30pm.) This may well be related to genetics unless is it associated with enforced work schedules.

Sleep hygiene studies have shown that controlling behavioral and environmental factors before sleep can have a positive impact. It helps to establish a sleep schedule/habit for going to sleep and waking each day. Putting away electronics for 15 to 30 minutes before bed and winding down with a relaxing activity—hot bath, reading, journaling, cuddling or listening to music—is shown to be helpful. We want the body to associate our bedroom with sleep and sexual activity only, removing all visual media. Make darkness a priority through block-out shades and consider using a dawn simulator as an alarm clock. If unable to sleep after tossing and turning for 30 minutes, it is advisable to get up and get involved in a relaxing activity—yoga, music, non-caffeinated tea—and return to bed when sleepiness occurs.

Martin Seligman, the founder of the positive psychology movement, suggests writing down “three good things—what went well, today, and how did I play a part?” Research has demonstrated a reduction in depression in subjects who participated in this exercise for 30 days. One can also engage in a progressive muscle relaxation exercise or a body scan, starting with the toes and working up through the entire body to the crown of the head, breathing slowly and easily, and at each point, placing attention on any areas of tension or discomfort.

Try to transform language away from “pain” or “hurt” to “discomfort” or “unpleasant”. Words, alone, can trigger a stress fear reaction. We can discourage this when we change a word. If there is any area of discomfort, we can try to soften it by breathing gently into that area, then moving on to the next. It is surprising to learn the extent to which we carry our stress and worries in our legs. Over time, tightening those muscles brings about stiffness and other unpleasant sensations. Softening them whenever we can is beneficial.

Another way to help encourage sleep and soften anxiety and stress is through the Emotional Freedom Technique, better known as EFT or “Tapping”. EFT combines cognitive restructuring and exposure techniques with acupoint stimulation, tapping with the fingers primarily on the face, with “reminder” statements to accompany the physical movements. This method was originated in the 1990s through the work of clinical psychologist Dr. Roger Callahan and later, Gary Craig, who used Callahan’s original work to further develop and name EFT. This method has now been studied across a wide range of populations and issues. Although it is not yet widely accepted by some western medicine practitioners, much evidence-based research is taking place and over 100 clinical studies have found EFT to be a valid “evidence-based” practice for such conditions as anxiety and depression, phobias and PTSD.

Anecdotally, many people have found EFT to be helpful before sleep, with some modifications. Because traditional tapping is quite active, one might want to just place the fingers softly at the tapping meridians and, as the late psychologist Patricia Carrington suggested in her form of EFT,  replacing thoughts or statements such as “I want to go to sleep now” with “Even though I’m having trouble getting to sleep, I choose to feel pleasantly drowsy.”

To find out more information about EFT, search online for “The EFT Manual” or the many other programs and videos about EFT or Tapping that are available. A local practitioner would also be a great resource from which to learn the practice. 

Ann C. Reeves, Psy.D is a Licensed Psychologist in Wilton.

Next month we will explore the importance of breath, introduce healthful breathing techniques and look at how physical activity can improve overall health well beyond physical fitness.