From the President: Fostering resiliency

Happy New Year! According to Oxford Dictionaries, the word of the year for 2018 was toxic. What would it take for the word of the year in 2019 to be resilience? The Oxford Dictionaries define resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” How do we, as counselors, help clients and communities transform…continue reading

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CEO’s Message: Upping our game

Each day it seems that the world becomes smaller thanks to the advent of technology, allowing us to more easily travel, communicate, interact and learn about others. From my perspective, this means we can also learn more about diverse cultures, customs, perspectives and motivations that we may not inherently understand. I’m not speaking here about…continue reading

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School Nutrition Programs May Slow Weight Gain in Teens

Preteens and teens who attend middle schools with nutrition policies and healthy-eating programs experience less of an increase in body mass index (BMI) compared to students who attend schools without such programs, according to a new study led by the Yale School of Public Health.

The findings are published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

More than one in five American teenagers are currently obese, and around half of teens are overweight. Being overweight or obese early in life affects health across the lifespan, contributing to a range of chronic diseases such as depression, hypertension and diabetes that reduce productivity and shorten life expectancy.

The five-year trial followed nearly 600 students from 12 schools in New Haven, Connecticut. It is one of the first school-based policy intervention studies that followed students through middle school.

“These findings can guide future school and community interventions. Childhood obesity is a serious health threat, and schools are a vital way to reach children and their families to reduce risks and promote health,” said lead author Dr. Jeannette Ickovics, the Samuel and Liselotte Herman Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Yale School of Public Health.

“These findings strongly support previous administration policies that provided healthier food for all children in public schools.” These policies were recently rolled back by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Donald Trump.

The findings show that students had healthier body mass index trajectories (a measure of obesity) over time when they attended schools with enhanced nutrition policies and programs.

Overall, these students had an increase in BMI percentile of less than 1 percent, compared with students in non-supported schools who demonstrated increases of 3 to 4 percent. By the end of the study, the nutritionally supported students also reported healthier behaviors than their peers in schools without the nutrition policies and programs.

The researchers analyzed both behavioral and biological indicators. The results are among the most compelling to date, researchers said, perhaps because of the strong community-university partnership, and the recognition that health and academic achievement often go hand-in-hand.

“This is some of the strongest evidence we have to date that nutrition education and promoting healthy eating behaviors in the classroom and cafeteria can have a meaningful impact on children’s health,” said senior study author Dr. Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

“These findings can inform how we approach federal wellness policy requirements and implementation in schools to help mitigate childhood obesity.”

The nutritional interventions included ensuring that all school-based meals met federal nutritional criteria; providing nutritional newsletters for students and their families; school-wide campaigns to limit sugary drinks and encourage the use of water; and limiting the use of food or beverages as rewards for academic performance or good behavior.

The trial also looked at whether a series of policies to promote physical activity would affect adolescent BMI. They determined that the physical activity policies alone had little or no impact on BMI.

Source: Yale University

How Teens Handle Stress Can Yield Long-Term Health Effects

How a teen handles chronic stress — whether they bottle up their emotions or put a positive spin on things — can affect processes in the body like blood pressure and how immune cells respond to bacterial invaders, according to new research published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

For the study, Penn State researchers looked at whether the strategies adolescents use to deal with chronic family stress can impact various metabolic and immune processes in the body.

Two notable strategies used by teens in the study were cognitive reappraisal (trying to think of the stressor in a more positive way) and suppression (inhibiting the expression of emotions in reaction to a stressor).

The findings reveal that when faced with chronic family stress, teens who used cognitive reappraisal had better metabolic measures, such as blood pressure and waist-to-hip ratio — a measurement used as an indicator of health and chronic disease risk.

Teens who were more likely to use suppression tended to have more inflammation when their immune cells were exposed to a bacterial stimulus in the lab, even in the presence of anti-inflammatory signals.

The results suggest that the coping skills teens develop by the time they are adolescents have the potential to impact their health later in life.

“These changes are not something that will detrimentally impact anyone’s health within a week or two, but that over years or decades could make a difference,” said co-author Dr. Hannah Schreier, assistant professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State.

“That may be how small changes in metabolic or inflammatory outcomes may become associated with poorer health or a greater chance of developing a chronic disease later in life.”

Lead author Emily Jones, graduate student in biobehavioral health at Penn State, said the findings can help therapists and counselors better work with children and adolescents who live in stressful environments.

“Exposure to chronic stress doesn’t always lead to poorer health outcomes, in part because of differences among people,” Jones said.

“As our study findings suggest, there may be ways to help someone be more resilient in the face of stress by encouraging certain emotion regulation strategies. For children in stressful living situations, we can’t always stop the stressors from happening, but we may be able to help youth deal with that stress.”

Although previous studies have linked chronic childhood stress with such conditions as depression, autoimmune disorders and cardiovascular disease, the researchers said less is known about why some people under chronic stress develop these conditions while others do not. And while it was thought that emotional regulation may play a role, the researchers were not sure exactly how.

To investigate how different ways of regulating emotions can influence different aspects of physical health, the researchers gathered data from 261 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 16 years.

Participants gave information about the relationships and chronic stress within their families, as well as their waist-to-hip ratios and blood pressure. The teens also completed questionnaires about how they regulated their emotions.

To measure immune function, the researchers took blood samples from each participant and exposed the blood to a bacterial stimulus — both with and without the anti-inflammatory substance hydrocortisone — to see how the immune cells would react.

The results show that under conditions of greater chronic family stress, the immune cells of teens who were more likely to use suppression also tended to produce more pro-inflammatory cytokines, molecules that signal to other cells that there is a threat present and that the body’s immune system needs to kick into gear.

The cells of these teens produced more cytokines even in the presence of hydrocortisone.

“Cytokines are like messengers that communicate to the rest of the body that added support is needed,” Jones said.

“So when you have a high level of these pro-inflammatory cytokines, even in the presence of anti-inflammatory messages from cortisol, it may suggest that your body is mounting an excessive inflammatory response, more so than necessary. It suggests that the immune system may not be functioning as it should be.”

Meanwhile, the researchers found that teens who more often used cognitive reappraisal to deal with family stress had smaller waist-to-hip ratios and lower blood pressure.

“While we would have to follow up with more studies, the results could lend support to the idea that reappraising a situation during times of stress could be beneficial,” Jones said.

“For a mild stressor, this could be as simple as reframing a bad situation by thinking about it as a challenge or an opportunity for growth.”

Source: Penn State

Schizophrenia May Disrupt Bodily Experience of Emotion

A new study shows that how people experience emotion through their bodies is radically altered in people with schizophrenia.

For the study, researchers at Vanderbilt University compared individuals with schizophrenia with matched control participants, asking each to fill in a “body map” in a way that correlates to the way they physically experience emotion. The researchers used a computerized coloring task to locate where participants feel sensations when they experience, for example, anger or depression.

According to the study’s findings, the outcomes differed radically between the groups.

The control group showed distinct maps of sensations for 13 different emotions, indicating specific patterns of increased arousal and decreased energy across the body for each emotion.

However, in individuals with schizophrenia, there was an overall reduction of bodily sensation across all emotions.

The study also found that individuals with schizophrenia don’t differentiate on their body maps for varying emotions. That may pose a problem for them in identifying, recognizing, and verbalizing their emotions or trying to understand the emotions of others, according to the researchers, Dr. Sohee Park, a professor of psychology, and Ph.D. student Lénie J. Torregrossa.

The research will allow the team to move forward in developing ways to help people with schizophrenia process emotions, which, in turn, could improve interpersonal relationships, Torregrossa said.

“The main outcome of this research is that we have a better understanding of why people with schizophrenia might have trouble interacting with others,” she said. “What we can do now is help them learn to attend to physiological sensations arising from their bodies and use them to process emotions.”

The study was published in the Schizophrenia Bulletin.

Source: Vanderbilt University

Photo: This graphic compares body maps of the control group (top) and of people with schizophrenia (bottom). Credit: Sohee Park.