Our bodies are chronically in "threat mode"—but being kind recalibrates our nervous system

Being kind to others positively impacts your physical and mental health, according to this groundbreaking research by Stanford professor Dr. James Doty.

kind woman giving money to homeless man

Kindness is good for our health, and here's why...

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  • The default "rest mode" of our brains is often taken over by a "threat mode" setting because of our stressful, "on-the-go" lifestyles. When we are chronically in threat mode, this leaves us with less capacity for compassion.
  • Showing compassion or acting kind to others can actually change your physiology, taking you out of threat mode and putting you back into your natural "rest and digest" mode.
  • Research by a well-known Stanford professor Dr. James Doty has shown that acts of kindness or compassion that put us back into our "rest mode" can have lasting positive impacts on our physical and mental health.

Kindness is a virtue that is admired and applauded, in most cases. But did you know that being kind can also be good for your health? In fact, being compassionate to others can actually reset our consistently stressed systems back into our default "rest mode", causing all kinds of positive effects to our overall health.

Our nervous system was never meant to be in "threat mode" all the time

confused brain with rough lines happy brain with smooth lines

Living in "threat mode" isn't healthy for our minds or our bodies.

Image by Pogorelova Olga on Shutterstock

According to Dr. James Doty, Stanford professor and author of Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and Secrets of the Heart, the nervous system doesn't function optimally if it's in threat mode all the time. And yet, our adrenaline-fueled, "on-the-go" lifestyles have us operating mainly in threat mode, which can be one of the reasons we contract a variety of different illnesses.

Our bodies release inflammatory proteins in response to stress. Because of this release, our nervous system shows a decrease in the capabilities of our immune system, which is what responds to threats such as germs or bacteria that cause illnesses.

The constant over-stimulation of our nervous systems caused by our fast-paced way of living also makes us much more inclined to jump to (often judgmental) conclusions about other people. This kind of quick judgment dulls our own ability to act out of compassion for others. That, in turn, leaves us operating in a constant threat mode, which has negative long-term effects on our health.

Kindness and compassion reset us into "rest mode", starting in the nervous system

The ability to feel and act out of compassion for others can have a huge effect on your overall health.

Dr. Doty explains it best in this Uplift article:

"When someone acts with compassionate intentions, this has a huge, huge positive effect on their physiology. It takes them out of threat mode and puts them into the rest and digest mode. What happens when that occurs is it changes how they respond to events."

According to Dr. Doty, instead of a quick response that is often based on fear, anxiety or stress, our response time is slower and more deliberate, which tends to result in more effective, more creative and more compassionate actions. We are able to change the responses we have to events because we are allowing the executive control area of our brain to function at the highest level.

Several studies at Emory University have demonstrated this and given results that support the idea that regular compassionate acts or compassion-based meditation practices can reduce negative neuroendocrine interactions in our brains (which are the interactions between our nervous system and the endocrine system).

The sympathetic nervous system vs the parasympathetic nervous system

smiling woman light up brain illustration

The benefits from being kind can help us live healthier, happier lives.

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When we switch to our parasympathetic nervous system (which we instinctively do when we act out of compassion), we flip out of the sympathetic nervous system that most of us live in due to our busy lifestyles.

When this switch happens, our heart rate variability increases, which causes a boost in our immune system. This immune system boost can help us fight off infections or illnesses.

Now, let's talk about telomeres. To visualize them, you can imagine small caps that protect the ends of chromosomes during cell division. Telomeres get shorter each time a chromosome copies itself during cell division, which happens constantly. Eventually, telomeres get too short to do their job of protecting the genetic information stored in the chromosomes, which causes the cells to eventually stop replicating—a process known as cell death. This is how telomeres act as an aging clock in every cell we have; the faster your telomeres shorten, the more advanced the aging process becomes.

Research by Dr. Doty has shown that one of the long-term positive effects of living in our parasympathetic nervous system (referred to as our "resting" mode) is that our telomeres actually increase in length.

In theory, over time, being kind and compassionate can actually slow down the aging process in some of the cells of our body.

Just as showing compassion can recalibrate our nervous systems out of threat mode and back into resting mode, experiencing compassion or kindness from others also has a positive impact on our systems. Research by Stony Brook University professor Stephanie Brown has proven that experiencing compassion can lead to tremendous improvements in our mental and physical well-being, as well.

Be kind. It's good for your health.

This ground-breaking research allow us to understand the benefits that kind human interactions can have on the health of our minds and bodies.

The positive ripple effect that comes from being kind doesn't just impact our health, but it can also impact our interactions with others and set off a positive chain reaction with far-reaching benefits across entire communities. Resetting our own systems into resting mode by taking ourselves out of threat mode can allow us to process things more clearly and make better choices.

In a world where you can be pretty much anything, be kind. It's good for your health.


Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

Photo Credit: HS2
Culture & Religion
  • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
  • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
  • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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