Don’t panic — here’s how mindfulness can improve isolation

When you stop predicting the future and comparing the present to the past, you can reach a beneficial flow state.

JASON SILVA: When fear or panic takes hold of the mind, what is happening is that we're overdetermining the present. So we're like overreading and overdetermining what's happening right now. And then immediately conjuring up a future that becomes identified with doom, death, or annihilation, and we can feel it like a fist in the stomach. This is the essence of what a panic attack is. A panic attack misreads what's happening now, and sees it as impending and immediate and imminent danger like right now, fight or flight so that I don't die. And then reacts accordingly. But typically in a moment of panic you're not actually in imminent danger just like most people who are sitting at home during this time are not in imminent danger. So 99.9 percent of the population is not infected and even those that are infected, 99 percent are not in mortal danger, right?

Those are the facts. But the sense of anxiety from the overexposure to the news, from the drastic mitigation measures that are forcing people to be essentially in house arrest and additionally the fact that it's very difficult to lose ourselves in the usual trivialities and distractions that we so often lose ourselves in whether it's work or entertainment or just moving around and distracting ourselves. What we are forced instead to contend with is, even those of us that are not existentialists are forced into this existential meditation of like can we sit alone in our room with our thoughts, with our fears, with that sense of temporal dislocation, with this imposition of uncertainty and how do we deal with this? And that's an immense challenge first and foremost because being in a state of permanent anxiety and all the cortisol and all the biochemistry that follows from being in that permanently anxious state, that actually depletes our immune system. So it actually makes us less resilient against the virus.

The reason that we normally are such fans of travel or art and beauty, and music, and certain kinds of drugs is that these things block all signals forwards and backwards in the brain. Now when you block all signals forwards and backwards in the brain, the comparing with the past and trying to predict the future, you're hurled into and I quote "the flow" – another word I love. The flow of the present.

And when you're in the flow of the present well, anything that shows up in your field is going to be more engaging because you're not going to dismiss it and immediately leapfrog to the conclusion. You're actually going to engage with it. If you're able to tap into a mindful state open up a book that you haven't read in a while, watch a film you haven't seen in years or a film you've never seen perhaps, and for sort of steer awareness or focus awareness to it with a kind of presence that is not constantly trying to future forecast. So you drop the thread of time, you move from what the Greeks call Cronus which is like mechanized cognition to Kyrus which is like mythopoetic time or poetic time. Time that is free from the clock and that is a mindful state. That is a mythopoetic state.

And that is the only state that provides relief and a kind of grace from which we can drop out anxiety finally and completely. And how people do it? Well there's many ways of practicing mindfulness. Yoga, exercise, silent meditations, active meditations, listening to a podcast, breathing exercises. If you're in a state with legal cannabis by all means it's one of the best ways of doing so. Yeah, it definitely has a role to play during this time for sure.

  • It's normal to feel panic and anxiety in this moment. However, it's not totally necessary or helpful.
  • Futurist and Shots of Awe creator, Jason Silva, explains we feel this way because we're overdetermining the present. Despite scientific facts, when we're overexposed to the news, we immediately assume the worst.
  • One way to combat this is practicing mindfulness, which induces a state of flow. This flow state can provide relief from the onslaught of anxiety and can be reached in a number of ways, including meditation, yoga, or even watching a movie.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Surprising Science
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Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

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Is there a limit to optimism when it comes to climate change?

Or is doubt a self-fulfilling prophecy?

David McNew/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

'We're doomed': a common refrain in casual conversation about climate change.

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