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How to cope under pressure, according to psychology
What's your "stress mindset"?
You're preparing for an important meeting, and the pressure's on. If it's bad now, how will you cope when you actually have to perform? Will you fly? Or will you sink?
Psychologists have a lot to say about how to cope under pressure… both the chronic kind, which might involve ongoing high expectations at work, for example; and the acute, single-event variety such as a vital meeting, a make-or-break presentation, or a sports match.
The stress mindset
A concept that's increasingly recognised as important in relation to pressure is your "stress mindset". If you recognise that stressful challenges can sharpen your focus, strengthen your motivation, and offer learning and achievement opportunities, then you have a "positive" stress mindset. In contrast, viewing stress as unpleasant, debilitating and negative constitutes a "negative" stress mindset. And there's evidence that this is harmful. A 2017 study led by Anne Casper found that when faced with a day that they know is going to be challenging, people with a positive stress mindset come up with coping strategies, boost their performance, and end the day feeling more energised. For people with a negative stress mindset, the opposite happens.
Alia Crum at Stanford University is one of the best-known advocates of the positive stress mindset. She's found that it's not just adults who benefit. In a study of adolescents, Crum and her colleagues found that those who believed in the potential benefits of stress were less prone to feeling stressed in the wake of difficult life events. "These findings suggest that changing the way adolescents think about stress may help protect them from acting impulsively when confronted with adversity," the researchers concluded.
If you do have a negative stress mindset, there are ways to turn it around. In another study, Crum's team found that adult participants who'd watched a film clip that focused on the "enhancing" nature of stress, and were then put into a stressful social situation, afterwards felt more positive and showed greater cognitive flexibility than participants who'd first watched a "stress is bad" clip.
If you're feeling anxious because you're under increased pressure at work, or there's a particularly challenging opportunity/stressful event (you now know which adjective you should pick…) coming up, one short-term fix might be to go and watch a horror movie. Deliberately scaring ourselves can calm the brain, leading to a "recalibration of our emotions," according to a US study led by Margee Kerr which involved visitors to an immersive theatre attraction at the ScareHouse in Pittsburgh. Those volunteers who were more stressed or tired beforehand showed the biggest emotional benefits afterwards.
There is also some tentative evidence from Heidi Fritz and others that taking a cheerful perspective on life is associated with less stress over time, while self-defeating humour — the sort that involves disparaging yourself — is associated with more distress.
The evidence from this particular study is not strong. But some support for the idea that trying to big yourself up, rather than to put yourself down, can help in high pressure situations comes from a study in which Sonia Kang at the University of Toronto and her team studied a group of MBA students. The researchers put some into positions of low power in a negotiating situation, and found that these participants performed worse under pressure than those who'd been given more power over the outcome. However, when "low power" students first spent five minutes writing about their most important negotiating skill, this neutralised the power differential effect on performance. "Anytime you have low expectations for performance, you tend to sink down and meet those low expectations," Kang observed. "Self-affirmation is a way to neutralize that threat."
However, if you are going into a negotiating situation, you may also want to bear this in mind: when put under time pressure, people tend to act more like themselves, according to a recent paper in Nature Communications. Researchers Fandong Chen and Ian Krajbich, based in China and the US, found that when there was little time available to make a decision about how to divide a pot of money, selfish people tended to act more selfishly than usual, while pro-social people behaved even more pro-socially. In theory, either could be useful — depending on what you want out of an interaction.
However, time pressure can also improve decision-making, according to a simulation of a realistic disaster event overseen by Liverpool's Centre for Critical and Major Incident Psychology. It's thought that this is because it forces people to make tough decisions — and when these people are experts, they're more likely to be the right ones.
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images
A helping hand
Whether you're a hospital manager awaiting an influx of injured patients, or a lecturer or a student about to go into a vital meeting or exam, you're likely approaching the point of maximum pressure. What can help?
You might hope for a text message from a friend or romantic partner. Recent research from Emily Hooker and colleagues confirms that sending a text to a partner confronted with a difficult task really can make them feel more supported. This particular study involved 75 women who were asked to do a set of stressful tasks, including mental maths and public speaking, while their blood pressure and heart rate were recorded. While they were waiting to perform, some received text messages from their romantic partner, who was waiting in another room. These scripted texts were either explicitly supportive (for example, "Don't worry. It's just a psych study. You'll be fine"), whereas others were more mundane ("It's cold in here").
Analysis of the physiological data revealed that the mundane texts, though not the "supportive" ones, reduced the women's blood pressure during both preparation and the task itself. When you're under psychological pressure, being reminded that there's someone out there who really cares for you seems to be more helpful than receiving targeted advice. In fact, the potential risks of offering "helpful" advice have been highlighted in other work. A recent meta-analysis of 142 studies looking at how to help struggling employees concluded that simply making job-related support available — for example, new equipment or career counselling — is often helpful, but overtly discussing a problem can backfire. "That finding might be because not all support is good support," said Michael Mathieu at San Francisco State University, who led the study. For example, reaching out to try to help a co-worker might be taken as an insult, he suggests.
If your partner somehow neglects to send a simple reminder of their implicit support before you go into your important meeting, or stand up to give that paper, they may still be able to help you. Just visualising your partner can moderate your body's physiological response to stress, according to research at the University of Arizona led by Kyle Bourassa. (In this study, the stressor was physical – volunteers had to submerge their feet into cold water – but in theory, the same effect could hold for other forms of stress.) In some trials, participants actually had their partner in the same room. These people reported less pain than those who just imagined that their partner was there, but the blood pressure data for the two groups were statistically equivalent. "The results suggest that accessing the mental representation of a romantic partner and a partner's presence each buffer against exaggerated acute stress responses to a similar degree," the researchers write.
Choking and clutch
It's possible that, in modulating physiological arousal, this kind of technique may reduce the risk of choking under pressure. This phenomenon is familiar to many of us. When the pressure gets "too much", our skills suddenly deteriorate, and we perform more poorly than we, or anyone else, expected. Unsurprisingly, this phenomenon has been extensively studied in sport. One analysis of the performance of elite tennis players, led by Danny Cohen-Zada, concluded that the male players were about twice as adversely affected by high pressure as the female players, perhaps because men typically show a bigger spike in levels of the stress hormone cortisol when under pressure than women do. ("Our robust evidence that women can respond better than men to competitive pressure is compelling," the researchers noted.)
The opposite to choking under pressure is sometimes called "clutch performance". A group led by Christian Swann at the University of Wollongong, Australia interviewed 16 top athletes and asked them to describe what they were thinking and feeling during a recent outstanding "clutch" performance. This led them to identify 12 characteristics associated with excelling under pressure. Six were similar to the state of flow (they became so involved in their task they became unaware of the crowd, for example). But six were different. They included being deliberately focused on the task in hand, maintaining intense effort over a period of time, feeling high arousal levels, and not thinking about what would happen if they failed. The athletes talked about making a big effort to monitor their own performance as they played, to raise their game. (It's worth noting that though the athletes talked about feeling high levels of arousal, their actual physiological arousal was not monitored. There's certainly work finding that arousal helps with performance — only to a point.)
It's interesting that the athletes mentioned not thinking about the negative consequences of failure. Because this brings us back to mindsets. Work published earlier this year (led by Vikram Chib) found that simply altering how you view what's at stake in a high-pressure situation can dramatically reduce the risk of choking.
The participants in this study were asked to play a computer-based game in which they could win money. But when they were instructed to imagine that they already had the high prize money on offer, and were playing for the chance to keep it, rather than to gain it, they were much less likely to choke. (The researchers tied this to altered levels of activity in a region of the brain called the ventral striatum.) A skin conductance measure also showed that this reappraisal prevented heightened stress when they failed. Playing make-believe had, it seems, taken the pressure out of the situation.
More work needs to be done to explore the potential benefits of this approach, as well as the positive stress mindset, in real-world situations. But next time you're under pressure to perform, why not try embracing the opportunity to achieve — and imagine that you've already succeeded?
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Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."