Emotional Yoga: The importance of emotional flexibility for emotional well-being

Tom Hollenstein

Whether you are frequently wearing Lulu Lemon gear or not, it is difficult to miss the assurgency of yoga as a popular fitness activity. Taking the emphasis away from measurement-based exercise, like marathon running or bench presses, yoga is first and foremost about flexibility. Breathe. Stretch. Relax. Repeat.

In a similar way, one branch of emotion research over the past decade has begun to show the benefits of emotional flexibility.

In the most general sense, flexibility requires change in response to an event. With objects, as with bodies, this is often reflected in bending or changing shape somehow in order to accommodate shifting conditions without losing integrity. The opposite, then, is rigidity, where the object or body resists and retains its pre-existing shape. At its core, the concept of flexibility/rigidity is all about adaptation to local conditions in the environment.

With emotional flexibility, the same distinctions apply.

From moment-to-moment, emotions ebb and flow in a constant stream from one state to the next. A simple ritual of reading the newspaper can create a sequence of anger at a politician, sadness about the passing of a favorite celebrity, and a chuckle from the cartoon on page 12. Interacting with other people also punctuates that ebb and flow through complaints, joking, or interest.

flexible-emotions-Google-SearchA group of researchers led by Peter Kuppens and Peter Koval have examined this ebb and flow as emotional inertia, or the tendency to remain in an emotional state, even when conditions are changing (rigidity). To measure inertia, they use a type of correlation called an autocorrelation, which refers to the degree of correlation between a first moment (let’s call it time 1) with the next moment (let’s call it time 2) and so on. Higher autocorrelations of emotional states means that a person’s emotions are similar across multiple instances and that they are not changing very much. This indicates greater rigidity. Imagine being stuck in an angry mood all day and not reacting positively when you see an old friend. This would be pretty rigid. Now you might think that the reverse could be a good thing—getting stuck in a positive mood in the face of negative events, but this can be rigid too. Imagine you stay positive in the face of a slew of negative events during a really bad day (e.g., you get passed up for a promotion, you learn a friend is sick, you get in a fender-bender on the way home). This might buffer you from the effects of the negative events, but staying positive might also mean that you’re not appropriately reacting to those events or doing anything to change them. It might be more adaptive to get sad or angry when you get passed over for a promotion because it will make you try harder in the future. Consistent with this logic, a series of studies demonstrated that higher inertia, of both positive and negative emotions, has been associated with rumination and low self-esteem, but especially depression and the onset of depression in adolescents. Getting stuck, even in positive states, is not desirable.

But individual’s emotions don’t rise and fall in a vacuum. Most of the time, one’s emotions are ebbing and flowing because of interacting with someone else, whose emotions are also ebbing and flowing. Now add a third person. How can we measure that complexity?

My research group examines emotional flexibility among two or three interacting people by first viewing them as complex dynamic systems. Without getting too technical, the idea is that two people – let’s call them a “dyad” (as opposed to a monad or triad) – form a system of mutual influence on each other. The emotional patterns or “dynamics” of the interaction reveal the nature of that system. At a relatively simple level, we can characterize these dyadic systems as more or less flexible by measuring (1) the range of emotional states experienced; (2) the number of changes in emotional states experienced across time; and (3) the tendency to have short vs. long durations in emotional states. The image below shows the difference between a flexible mother-child dyad discussing a conflict they have at home and a rigid dyad doing the same thing.

Flexible gridrigid grid

Figure from Hollenstein, T. (2013). State Space Grids. New York: Springer.

These state space grids depict all possible emotional states of the mother (horizontal axis) and child (vertical axis) along 5 categories of different types of emotional experiences (e.g., a Hi Pos experience might be feeling excited whereas a Lo Pos experience might be feeling calm). This is simplified for the sake of illustration but can be done with any type of emotional experiences. Each box or cell of the grid represents one state; for example, the bottom left cell is for those moments when both mother and child are in highly negative states (e.g., angry, anxious). The dots and blue lines trace the sequence of those states across the interaction, and the size of the dot indicates how long they were in that particular state. Thus, you can see that the flexible dyad on the left has a greater range of states, (more cells occupied), makes more transitions (more lines), and has shorter durations (smaller dots) than the dyad on the right. The pattern for the flexible dyad on the left is like a movie, with the parent and child sharing and exchanging emotional expressions in fluid motions. The pattern for the rigid dyad on the right is like a series of still photographs, with the parent and child posing for a while and then shifting poses only occasionally. Using this technique, my colleagues and I have been able to show how:


Although it is not immediately intuitive, these studies indicate that these effects occur above and beyond emotional intensity or the emotions being experienced – inertia and rigidity in both positive and negative states is problematic. The take home message is clear: experiencing and expressing emotions in a flexible way is generally indicative of healthy functioning in day-to-day life.

Colloquially, it is common to use flexibility and rigidity when describing others. We praise people for going with the flow, chilling out, or rolling with the punches, but then denigrate the stick in the mud or someone stuck in a rut. Perhaps what we are picking up on is a person’s ability to move in and out of emotional states with relative ease. In addition to making sure to do your sun salutations or enough reps, it is just as important to stretch your emotional muscles.


Photo credit:http://www.psycholawlogy.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/flexible-emotions-Google-Search.png licensed via Creative Commons


Bipolar Disorder and the Balancing Act of Emotions

Jasmine Mote

The United States is a culture deeply invested in the pursuit of happiness. But what if feeling excited or ambitious could lead to devastating consequences, such as going bankrupt, hospitalization, or harming yourself?

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness where people experience manic episodes, which for some are characterized by intense feelings of euphoria, pride, or excitement. In common parlance, people often use the terms “bipolar” or “manic” in a derogatory sense, to mean “crazy” (e.g., “She is totally bipolar”). But in reality, bipolar disorder is a serious psychiatric condition with specific symptoms surrounding waves of extreme positive emotion and waves of depression. You’d think that experiencing a lot of positive emotion would be a good thing, but it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.  Feeling too good can have negative consequences.

June Gruber at the University of Colorado, Boulder, among others, has shown that people with bipolar disorder experience more positive emotions and for a longer duration than people who do not, even if they are not experiencing a manic episode (for a review of this literature, go here). Manic episodes may also be characterized for others by intense feelings of irritability and general emotional instability. Overall, however, while manic episodes may feel good for some people, they also lead to an increase in engaging in risky behavior (such as reckless driving) and impulsivity, among other symptoms, and can damage interpersonal relationships, cause severe financial stress, or lead to suicide. Further, many people with bipolar disorder also experience depression between manic episodes, where they may feel sad, not enjoy things that they used to enjoy, find it hard to do everyday tasks, and also have thoughts of suicide.

Balancing ActBalancing emotions in bipolar disorder can be tricky when both feeling good and feeling bad have severe consequences, and some people may decide that it’s simply too risky to put themselves into situations that can cause too much happiness. Research has shown that some people with bipolar disorder try to reduce, or dampen, the positive emotions in their lives more than people without bipolar disorder. For example, they may try to not make a big deal out of positive experiences or avoid positive situations (such as pursuing romantic relationships) altogether to help them prevent a future manic episode. Such strategies lead people to report a lower quality of life and may ultimately put themselves at risk for depression.

So how can people with bipolar disorder stay healthy but also still experience the positive emotions that make life so enriching? As part of a team of researchers led by Sheri Johnson and Ann Kring at the University of California, Berkeley and Judy Moskowitz at Northwestern University, we are currently testing a group treatment intervention to increase healthy positive emotions in people with bipolar disorder. Based on Dr. Moskowitz’s work on interventions designed to increase positive emotion in other populations, such as in people with schizophrenia and people recently diagnosed with HIV, we have developed a 10-week group treatment intervention study called the Learning Affective Understanding for a Rich Emotional Life (LAUREL) Group. The group uses basic emotion research and teaches skills related to increasing positive emotions that have not been shown to significantly increase the risk of a manic episode, such as low activation positive emotions (e.g., calm, relaxation, serenity) and emotions focused on others (e.g., gratitude). Some examples of the skills we teach include emotion regulation strategies (e.g., changing the way we think to change the way we feel), mindfulness meditation, and self-compassion. The study is currently ongoing and we have already received a lot of positive feedback from previous group members. We hope that skills such as these can help people with bipolar disorder — in addition to their current treatments — navigate the balancing act of their emotions so that they can both stay healthy and feel good in their daily life.

Special thanks to Sheri Johnson, Ph.D., for her feedback on an earlier version of this post. 

Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/8PW6dT

Temperament: A Marker for Asthma?

Katie Chun

Have you noticed that certain people tend to get sick, while others do not? Think back to when you were a kid and schools gave out “perfect attendance” awards. Kids who were sick a lot could only dream of this award, while others received this award every single year. Questions about variation in health extend beyond just asking “who gets sick” to also ask “who gets sicker?”. Two people can be exposed to the same bug and one ramps up a significant immune response, knocking him out of work for a week with illness while the other just goes about her normal business as if nothing happened. There are countless examples of how our immune systems react in different ways.

There are lots of potential reasons that people’s immune function differs, but one possibility is that temperament or personality is associated with health. For example, personality traits related to negative affect (i.e. anxiety, hostility) have been consistently related to increased risk for illness. Another example is behavioral inhibition, which is a temperament style commonly studied in children that is similar to shyness. Behaviorally inhibited children tend to avoid social situations and react negatively to new situations. Kids who are behaviorally inhibited as infants and toddlers have a greater risk for developing anxiety later in life than those who are not behaviorally inhibited. In addition to anxiety, behavioral inhibition has also been associated with the development of asthma, a disease characterized by inappropriate responses in the immune system. Unfortunately, the exact way that asthma and behavioral inhibition are related is not yet known.

In a series of studies that I conducted as part of my doctoral work, we used a monkey model to try and understand the link Copyright Kathy West CNPRC 2015between behavioral inhibition and asthma. A common measure of asthma is how sensitive the lungs are to things that enter them (e.g., air pollutants, or aerosols). In asthmatics, the lungs are really reactive, causing constriction and decreasing airflow to produce an asthma attack. We first demonstrated that monkeys that were less likely to socialize with peers and who had more intense reactions to novel situations tended to have more reactive airways (an indicator of asthma) than control monkeys. That is—behavioral patterns associated with social behavior and emotion predicted who had a robust airway response. Interestingly, there was no relationship between behavioral inhibition and common asthma-related immune markers (e.g., immune cell numbers, inflammatory proteins). One possibility is that the relationship between behavioral inhibition and asthmatics is produced not by the immune system per se, but by the autonomic nervous system—the system that controls your heart, lungs, and guts and produces “fight or flight” and “rest and relax” responses to stimuli in the environment. Both behavioral inhibition and asthma have been related to alterations in the autonomic nervous system. It may be that alterations in the autonomic nervous system are a common link between behavioral inhibition and sensitive airways, which could be further investigated in future studies to sort out these mechanisms.

The take home message from our study, in concert with accumulating evidence from other research groups, is that variation in emotional life is related to health. Understanding the causal relationships between emotion and health (e.g., does emotional temperament like behavioral inhibition lead to reactive airways or do animals with reactive airways become behaviorally inhibited?) is the next critical step in this research program and will hopefully lead to interventions to promote well-being.

Photo credit: Kathy West CNPRC-UC Davis, copyright 2013

Fruits, vegetables, and emotions

Tamlin Conner

Should people reach for a carrot rather than a candy bar to help protect against depression? Does a diet rich in fruits and vegetables actually make you happier? These are questions I ponder when not writing guest blogs for my friends.

The answer to these questions seems to be a growing yes.

There is compelling evidence that a healthier diet protects against depression. Multiple studies published in the last decade – mainly in nutrition journals – have found reduced risk for depression among people with a higher intake of fruits and vegetables. This link holds when controlling for socioeconomic status, education, physical activity, smoking, unhealthy food consumption, and pretty much any other variable you can think of that might explain this pattern. And, the evidence suggests that poor dietary intake precedes the onset of depression and not the other way around.

My research adds another flavor to this unfolding story. For the last six years, I have been tracking people’s daily intake of fruit and vegetables to see how consumption is related to changes in daily emotion. In each of these studies, I have found a striking and strong association between daily fruit and vegetable consumption and a variety of positive emotions like happiness. In my first study, I asked 281 young adults ages 18 – 25 to report their mood each day for three weeks, and to report the number of servings eaten that day of fruits and vegetables (canned, frozen or fresh, but not fried and not juices), and several types of unhealthy foods like cookies, potato chips, and desserts. I found that on days when people ate more fruits and vegetables, they reported feeling much happier. Unhealthy foods like chips and desserts had little to no association with mood. Also, by tracking people on a daily basis across those three weeks, I was able to address which came first – eating fruit and vegetables or feeling happy. I found that eating more fruit and vegetables predicted improvements in happiness the next day – but happiness did not predict eating more fruits and vegetables the next day – suggesting that diet preceded changes in happiness and not the other way around.

Recently, I published another study that replicated and extended this finding by showing that fruit and vegetable consumption predicted other positive emotional states even more strongly than happiness—states like how engaged and inspired people felt that day, how interested and curious they were in their environment, and, how creative they felt. In fact, these patterns were almost twice as strong as the patterns found with happiness. What is going on here? There may be a connection between fruit and vegetables and the motivation or drive to engage in daily life – known in scientific parlance as approach motivation.

There are biologically plausible pathways for why fruit and vegetables could promote engagement and drive. Fruit and vegetables contain a range of vitamins and minerals including vitamin C, folate, vitamin B-6, iron, and selenium. Vitamin C might be a key pathway here. It is an important co-factor in the production of dopamine, which is critical to motivational drive. A recent study found increased vitamin C levels in the blood following kiwifruit consumption with corresponding improvements in emotional vitality. B-vitamins and complex carbohydrates in fruit and vegetables also promote the synthesis of dopamine and serotonin.

The absence of approach motivation – called motivational anhedonia – is one of the key features of depression. This raises the possibility that a sustained lowered intake of fruit and vegetables could contribute to motivational anhedonia, which could raise the risk for depression. However, in my research studies of young adults, lower fruit and vegetable consumption related to lower approach motivation but not to higher depression.

What are the next steps? Intervention research. Before getting too excited about these findings, intervention studies are needed to test for causal effects of fruit and vegetables on approach motivational states. This requires getting people to eat more fruits and veggies, testing the consequences for psychological outcomes, and measuring the potential biochemical pathways that could account for such changes.

So, at this stage, I cannot say that eating carrots will make you more creative or that fruit will help you flourish, but the evidentiary base for this is growing. My best advice is to hedge your bet and eat at least five servings per day (two fruit and three or more veggies).  You can do this by including fruit and vegetables at each meal, and the servings will add up across the day.  Bottom line? Opt for carrots rather than candy.