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Research Roundup 11

The Effect of Positive Relationships on Self-Esteem, How a Mother's Love can Prevent Future Abuse, and more

The Business Dictionary defines infoglut thus:1

Information glut. Masses of continuously increasing information, so poorly catalogued or organised (or not organised at all) that it is almost impossible to navigate through them to search or draw any conclusions or meaning.

Try as I might, I can come up with no better analogy than the ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant. Imagine you’ve never encountered or learned about an elephant. Now, along with others, you’re tasked with discovering the nature of one. But the beast is housed in the dark and in the rush to discover, all you have is touch. You feel one leg and rush back to report that an elephant resembles nothing more or less than a living pillar of flesh.

But someone else feels the tusk and reports that an elephant is like a curved sword. Yet another feels the trunk, and another the back. Each one of you feels they have a total understanding. Yet the entirety of the elephant remains undetected.

Having a bit of information can be worse than useless when it comes to knowing the whole thing. Entire religions and schools of thought can grow around a concept of ‘elephant as pillar’ or ‘elephant as sword’. Elephant ‘experts’ abound in this world of partial information.

It’s been said that we are living in a time of ‘infobesity’2, in which we’re force-fed bits of information but with little wider context. It’s as though Rumi’s old elephant parable was a prediction as well as a teaching device for his time.

This new study! That new study! We feel we’re getting closer to understanding human nature. But the wider context of what it means to be human can be missed unless we can be discerning and start to see more broadly.

In this occasional series I take five recent psychological research studies and try to make sense of them in the context of wider human nature.

So what do I have for you?

This month’s gems

This month we’re going to take a deeper look into:

  • the effect of positive relationships on self-esteem,
  • how a mother’s love can prevent future abuse,
  • smartphone dependency as a cause of depression and loneliness,
  • how slow-wave sleep naturally heals anxiety disorders, and
  • how hypnosis extends and deepens slow-wave sleep.

So let’s go!

Research piece one: How do positive relationships affect self-esteem?

As you lie on your deathbed, hopefully in the far distant future, it’s unlikely you will lament the ‘likes’ you didn’t get on social media or reflect on all the purchases you made in retail stores. More likely, I’m guessing you’ll focus, if you’re able, on the human connections of your life – times of deep love and connection. Positive relationships are a vital source of wellbeing and meaning for most of us.

Those of us with strong, healthy friendships with others tend, not surprisingly, to have higher levels of self-esteem. But do the friendships boost our self-esteem, or is it the other way around?

A large-scale meta-analysis of 52 studies over two decades, involving 47,000 people from multiple countries and age groups, found that positive social relationships, social acceptance, and social support help shape the development of self-esteem across ages 4 to 76.3

However, there is also a strong influence in the other direction: yes, the quality of our relationships affects our self esteem, but so too our self-esteem influences the quality of our social connections. This seems to hold good for all the genders and ethnicities studied.

My take?

I’m not surprised by these results at all. Our sense of who we are (or who we believe we are) is formed in large part by our interactions with those around us.

I’ve noticed that many people with low self-esteem tend to choose relationships with people who treat them badly. Maybe this is because that’s what they are used to, or maybe it’s because it fits in with their perception of themselves – both they and the person they are with seem to hold a low opinion of them. They may also mistrust those who treat them well or give them compliments.

Low self-esteem drives people to seek out relationships with people who damage their self-esteem further. So when we help clients raise their self-esteem, we often also help improve the quality of their relationships by helping them to break the cycle of being in toxic relationships – which can then help their self-esteem even further.

The next research piece is related, and tells us something about the primary importance of having a loving mother.

Research piece two: A mother’s love can help teenagers avoid abuse

A recent study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that maternal love, acceptance, and support reduced the risk of a teenage child later being involved in an abusive relationship.4

The research, which surveyed over 140 adolescents whose parents were married or in a de facto relationship at the time of their birth, found that eighth-grade children whose mothers demonstrated above-average levels of positive parenting behaviors were less likely to enter into violent romantic relationships as teenagers. And this held true even for children whose parents’ marriage was characterised by high levels of conflict.

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Indeed, the paper notes that while previous research has found that children who are exposed to parental conflict are at increased risk of experiencing sexual, physical, and emotional abuse in romantic relationships as adolescents, this risk is greatly mitigated by a mother’s love. The lead author, Professor Jennifer Livingston, PhD, said:

“Children form internal working models about themselves and others based on the quality of their relationship with their parents. If the primary caretaker is abusive or inconsistent, children learn to view themselves as unlovable and others as hostile and untrustworthy. But positive parenting behaviours characterized by acceptance and warmth help children form positive internal working models of themselves as lovable and worthy of respect.”

This study proves the overwhelming protective effect of a strong maternal bond.

My take?

This research fits in neatly with the first piece. How we are regarded and how we feel we are regarded can, to a great extent, determine our self-esteem. If we have never felt particularly loved, it will feel natural to settle into relationships in which we may be abused. We will accept being treated badly more readily. Of course, anyone might find themselves in an abusive relationship – we are just talking about probability here.

We are not isolated beings. We are interactional,and how we relate to others, especially when those others are young, is vitally important.

And talking of minimizing the chances of future heartache, it seems that our dependence on our smartphones can also be predictive of mental health outcomes.

Research piece three: Smartphone usage predicts depression

I’m guessing this research wasn’t financed by big tech! A new study from The University of Arizona has shed some (artificial!) light on the question of whether excessive smartphone usage is a consequence of depression in young people or a cause.

The study, which investigated smartphone dependency in 346 older adolescents aged 18 to 20, found that dependence on smartphones predicts higher incidence of depressive symptoms and loneliness.5

Lead researcher Matthew Lapierre, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, said:

“Smartphones can be useful. They help us connect with others. We’ve really been trying to focus on this idea of dependency and problematic use of smartphones being the driver for these psychological outcomes.”

Co-author of the study Pengfei Zhao, a qualitative research methodologist, added:

“If depression and loneliness lead to smartphone dependency, we could reduce dependency by adjusting people’s mental health,” Zhao said. “But if smartphone dependency [precedes depression and loneliness], which is what we found, we can reduce smartphone dependency to maintain or improve wellbeing.”

My take?

Smartphones are amazing… as long as we use them, not the other way around. If it is the case that smartphone dependency is more likely to produce loneliness and depression than the other way about, this is a cause for hope. We have a clear goal. We can help people ‘detox’ from their smartphones and instead meet their needs for stimulation and connection in the ‘real world’.

On a broader level, I think we are, to some extent, living in a world full of artificial approximations – and that can confuse us. We have proxy sources of social connection or meaning which seem to promise to meet our needs but never truly can. Our online social life is a dim and distant echo of real connection, and will never completely fulfil us. It may serve as an adjunct to a real social life, but it can never replace it.

Being trained to respond to smartphone prompts and having the reward networks of the brain hijacked and exhausted, all without our real needs ever being fulfilled, is exhausting and demoralizing.

Salt water might seem to promise to rehydrate you when you’re desperate for a drink. But it never truly can. In fact, it will make you even thirstier.

When we help young people control and limit their smartphone usage, we are effectively helping them begin to ‘drink real water’ so that life can be more satisfying and meaningful.

The researchers found that some people turned to their smartphones as a response to stress, but of course there are much better ways to manage stress. In fact, this next piece of research found that a certain type of sleep may actually help rewire a stressed and anxious brain.

Research piece four: Deep sleep can rewire anxious brains

The sleep between dreams, known as non-REM or slow-wave sleep, has long been thought to be the restorative part of sleep. It is during slow-wave sleep, so called because it is associated with very slow, even oscillations in the brain’s electrical activity, that immunity gets a boost and heart rate and blood pressure drop.

Now research from UC Berkeley has found that slow-wave sleep can also calm the anxious brain.6 Co-author Matthew Walker, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at Berkeley, said:

“We have identified a new function of deep sleep, one that decreases anxiety overnight by reorganizing connections in the brain. Deep sleep seems to be a natural anxiolytic [anxiety inhibitor], so long as we get it each and every night.”

The researchers showed emotionally disturbing video clips to 18 adults first after a full night of sleep, then again after a night of no sleep. Anxiety levels were measured following each session using a questionnaire, and the participants also underwent fMRI brain scans.

Brain scans performed after a sleepless night showed that the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps control and inhibit anxiety, effectively shut down, while activity in the brain’s deeper emotional centres increased. Walker noted that, “Without sleep, it’s almost as if the brain is too heavy on the emotional accelerator pedal, without enough brake.”

A recent study suggests that after a sleepless night the part of the brain that helps control and inhibit anxiety effectively shuts down, while activity in the brain's deeper emotional centres increases.Click To Tweet

Published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour,the study provides the strongest evidence of neural links between sleep and anxiety to date. The researchers highlight healthy sleep as a natural, non-drug remedy for anxiety disorders, which are an extremely common emotional disturbance.7

My take?

The researchers point to insufficient sleep as a factor in the brain not dealing with emotion properly. But they miss a couple of possibilities in their exclusive focus on slow-wave sleep. Yes, we all experience and need slow-wave sleep, but we also experience and need REM (rapid eye movement) or ‘dream sleep’.

It’s not just how much or how little sleep you get, but the quality and composition of that sleep that matters.

The researchers fail to acknowledge the role of dreaming out emotional arousals. One function of dreams seems to be to deactivate emotional arousals around worries and fears.8 If we don’t dream we can become extremely unstable, if not psychotic.9 And dream sleep is markedly different to slow-wave sleep.

Further, it’s important to recognize that all depressed people overdream, whether they recall those dreams or not.10 This is because they have more emotionally unresolved arousals. Dreaming is nature’s attempt to ‘flush out’ the excessive unfulfilled emotional arousal that results from excessive negative rumination.11

This ‘overdose’ of REM sleep at the expense of slow-wave sleep can result in the exhaustion and loss of motivation we so often see in depressed people.12 Slow-wave sleep is also vital to physical health, and certainly depression can result in the kind of physical problems you’d expect from a disrupted, out-of-balance sleep composition.

When people start to lift out of depression, their sleep composition normalises: they dream less and have more restorative, slow-wave sleep.

In fact, sleep restriction can help lift the symptoms of depression because it stops the exhausting over dreaming in the short term.13 This is by no means a long-term treatment for depression, but it shows that it’s not just how much sleep people get, as these researchers seem to have assumed, but the composition of sleep that is important.

While this research is valuable, it does seem that the ‘elephant in the dark’had not been fully appreciated for all its parts. But of course slow-wave sleep is vital for mental and physical health, which is why you’re going to love this final piece of research.

Research piece five: Hypnosis extends restorative slow-wave sleep

As I’ve just explained, good sleep composition is crucial to physical and mental restoration. Slow-wave sleep in particular improves memory, promotes cell repair and growth hormone secretion, and stimulates the immune system. We need slow wave sleep!

Sleep researchers Maren Cordi and Björn Rasch, from the Universities of Zurich and Fribourg respectively, showed that highly hypnotizable women experienced 80 percent more slow-wave sleep after listening to a hypnosis tape than after listening to a neutral text.14 This study shows that hypnosis has a surprisingly (to the researchers, at least) powerful positive impact on the quality of sleep.

Cordi and Rasch observed EEG recordings of 70 women in a sleep laboratory. Half of the participants listened to a hypnosis audio with suggestions to “sleep deeper” while the other half listened to a non-hypnotic audio recording. The EEG traces demonstrated that those women who listened to the hypnosis audio experienced 80% more slow-wave sleep than those who listened to the non-hypnotic audio, and also spent 67% less time awake.

Co-author Maren Cordi, a psychologist, said, “The results may be of major importance for patients with sleep problems and for older adults. In contrast to many sleep-inducing drugs, hypnosis has no adverse side effects.”

My take?

Given that hypnosis is a way of influencing processes that are very difficult to control voluntarily, it makes sense that it can be – and often is – effectively used to treat clients with sleep disturbances.15 This study focused on women, but I would expect the results to hold true across all genders.

In particular, because depressed people have decreased slow-wave sleep (because of an overrepresentation of dream or REM sleep), hypnosis can be expected, as part of an overall approach for depression, to be a good corrective for the disturbed sleep of depressive and anxiety conditions.

I’ve noticed that many studies, including this one, describe how the hypnotic approach worked for those who were “highly suggestible”. But I suspect the hypnotic approach used here was highly directive and could be improved to appeal even to those not scientifically deemed “highly hypnotizable”.

This is important research and I’m really happy to see science catching up with hypnotherapeutic experience and practice. But the question remains: What is it about hypnosis that promotes this healthy and curative component of sleep?

Could it be that the hypnotic state resembles the REM state of dreaming? That the function of dreaming is taken care of, to some extent, during hypnosis, leaving more time for curative slow-wave sleep later on during actual sleep? That’s just an idea. Or could it be that the deep relaxation of hypnosis promotes deeper and better sleep later? I suspect it’s both.

I’ve noticed that clients often report sleeping better as a byproduct of general hypnotic therapy, even when better sleep hadn’t been a specific goal.

The difference that good quality sleep makes to health, wellbeing, and happiness is huge, and if hypnosis can immediately help improve sleep composition then so much the better.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my foray into the latest research, and my attempts at placing it within some kind of wider context as to what it means to be human.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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