Category Archives: Health

Social support as a psychological stressor, implications for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head at a political rally in January

By Kevin R. Betts

Some of you will remember my post back in January about Jared Loughner, the 22 year old who shot and killed six people and wounded 14 others at a political rally in Arizona. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was seriously wounded in the shooting by a shot to the head. The story of Giffords has since received extensive attention by major news agencies. Colleagues, political supporters, and perhaps most of all, her husband, have eagerly awaited Gifford’s recovery and hoped for her successful future in politics.  The impact of social support on recovery from such hardships has been studied extensively by social and health psychologists. What effect, if any, might social support have on recovery efforts like those of Giffords?

The intuitive assumption of many laypersons—that social support aids recovery—is not completely accurate. To be sure, recipients of social support often gain strength from the social support they receive during hardships. Yet, social support can also hinder recovery efforts if administered inappropriately. Researchers Rafaeli and Gleason (2009) find that social support can undermine the recipient’s sense of self-efficacy, focus the recipient’s attention on the stressor, and make the recipient feel indebted to the provider. The combination of these factors and others may lead recipients to perceive social support as an additional stressor. Rafaeli and Gleason (2009) emphasize that social support can promote positive health outcomes, but only when the right type of support is provided at the right time. For instance, reassuring a recipient that she is capable of overcoming some stressor may be stressful if she is already confident in her abilities (because it could undermine her sense of self-efficacy). It might make more sense in such cases to speak of the positive outcomes that will result once the stressor is “inevitably” overcome.

Findings like these may be especially relevant to Giffords’ recovery efforts. Supporters of Giffords would like to see her make a complete recovery that allows her to continue work in public office. At a fundraiser in March, supporters raised $125,000 in pledges to sustain her 2012 reelection campaign. The support that Giffords has received from supporters is profound. Yet, expectations set for her may be unrealistic. Neurosurgeon Dr. Dong Kim asks, “If somebody has a severe brain injury, are they ever going to be like they were before? The answer is no.” Given limits to how fast one can recover from such a serious injury, Giffords may perceive these support behaviors as stress inducing. Giffords still has a lot of recovering left to do before returning to office can even be considered. If we wish to see Giffords make the fastest recovery possible, it may be wise for the public to set our expectations aside for a while and just let her recover.

Read more:

What’s really going on with Gabby Giffords? (Newsweek)

Rafaeli, E., & Gleason, M.E.J. (2009). Skilled support within intimate relationships.  Journal of Family Theory and Review, 1, 20-37.

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J. Crew Ad Met with Harsh Words from a Hack Psychiatrist: Dr. Ablow Exposes his Ignorance of Gender Socialization and LGBT Outcomes.

By P Getty

Recently, an uproar in the media erupted after J. Crew put out an online ad featuring Jenna Lyons and her young son. The picture portrays a loving mother and son smiling and caring on—they seem like a lovely pair. Some however, like Fox News contributor and hack psychiatrist, Dr. Keith Ablow, only saw the Devil in the details. Rather than seeing it for what it is—a warm expression of a happy family—all he could see is that the young lad has neon pink nail polish. Ablow, in his reaction to the piece stated that “it may be fun and games now, Jenna, but at least put some money aside for psychotherapy for the kid—and maybe a little for others who’ll be affect by your ‘innocent’ pleasure.”

Boggling my mind the most is the fact that this ignorant statement comes from a psychiatrist, a professional who should be up on the literature of gender-role and LGBT socialization and their outcomes. Rather than getting in to the nuts and bolts of gender development (this is not an undergraduate development course), I do what to tackle his suggestion that a lack of strict adherence to sexual and gender roles lead to negative psychological outcomes. What he seems to have forgotten is that any negative outcomes associated with LGBT folks is not because of who they are, it is because of the lack of acceptance from their families and other ignorant fools who cannot seems to realize that their own beliefs are not shared by others. In fact, recent evidence presented by Doctors Ryan, Russell, Huebner, Diaz and Sanchez (2010) in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatirc Nursing, suggests that when LGBT youths are respected and accepted by their families, positive outcomes are predicted. They can expect to have higher self-esteem and general health. They are also less likely to experience depression, substance abuse and thoughts of suicide.

What is ironic about this whole thing is that the outcomes Dr. Ablow predicts come about because of intolerant behavior like Dr. Ablow’s. God save the child that comes from Dr. Ablow’s loins that happens to be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgendered—hopefully he will have set aside money for their psychotherapy to un-warp any damage his intolerant behavior might cause.

Follow link to Ryan et al.’s (2010) article on acceptance and positive outcomes for LGBT youth

Follow link to Dr. Ablow’s Hackery!

Reshaping reality by reshaping social perceptions: the power of talk in promoting equality

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

If you have taken an introductory social psychology class, you have probably heard of stereotype threat. This is a phenomenon where making people aware of a stereotype that could refer to the self increases the chance that the stereotype will come true. For example, on math tests where the students’ gender is made salient, women tend to perform worse than men. When the researchers emphasized to participants that gender scores on the test tended to be equal, their scores became equal. The same difference has been found on tests between black and white students; when the students’ race was emphasized, black students’ scores were lower than white students, but when equality was emphasized, the scores were the same.

While there are still competing explanations for why stereotype threat occurs, it is a very well documented phenomenon that can help to explain demographic achievement gaps. Fortunately, there are ways to counter the negative effects of stereotype threat and reduce demographic inequalities. One of the earliest ways discovered is to emphasize the expected positive outcomes on a task for under-achieving groups. While this does work, it is not always practical in real-world situations. An ideal solution would be a brief intervention with long-lasting effects that could work across many different situations. Smith and Postmes (2011) found that allowing small groups to discuss and challenge the validity of the stereotype can also reduce stereotype threat, though the duration of this promising positive effect was not fully known. This suggests groups can use discussion to reinterpret negative group stereotypes in a way that can empower the group and overcome negative effects.

A new study in Science advances our knowledge of the positive potential stereotype threat interventions (Walton & Cohen, 2011). The researchers theorized that stereotype threat occurs in part when people construe feelings of social adversity as an indictment of their social belonging. If social adversity can be portrayed by students themselves as universal to all students but temporary, then the negative effects of stereotype threat might be reduced. In the experiment, black and white first-year college students were subtly encouraged to generate such messages in the hopes that it would have long-lasting positive effects throughout their university career. This is indeed what happened, and the effects were powerful and long-lasting: compared to a control group, black students who received the intervention as freshmen achieved higher grades. Not only were their academic scores better, but they reported better health and they visited the doctor less, too. These effects were mediated by the students’ subjective construal of adversity; this means that feelings of social belonging are likely to be a key part of the process in reducing stereotype threat. Interestingly, students did not attribute these positive effects to the brief intervention they experienced three years earlier. Considering the brevity of the intervention, and the durability of its effects, this appears to be a very powerful tool in reducing demographic achievement gaps. More research is needed to better understand the processes behind and effects of the intervention, but it speaks to the power of social expectations to cripple our accomplishments, and yet also of our power to take steps to consciously reshape the social landscape in a way that leads to real and lasting change for the better. People often lament that we talk too much about problems instead of taking action; in some cases, talking may be one of the best actions we can take.

Smith, L. G. E., & Postmes, T. (2011). Shaping stereotypical behaviour through the discussion of social stereotypes. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 50-74.

Walton, G. M., & Cogen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.

Help yourself by helping others: Lessons from the Fargo flood fight

Image created by contributors to the Fargo Forum

By Kevin R. Betts

Around this time of year almost annually, residents of Fargo, ND and surrounding cities get together to do something most people couldn’t imagine doing even once. They self-mobilize to fight a flood that threatens to destroy the livelihoods of thousands of citizens. Residents voluntarily take time off from work or school, show up at various locations specified by city officials, and fill and place millions of sandbags. In 2009, residents witnessed a 43 foot river crest that likely would have overtaken the city without these efforts. With record precipitation levels this year, city officials are again asking residents to volunteer their time to flood protection efforts. This year’s goal: three million sandbags.

If you imagine yourself faced with fighting a flood year after year to save your own city, you might direct your attention to the psychological or financial costs of such a fight. And certainly these costs are real. Yet, as a current resident of Fargo, I can tell you that volunteers in this effort accrue social and psychological benefits as well. I’ve listened to friends and neighbors describe these benefits, as well as experienced them myself. For example, the yearly flood fight brings the region’s citizens together in unique ways. Ensuring that the region is protected from the flood is a common goal that all the volunteers share. Thus, volunteers can often be seen working collaboratively with individuals they might not normally associate with. It is clear that volunteers derive a sense of self-worth from having contributed to these common goals as well. Working together and helping one another feels good. It is with an immense sense of pride that volunteers can say that they themselves prevented an environmental catastrophe.

My observations and experiences in Fargo suggest that volunteer work has social and psychological benefits. Research by Piliavin (2008) supports this notion empirically and takes it one step further. She provides evidence that volunteer work over one’s lifetime contributes not only to positive psychological health outcomes, but also to positive physical health outcomes. She draws these conclusions based on longitudinal data from 10,317 women and men who varied in the extent to which they volunteered throughout their lives. Although the manner in which lifelong volunteer work impacts psychological and physical health is complex, it is not difficult to understand because it follows a relatively straightforward path. First, volunteering enhances social integration. Second, social integration attained through volunteering promotes volunteer motives and identity. Third, this volunteer identity promotes a sense of personal worth from having contributed to helping others. Finally, this sense of personal worth enhances psychological well-being which can impact physical health. This is important. People who volunteer consistently throughout their lives are healthier psychologically and physically as a result.

Although the costs of fighting a flood almost annually are enormous, my observations along with research by Piliavin (2008) suggest that volunteers may accrue some benefits. If you are looking for another reason to volunteer your time to cause that matters to you, remember that you may be doing more than helping others. You may be helping yourself!

Read more

Lines of defense: Fargo planning sandbag distribution around city (Fargo Forum)

Piliavin, J.A. (2008). Long-term benefits of habitual helping: Doing well by doing good. In B.A. Sullivan, M. Snyder, & J.L. Sullivan (Eds.), Cooperation: The political psychology of effective human interaction (pp. 241-258). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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What makes us happy on Valentine’s Day?

Cut-out book of Valentines circa 1940.

Valentine’s Day was established in honor of three early Christian martyrs named Saint Valentine, but today people celebrate romantic love or love more generally.  Since romance is so salient on this holiday, people who are single can feel ostracized and sometimes motivated to support an anti-love mantra.  I wonder if the second biggest Hallmark holiday is really worth the hype (either for or against). Is love or a partner really what makes people happy in life?

Perhaps one of the answers can be found by looking at one of the current hot topics in social psychology research: the intersection of emotion regulation and well being.  A quick look at the latest program from the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology reveals numerous talks and posters on the topic of mindfulness and emotion regulation.

A recent paper points to the importance of the perspective from which people try to adaptively reflect on their feelings.  According to Ayduk and Kross (2010), participants who analyzed negative experiences from a self-distanced perspective (versus a self-immersed perspective) were less likely to ruminate and reported less negative emotions.  Maybe people’s affective experiences on Valentine’s Day have more to do with how they think about their lives and less about relationship status.

Read more:

Ayduk, Ö. and Kross, E. (2010). Analyzing negative experiences without ruminating: The role of self-distancing in enabling adaptive self-reflection. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 841–854.

Meditation vs. Medication: Which Should You Choose?

Treat yourself to a health screening this New Year

By Kevin R. Betts

On the morning of December 12th, my aunt suffered a heart attack that nearly took her life. The attack was so severe that she was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance and escorted directly to an operating room. Following the incident, the surgeon informed our family that the main artery to her heart was one hundred percent blocked and expressed surprise that the attack was not fatal. As you might guess, this incident was incredibly traumatic for both my aunt and our family. Once things settled and we knew that my aunt would be okay, many members of my family were asking about prevention. What could have been done to prevent my aunt’s heart attack? What can be done in the future to prevent another heart attack in our family? Health screenings available at local clinics may provide useful information about personal health risks and what can be done to combat them.

Practitioners have long urged the public to obtain health screenings designed to detect behavioral and genetic risk factors for disease, as well as the early presence of disease. But the utility of these screenings is not controversial. Rather, people pass on health screenings for other reasons. One reason is distress associated with the procedures or potential results of the screenings. Recognizing this problem, Bennett (2009) examined causes of health screening related distress and simple techniques for overcoming this distress. For example, many people hold misperceptions about the procedures associated with health screenings that arouse anxiety. Health organizations could correct these misperceptions and thus alleviate this anxiety by providing the public with specific information about the procedures involved through websites or pamphlets. The public could then test their perceptions about these procedures by comparing them to this  information. Waiting for results from a health screening may also arouse significant anxiety. Some people may spend this time imagining catastrophic scenarios that could potentially follow undesired results from the screening. To alleviate this anxiety, Bennett (2009) recommends implementing coping strategies that facilitate emotional regulation. Distracting oneself with unrelated thoughts and activities may be one way to regulate negative emotions.

The thought of losing a close family member or friend to a heart attack or other preventable health problem is frightening. Health screenings may provide information about health risks and what can be done to combat them. If you or someone you know is considering obtaining a health screening, good for you! And if you are held back by anxiety associated with the procedures or potential results of the screening, remember that skipping the doctor does not reduce your risk. Try one of the techniques for overcoming this anxiety recommended by Bennett (2009) and start your New Year with a clean bill of health.

Read more:

Bennett, P. (2009). How can we reduce the distress associated with health screening? From psychological theory to clinical practice. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3, 939-948.

Matters of the Heart (CNN)

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