Use Positive Psychology To Change Your Brain in Healthy Ways

Have you ever felt stuck in a personal rut? Maybe not a full-blown crisis, but you’ve definitely been better? Psychologist Adam Grant terms this feeling “languishing,” and a large portion of the population finds themselves trapped in this mental-health twilight zone.

Jared Warren, associate professor of clinical and developmental psychology, has a solution. 

Warren studies positive psychology, or the applied science of well-being. His research objective is to connect people with evidence-based resources for living their best life possible.

“Positive psychology is about being a whole person,” Warren says. “A misconception about positive psychology is that it’s just a ‘focus on the positive, look on the bright side’ kind of naive approach to life, and that’s not at all what it is. It’s recognizing that there’s value in every experience, including the challenging ones.”

Warren’s research, among the research of others in the field, links principles of positivity like gratitude, mindfulness, self-compassion, and savoring to overall well-being. By learning these skills, anyone can take steps to flourish mentally. But, research also shows that simply understanding positive principles will not lead to personal progress.

Warren developed the course for and teaches Psych 349, “Introduction to Positive Psychology.” The curriculum gives students the opportunity to develop an attribute of well-being by practicing that attribute for three weeks. Known as “The 21-Day Personal Growth Experiment,” this assignment moves students from knowing about well-being to living what they know.

Dr. Warren also has a practice as a clinical psychologist at BYU’s Comprehensive Clinic. He says that his research has helped patients at the clinic “because some positive psychology practices are already baked into some of our best clinical approaches.” 

The John Taylor Building houses the Comprehensive Clinic (Claire Moore)

Many tried and true psychological treatments line up naturally with positive psychology principles, such as having subjects actively plan pleasant activities, consider their personal core values, and set goals to become who they’ve always wanted to be.

But positive psychology isn’t just for those struggling with clinical disorders. Wherever people find themselves on the spectrum of well-being, positive psychology can help anyone live a rich, vibrant, and meaningful life. The skills developed by practicing positive psychology build the capacity to handle unexpected stressors and challenges that will inevitably come into our lives.

So, how can you break out of the languishing rut? 

“To change the brain in healthy ways we have to practice,” says Warren. “My wish for the whole world is that everyone could spend 20 minutes a day practicing some of these skills for improving their well-being.”

To work through some positive psychology modules and improve your own well-being, visit the My Best Self 101 website developed by Warren.

Other mental health resources for students include BYU CAPS, the SafeUT App and webinars from the Hope Squad.

The BYU Comprehensive Clinic offers counseling services for individuals, couples, and families in the Utah County area. Services are provided by graduate student interns in Clinical Psychology, Marriage and Family Therapy, and Social Work. These graduate student therapists are supervised by experienced, licensed professionals, and faculty members. Call (801)422-7759 to schedule an intake.

Love Like Your Life Depends on it

One day after she delivered her TedxBYU talk on the importance of social relationships, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at BYU, found out her father was hospitalized with a terminal condition. She dropped her professional work to spend every day with him before he died two and a half weeks later.

Then her mother passed away.

“I lost both of my parents within two and a half weeks. But I had that incredible time with them before they passed that I’ll treasure forever,” Holt-Lunstad says, becoming emotional. “Really, the most important things in our life are our relationships.”

Holt-Lunstad’s extensive research focuses on the long-term health effects of social connection. Her professional portfolio includes providing expert testimony in a U.S. Congressional hearing, advising the U.S. Surgeon General in the Emotional Well-Being in America Initiative, and serving as a scientific advisor for the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness.

Andy Proctor, a member of the TedxBYU curation committee, said Holt-Lunstad was chosen as a speaker because of her significant contribution to health and psychological sciences as well as the relevance of her message. “Her idea that social connection is one of the most important things we can do for our health is novel and the committee believed deeply it was an idea worth spreading,” Proctor says.

In her talk, Holt-Lunstad says that a lack of social connection poses a health risk similar to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.

“It’s time to prioritize our relationships like our life depends on it — because it does,” she says.

Holt-Lunstad began her research by looking at the effects of stress on health. She found that when experiencing the same levels of stress, blood pressure spikes were lower among people with supportive relationships, but more exaggerated in people with few supportive relationships. Expanding their research, she and her colleagues analyzed data from over 300,000 people worldwide and found that those with social connections increased their chance of living longer by 50%. On the other hand, the likelihood of death is increased 26% by being lonely, 29% by social isolation, and 32% by living alone.

Holt-Lunstad points to several ways we can improve our social connections.

1. Make time for relationships

Although making time for relationships can be challenging, there is no substitute for the benefits everyone gains from positive social relationships. They are as important to health as diet and exercise.

2. Discover your preferences

And just like diet and exercise, individual preferences for social interaction varies. People should find the type of social interaction that works best for them, whether that looks like informal gatherings or planned social activities, and whether it’s in large groups or more intimate settings.

3. Make the first move

Loneliness can be a vulnerable, stigmatizing feeling. And those feelings can make it difficult to make the first move when trying to build social relationships. But Holt-Lunstad says that feeling is normal and can be overcome. “One really empowering way to break the ice is to look for others who might need help or who might need a friend.”

4. Serve others

One of the best ways we can help ourselves is by helping others. Holt-Lunstad shared, “There is significant research that shows that providing support to others or doing small acts of kindness for others actually significantly reduces our own loneliness and increases a sense of social bonding between you and the other person. That’s something any one of us can do.”

Holt-Lunstad is currently working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Administration for Community Living (ACL) to create a national clearinghouse for interventions to address loneliness and social isolation. She is also working with the Gravity Project to make recommendations for national standards for representing social isolation in electronic health records, and serving as the scientific chair of the Foundation for Social Connection and the Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness.

Learn more about Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s research.

New Psychology chair Dr. Burlingame: Seeing the department as a small-group setting

Psychology professor Dr. Gary Burlingame is known for a few things.

First, Burlingame enjoys going on three-mile mid-day runs around campus.

Second, he has taught at BYU and served in a variety of positions and roles since 1983; that’s 35 years of service!

And third, he is the newly appointed Department of Psychology chair.

Curious beginnings

Bulingame came from a family of engineers where psychology seemed “a little squishy for a father who was working on NASA contracts.” But when he took an undergraduate psychology course, he was hooked. “We’d read in our textbook (about small group therapy) and we’d split the class, and half of us would go behind a one-way mirror and the other half would form a small group,” recalls Burlingame. “I was able to watch the group dynamic principles that I’d just read about. Then, when I was participating in the group, I was affected by the group and I realized that as human beings, we’re affected by each other.”

Seeing the field evolve

Focusing on both small group settings and measurement, Burlingame has seen how both have evolved over the years. “When I was an undergraduate, we wouldn’t have even dreamed [the measurement methods we are currently using] were possible,” shared Burlingame. During the ’90s, Burlingame recalls utilizing the same chaos theory that was used in “Jurassic Park” in small group behavior to see if you could explain patterns of therapeutic interactions in a group. Several years later, Burlingame would work with Michael Lambert to build a system of measurement that is now used worldwide to make dashboards to monitor mental health.

These same dashboards and ideas were implemented across BYU campus when Burlingame worked in the Strategic Planning and Assessment Office with former BYU president Merrill Bateman to measure mental health among campus communities.

Another major evolution in the field that Burlingame has been a part of is the push to recognize international psychological movements. When Burlingame was first asked to write a chapter in The Handbook of Psychotherapy Behavior Change, a book that he had studied as a graduate student, he wanted to include literature and ideas from outside the United States. He included literature from Canada and from Europe, and from there, he has continued performing research and collaborating with researchers across the world, primarily Bernhard Strauss of Germany.

“It was my vision to have our chapter in the handbook be international. And now that’s what has happened to (almost the entire) handbook. They bring a different kind of therapy and a different perspective.”

Seeing the department as a small group

With his past experience, Burlingame has a good idea of how the university and a department runs.

So, what is he most excited about with this new position? “The fun part [about being a chair] is that I’m a group guy. I get to think of the department as a group that I can make more effective.”

Burlingame’s goal as department chair is to make the psychology department as functional as possible to make it as successful as possible. In order to do this, Burlingame says that you have to make every voice count and make sure that every voice is heard.

“Conflict represents information, that people feel like their voice isn’t being heard,” shares Burlingame. “[When someone raises conflict], it’s an attempt to be heard.”

Burlingame has seen this conflict and need for resolution in his field work in Israel as he worked with Jews and Palestinians and again in Bosnia with Muslims and Serbs.

“We’re social creatures so it doesn’t matter if we’re in Israel, or the ASB, or the Kimball Tower. We want to be noticed because we all think we have something to contribute, otherwise we wouldn’t be here,” comments Burlingame. “So [I want to] make sure that everyone has the chance to contribute and flourish. That’s what we really want to do because everyone wants to flourish.”

Tackling Mental Health with a Psychologist and College Quarterback

What do you think of when you hear the words “mental health?” For many people, there’s a stigma attached to depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, or any other form of mental illness, but these illnesses are real, and they are widespread. Luckily, more and more people are raising their voices to talk about their experiences with mental illness. You probably first heard of one such BYU student in September 2015 when he threw a Hail Mary to secure BYU’s victory over Nebraska, featured on ESPN. In an April 2017 Instagram post, “Miracle Mangum,” this year’s starting quarterback Tanner Mangum, spoke out about his struggles with depression and anxiety.

Now, a new CBS Sports video features the quarterback as he discusses more about his mental health. Dr. Michael Larson, a clinical neuropsychologist from FHSS‘s Psychology Department, appears in the video to elaborate on the science of mental illness. “Most mental illness tends to start between the ages of 18 and 24,” Dr. Larson says. It often manifests itself as young adults move away from home and live on their own for the first time.


Dr. Larson also addressed the myths that learning to “toughen up” or realizing “it’s just in your head” will cure mental illness. “The truth is that depression and anxiety have actual changes in the brain that are associated with these mental illnesses,” he explained.

Depression and anxiety may result from a combination of genetic, biological, environmental and social factors, according to the American Psychological Association. And mental illness may occur if there are problems with the function of a particular brain region or as neurons send messages via neurotransmitters, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services Office offers many resources and services to students with mental illnesses, and our Comprehensive Clinic provides counseling and therapy to members of the community dealing with mental illness. The office lets students make appointments with counselors, complete online courses on stress management, and enroll in student development classes, among other things.

Has mental illness affected you? How can friends and family members support individuals with mental illness?

Let us know in the comments, and don’t hesitate to share resources or tips.

Christina Riley: Fulbright Scholarship Recipient

Christina Riley, a recent BYU Applied Social Psychology doctoral candidate, has recently been awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship. With it, she intends to work in India, studying the likelihood of physical abuse in that country.  Her interest in helping resolve social justice issues like domestic violence effectively through prevention efforts is what drove her to apply for the scholarship, and what drives her research. She’s published five papers examining effective domestic violence prevention programs cross-culturally, as well as the social factors that contribute to domestic violence perpetration, as well as gender roles and obesity.

Who is Christina Riley?

Riley is a graduate of Baylor University with a degree in psychology and two minors in English and World Affairs. She came to BYU to pursue a PhD in psychology. While here, Riley has taught the online version of Intro to Psychology, Developmental Psychology: Lifespan, and a Peer Mentoring Capstone. She plans on going into “…into academia for research and teaching…[and]…to collaborate with international research agencies and NGOs focused on ending violence against women.”

What is a Fulbright Scholarship?

The scholarship that will be the catalyst for her dynamic research is one of many awarded by the J. Williams Fulbright Scholarship Board, whose members are all appointed by U.S. presidents. Each year, it gives around 1,900 grants and works in over 140 countries. It is administered overseas by bi-national commissions and U.S. embassies, who all work to increase mutual understanding between people of the U.S. and of other countries through exchange. In a time when both the physical and virtual worlds are more accessible that they have ever been, such increased, mutual understanding, acquired by as many students as possible, is perhaps more important than it has ever been. BYU’s College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences is not only proud of Christina, but interested in making sure that other students know about this great opportunity. To that end, the college hosted events in March to increase awareness and facilitate application preparations.

At that meeting on campus, Lee Rivers, an outreach specialist for the U.S. Student Fulbright Program and other international scholarship programs, encouraged students to consider applying for the next round of Fulbright scholarships, as the next deadline for applications will be in October 2017.  During their grants, Rivers said, Fulbrighters will meet, work, live with and learn from the people of the host country, sharing daily experiences.  “The program facilitates cultural exchange through direct interaction on an individual basis in the classroom, field, home, and in routine tasks, allowing the grantee to gain an appreciation of others’ viewpoints and beliefs, the way they do things, and the way they think. Through engagement in the community, the individual will interact with their hosts on a one-to-one basis in an atmosphere of openness, academic integrity, and intellectual freedom, thereby promoting mutual understanding.”

Other Students Are Encouraged to Apply

All of the following are encouraged to apply to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program:

  • graduating seniors and recent bachelor’s-degree recipients that have some undergraduate preparation and/or direct work or internship experience related to the project.
  • master’s and doctoral candidates who can demonstrate the capacity for independent study or research, together with a general knowledge of the history, culture, and current events of the countries to which they would like to apply
  • Young professionals, including writers, creative and performing artists, journalists, and those in law, business, and other professional fields   Competitive candidates who have up to 5 years of professional study and/or experience in the field in which they would like to apply will be considered. Those with more than 5 years of experience should apply to the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program.

More information on the scholarship program can be found at us.fulbrightonline.org. This programprovides grants for individually designed study/research projects or for English Teaching Assistant Programs.” The research will take place outside of the United States. Applications can be found here.

The Fulbright Scholarship

The Fulbright Scholarship was proposed in 1945 and signed into law by President Harry S. Truman in 1946. A student does not need to be currently enrolled in an institute of higher education to apply. They can apply for two kinds of grants, based on their desire to do independent research or study abroad, or to teach English abroad. Each grant funds 8 to 10 months of work. The grant funds round-trip airfare and provides a monthly stipend, as well as accident and sickness insurance and other possible benefits.

 

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

 

 

 

Mikle South to Present at Autism Best Practices Conference

An upcoming event aims to bridge the gap between the labs and offices of those helping autistic people. The second annual  Conference on Autism will bring together researchers and front-line treatment professionals for a day of sharing and discussion. “Moving research from laboratory studies to practical, everyday solutions can be difficult,” says Mikle South, associate professor Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brigham Young University in the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, and one of the conference presenters. “Sometimes, researchers do not present their findings in understandable terms. Sometimes, those on the front lines of treatment do not have time to follow important new findings.”

Autism conference screenshot

The workshop includes presentations from a number of disciplines relate to autism spectrum disorders including medicine, psychology, speech and language, social work, and various school-based and home-based treatment professionals. Topics include the most recent advances in teaching preschoolers with autism how to engage with others, how to teach people of all ages with autism to more effectively understand their emotions and have less anxiety, and how to help children with autism and feeding problems (which are common).

BYU1211-35-Mikle-South-Autism-Lab-017 (00000002)The conference is sponsored by BYU’s David O. McKay School of Education,  Timpanogos Regional Hospital, and BYU Continuing Education, and will be held at the BYU Conference Center on January 29 from 8am-5pm. The conference will focus on adolescence and the difficulties that individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) face in this transitional period of life. Dr. South received a BA from Yale University followed by a PhD in Child Clinical Psychology at the University of Utah. He returned to Yale for post-doctoral training in developmental neuro-imaging. His research program is focused on understanding the interaction of anxiety and autism in brain and behavior.

The Autism Professional Research Workshop is specifically designed for:

  • physicians
  • nurses
  • psychologists
  • school psychologists
  • educators
  • social workers
  • BCBA’s
  • speech and language pathologists
  • parents
  • students

With such a wide range of professions in attendance, all of them dedicated to helping improve the lives of those with special needs, Professor South’s contribution to the conference will have an effect on many lives affected by ASD – both those with the disorder, and their friends and families. We look forward to Dr. South’s contribution to the conference!

Ticket prices range from $10 to $105. Registration is still open here. See this link for the full schedule of presenters.

Mikle South
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