Psychological Conditioning

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Long ago, in a land far, far away, a grown man named Ivan Pavlov rang a bell before he gave hungry dogs some food. He did this after noticing that the dogs began to salivate whenever they saw his assistant, who was the one who always brought them their meat. After the bell was paired with the food a few times the dogs would salivate just to the ring of a bell.

This type of learning (we call this classical conditioning) changes some physical or emotional system that we can’t intentionally control. Other kinds of learning effect voluntary systems, but in life the two are always jumbled up together, inseparable.

Generally, when one thing possibly signals another, a common reaction is forged in our body-brain-mind. Evolution has ensured that just the whiff of a known predator will evoke the original behaviour and stress reaction. In this way, our past is carried forward, sometimes like an invisible hitch-hiker and sometimes as a known companion.

We don’t condition ourselves any more than those dogs decided that slobbering to a bell would be cool. We’re conditioned by the events in our life. Our body-brain-mind is always “on” for learning, a super-absorbent system soaking up significant events, and soaking them up so richly and deeply that we actually embody the significant events of our life.

Conditioning can happen way outside of our awareness. For example, an established finding is that our immune system can be conditioned. If rats are given a novel sweet drink paired with a tasteless drug that suppresses the immune system, the later offering of that sweet drink minus the drug brings about the same immune suppression. ‘Remembering’ bad food and bad situations through conditioning for the rest of our days is a big survival advantage.

Advertizers vigourously work these animal abilities, conjuring money (from our pockets!) through conditioning. Ad repetition, product packaging and placement, trend-peer pressure, pairing products with sex, social status and success, even humour, all have the desired effect.

Have you ever thought, “Why did I do that?” When what we want and what we do conflict, we have a purer moment in which to behold the power of conditioning. It’s spooky to become aware that what we think may be very different from how we’ve been conditioned. Don’t believe everything you think, but do believe that what you think and do may be an echo of past conditioning.

If all of the emotional and stressful moments of your life trigger learning, imagine just how much conditioning has taken place! Conditioning establishes our tendencies to avoid and to pursue. Habits, phobias, worrying, our self-concept, our patterns of thought and how we evaluate things are shaped by conditioning. The whirl and convolutions of our conditioning shape our dynamics.

We would quite simply be extinct if we did not retain the physical and emotional and sensory representations of dangerous and threatening experiences. Even though we don’t suffer the same grim threats as our forebears, life leaves it’s impressions in the same ways. Conditioning charts a course of reactions when similar moments come up later. Conditioning means we’re more like Velcro that Teflon. For all of us, it isn’t a question of whether we’ve been conditioned by life’s pain, but by how much. As Wavy Gravy (the Grateful Dead’s official clown) says, we’re all bozos on the same bus!

For all of us, our minds (and bodies) have unavoidably and without a doubt been deeply conditioned by past experience. It reminds me of the caution that you’ll find on your car’s passenger side rear view mirror – Objects (from your history!) May Be Closer Than They Appear.

Stress Response

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Your stress response is a blind reflex, a call-to-arms (and legs) that animates your critical resources for action when you’re threatened.

The grizzly bear cometh and your brain yells to your adrenal gland to release adrenaline and steroid hormones which break out the energy reserves from fat stores. Your heart rate pounds up and blood pressure rises, stretching those rubbery vessels. Body repair and growth systems are suspended and blood is diverted away from your stomach and intestines – no need to digest that meal if the grizzly is digesting you! Blood is instead committed to the big muscles that do the work of fight-flight. Platelets, your bodies Band-Aids, multiply and get stickier and the immune system goes on alert just in case of injury. Ugh, maybe your bladder lets go because those pounds of urine are dead weight. Memory sharpens dramatically with a boost from the steroid hormone cortisol, enabling flash-bulb retention. Your attention and senses sizzle.

This acute stress response can save your life, helping you to take the quickest and most robust action possible. Once the threat is over your body regulates the return to normal, leaving you with some appetite so as to replace the energy used.

You sleep through your alarm and wake with alarm. You realize it’s garbage day and angrily organize your offering, feeling time pressured. You fret about being ten minutes late, but find that it’s no problem when you get to work. Through the day you spill a little coffee on your shirt (arghh!), bump in to that co-worker you had a tiff with (grrrr!), and realize your library book was due back yesterday (dummy!). At home the dog barfs on the carpet, milk gets spilt and the bills pour in. And so the day goes and perhaps the next one, perhaps each day featuring a staccato of these moments.

Most people want the good news first: The good news is that you’ve been menaced by exactly zero grizzly bears. The bad news is that your body rockets through the same grizzly reactions, time after time, day after day, a pattern called chronic stress. Chronic stress isn’t a constant state but is instead an up-and-down, oscillating course of stress reactions. It’s not at all good and here’s why.

If blood pressure flies up and down like the toilet seat, vessels get pounded and stretched too often, losing their rubbery good nature. Little tears in the vessels cause inflammation and those circulating sugars and fats that fuel your big muscles get stuck there and build up over time. Stress causes plaques, vascular problems, bad news. Even the vessels feeding your heart suffer this wear and tear. Very bad news.

Cortisol stimulates appetite after stress and the craving for carbs along with the loss of self-control from the recent upset increases snacking. All that extra sugar and fat from snacking produces insulin, the hormone of plenty, which results in storage of our excess. When fat cells get too full, they become insulin resistant (hello Type II diabetes), and leave those abundant sugars and fats in the blood, where they can add to plaques.

The stress-based combination of hypertension, blood vessel resistance, elevated blood sugar and insulin resistance all interact. Oh, and that fat we store around our middle also acts as a kind of endocrine gland, chemically signalling for more inflammation. Oh, great! More inflammation will just encourage more sticky build up at those sites in our vessels that have been hurt by the hypertension.

I’ll bring you more in the weeks ahead about ways in which we can protect against the damage caused by chronic stress after we look even further into stress and how it impacts us.

Kids and Stress

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Our body’s multifaceted stress response mobilizes our inner resources for all that life throws at us. Last time we overviewed how the chronic demands and hassles of our modern life may repeatedly turn on physical stress reactions, which can add up to big wear-and-tear trouble.

Today, let’s look at stress in children. Do infants and children suffer problems related to stress too?

The answer is a very certain yes and we can push the clock back further to include the period of foetal development. Research shows that a pregnant woman’s experience of stress is communicated to the foetus.

You don’t want to be a stressed foetus. Maternal stress in mice delays the physical development of the foetus. Human babies of stressed mothers have a lower weight and are shorter babies. Underfed pregnant women have babies who have adjusted to their meagre nutritional circumstances to become very thrifty with any nutrients they receive. They secrete insulin quickly and so store away extra nutrients quickly. This essential adjustment continues through life and results in a vulnerability to obesity and diabetes later.

In fact, the die may be cast in early development for many problems later in adulthood, an area of research called Foetal Origins of Adult Disease. Like an echo, our early environment can establish a trajectory for life-long problems. Some of the dark clouds on the stressed infant’s horizon include a poorer regulatory response to stresses, greater levels of anxiety, problems with learning and memory and an array of medical issues.

Infants respond with stress to many novel situations. Six month olds react with stress to baths and medical examinations, but these reactions diminish if no harm is done. Because infants know zip about the world, anything that is novel can be stressful because any new stuff could be dangerous.

Infants react with stress to disruptions in their relationships too. For example, when a parent gives a neutral expression to their infant’s emotional response, the infant demonstrates a physiological stress response. A paper in Biology Letters last year reported that 6 month olds have more cortisol in their saliva (a measure of stress) after their parent stares blankly twice for two minutes. When these infants were brought back to the scene of the crime the next day, but with their parent acting normally, they again showed increased cortisol levels. The infants’ “Uh oh, here we go again” reaction on the second day anticipated changes in their relationship.

Children’s stress response turns on in reaction to parental anxiety, changes in attentiveness and general parenting style because these relationships are nothing less than their lifeline.

If you’re a parent it may be difficult to read this without your own cortisol levels moving up! Child development is a bumpy road and the stress response is one part of a vast company of adaptations that help kids develop adaptive resilience and learn about their external and internal worlds. It’s normal. Just as with baths and medical exams, if nothing bad happens, it’s not a problem. The fact is that the bumps are occasions for exercising healthy resilience. When kids have an adequate, safe and secure base – the healthy parental attachment – which supports their quick return to homeostatic balance, bumps are fine.

The concern is with chronic dysfunction that causes chronic stress which results in chronic problems.

A violent, unpredictable, cruel, alcoholic or neglectful home will absolutely be a profoundly stressful one for an infant and child, establishing conditioned patterns of behaviour and physical and emotional reaction that will be a part of the child’s inheritance for life.

Addressing any of this can begin at any time. We have a huge capacity to come to terms with adversity and to change the established patterns of reaction that are formed in childhood.

Workplace Stress

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

There are facts and there are fictions in this world of ours, and it’s a fact that it’s a fiction that an employer can save money and benefit the organization by neglecting the psychological needs of its workforce.

The value of looking after one’s employees derives not just from the wisdom of the ounce of prevention equalling the pound of cure. In complicated and time-lagged ways people respond to another’s caring with caring, to generosity with generosity, to effort with effort. People shine and are most likely to bring you their best in a climate of interpersonal acceptance and respect.

That might be all you need to remember and practice to save your business a boat load, but let’s look at some of the details just the same.

The costs of stress are exceptionally difficult to measure thoroughly, but they are clearly well in excess of $12 billion a year in Canada and are estimated to be about $7500 per worker per year in the U.S.

Because most organizations do not have their accounting tuned in to the bottom line costs of employee stress, big financial hits may be taken unknowingly. And the hits can come from many quarters, so to speak, reflecting the diversity of ways in which stress and our mental health affect our functioning. Lost productivity due to sick time, injury and low morale can be considerable.

Stress is the most significant factor driving absenteeism, grievances and (in the USA) worker compensation claims. Under stress and preoccupied with problems, we pay attention more poorly and so become more vulnerable to accidents.

Low morale is associated with higher levels of heart disease and depression. Morale problems can eat holes in motivation and goodwill. Low morale disables efficiency in many ways and increases the likelihood of maladaptive and destructive behaviours, and of poorer workplace relationships and team involvement. Some related workplace conditions such as aggression, bullying and social control are particularly noxious.

And how costly is it when valued and expensively trained but disgruntled employees leave an organization, which then further requires the recruitment and training of replacements?

The research is clear: Workers who feel that their organization is concerned with their well-being will respond with increased citizenship behaviours, enhanced commitment to their work and superior performance. It’s essential for the health of the organization that managers become aware of these contingencies instead of persisting in an alliance with values that are so Charles Dickens.

The idea that an organization is actually a complex, interdependent system is definitely not old school. But it affords a managerial perspective that recommends looking with rapt interest into the psychological health of one’s organization.

A 2010 paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology distilled the essential findings of over 200 studies and concluded that, “a supportive environment was the most consistent job resource in terms of explaining variance in burnout, engagement, and safety outcomes”. This finding was consistent across industries.

Contented employees are more productive, reliable and creative. Paying attention to the conditions that give rise to that contentment is a win-win and an advantageous business strategy.

A safer, more motivated and healthier workforce will help everyone sleep better at night, literally and figuratively. With better morale employees are more flexible around change and more likely to cooperate to help the common good.

A Gallup study concluded that, “If workers’ emotional needs are met, they become engaged with their companies, and their productivity, profitability, retention rate, and safety rate increase. They even get sick less often.” Otherwise, ‘Nice doing business to you’ might be the message employees get from their workplace.

Stress and Memory

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Chronic stress messes with your mind.

Sitting like tuques atop each of our kidneys are our adrenal glands, which sweat hormones such as cortisol when we’re stressed. Cortisol and its buddies have a huge portfolio of stress related jobs, and one of them is to regulate how we retain and remember things. They can slide across the blood-brain barrier and influence a whole lot of what goes on upstairs.

The research is pretty clear that the cortisol from momentary stress helps with the formation of memory by acting on brain cells. On the other hand, a lot of cortisol from chronic stress does some very bad things to our ability to learn and remember.

Before going further, let’s first have a look at some of the ins and outs, so to speak, of learning and memory. In the brain, learning is largely about strengthening patterns of connections between collections of neurons. Picture the possible patterns of Christmas lights twinkling not just on your house, but throughout your neighbourhood, your city, your country. Learning involves strengthening old and establishing new twinkling patterns.

And here’s some really good news. We’ve learned in more recent years that we normally make new neurons continuously and that this neurogenesis partly supports neuroplasticity and learning. New learning, a stimulating environment and exercise all boost neurogenesis.

So the two big learning processes to keep your eyes on are the making and strengthening of patterns of twinkling connections and the recruitment of new neurons that can twinkle-in as needed.

Acute stress seems to enhance all this precise twinkling very nicely, with cortisol helping to strengthen connections and capitalize on the new recruits.

But wait a minute. I’m not saying that we have to be stressed all the time in order to be at our best for learning. I’m really talking about stress-related learning. If we recall that stress and fear arise under conditions that may be threatening in some way, then a mechanism for super-learning the details around something of life-changing importance is very desirable. Fear conditioning can happen from one encounter and last forever, thanks in part to the boost from stress hormones.

This is why fear conditioning and traumatic memories are so powerfully and durably acquired. Our little brains are full of them.

We might not think that we have any particular memory for emotion. Instead, emotion seems to be some feeling that arises in the present moment, and seems to be faithfully about what is happening in that present moment.

But consider how we can often overreact emotionally to situations and only realize later that we were way out of line. How come!? The ‘way out of line’ is an emotional reaction that was ‘recalled’ inappropriately because the new situation was similar in some way to some old distressing and stress-boosted learning. That we might be sensitive, jealous, offended or even terrified at times when the situation doesn’t really call for those reactions is a reflection of emotional states being ‘recalled’, brought out in an active state, at the wrong but related time. An unhealed broken heart can bring rage or recoil without a second thought.

Now let’s look at chronic stress. When we experience stress frequently, the bath of cortisol harms brain cells and disrupts neurogenesis. Chronic cortisol is toxic to cells in the hippocampus, a brain structure that is crucial for forming new knowledge. Chronic stress can kill neurons in the hippocampus. Moreover, chronic stress also disrupts the formation of new neurons.

In this way, chronic stress damages the brain and impairs our ability to learn, remember and to regulate our emotion. Chronic stress can push neurons to the edge of a cliff, leaving them more vulnerable to being nudged over. Chronic stress may potentially worsen neurological outcomes from stroke, aging and disease.