Burnout Is Real. Here’s How To Spot It and Recover

When people ask me why I became a writer, I have plenty of reasons to list: Words bring me joy. I ask questions constantly. And when I hear a good story, I’ll repeat it again and again until my friends get tired of hearing it. But in July of 2021, these responses started to feel hollow.

I was burned out. “I feel like I sprained my brain,” I told my friend over the phone. When I wasn’t working, I felt fine; when I tried to use my head, it felt like putting weight on a bum ankle.

I know I’m not alone. At this moment, when work is isolating some people at home while putting others in danger, burnout seems particularly rampant. In a survey of 1,500 workers from Indeed in March 2021, 53 percent said they were burned out—up by nearly 10 percent from the previous year. Another survey of nearly 21,000 healthcare workers published that May in The Lancet found similar rates.

I wanted to regain my curiosity and the joy I find in language as soon as possible, so I reached out to scientists to find out what, exactly, was happening in my body—and what I could do to make it better.

Burnout is a phenomenon so old, they made a sin out of it, according to Gordon Parker, a professor of psychiatry at the University of New South Wales. Once called “acedia,” the eighth cardinal sin described a state of listlessness, apathy, and torpor observed in fourth century monks. “They would wake up one day and say ‘the sky is no longer blue,’” Parker said. These monks would stop getting pleasure out of life and would lose their faith in God.

They were more than just tired. They had forgotten the meaning of all that they did. And that pretty much describes burnout. The response to chronic stress goes beyond exhaustion; sufferers also experience a loss of idealism and feel like they’re bad at whatever they do. Those are the three prongs identified by the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the assessment most often used by psychologists to evaluate such mental fatigue.

And all that angst isn’t just in your head—it’s very much a physical phenomenon, rooted in the body’s stress-response system. Scientists studying the syndrome are particularly interested in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, also called the HPA axis. When we’re faced with a threat—say, a bear chasing us, or the prospect of responding to an ambiguously stern-sounding email—the HPA axis releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol helps the body run from whatever is threatening it; it raises our heart rate and helps our body harvest energy from glucose.

Cortisol also decreases activity in systems you don’t need when your life is in immediate danger, like the reproductive and immune systems. When the hypothalamus, a structure in the brain that acts like the control room for the HPA axis, detects high levels of cortisol in the blood, it’s supposed to say “okay, my work is done here,” and shut the stress response down.

Researchers can capture a snapshot of how the stress-response system is functioning with a test called the dexamethasone challenge. Dexamethasone is a drug that tells the hypothalamus to suppress the stress-response system. Given a dose of it, a healthy person should start producing less cortisol. But multiple studies have found that people with burnout have an altered response to the drug. Some studies find that those individuals don’t react to dexamethasone much, if at all—they continue pumping out more cortisol regardless.

Other research finds that people with burnout have an exaggerated response to the drug—they suppress cortisol more than the healthy controls do. Researchers hypothesize that these two seemingly contradictory findings represent two stages: burning out, and being burnt out.

“During the burning-out phase, the system is in overdrive,” Parker said. When stress is chronic, cortisol levels in the body keep going up, but the system doesn’t shut itself down. The burnt-out phase begins when that system is tapped out, says Renzo Bianchi, a psychologist at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. “Your stress response gets so exhausted that you stop producing cortisol at high levels,” Bianchi said.

Cortisol may stress us out, but we also need the hormone to survive. It’s quite literally what gets us up in the morning. So when people enter this “burnt out” phase, they feel tired and cynical. They lose drive. They might even experience cognitive impairment and memory changes.

These symptoms might sound similar to clinical depression. But according to some scientists, including Christina Maslach of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, burnout and depression are not at all the same.

Burnout is a syndrome that may cause a person to become depressed; depression might predispose a person to burnout. But ultimately, burnout is distinct in that work is always at its root. People often feel better as soon as they’re able to get away from the cause of their stress, Parker said. That’s not usually the case with depression.

That distinction is important to make, because by treating burnout as an illness—like depression or an anxiety disorder—we risk offering the wrong solutions, Maslach said. You can’t self-care away your burnout, she added. It’s not so much about the individual as it is the situation they’re in. You have to remove the cause of your stress, and that often requires structural changes in the workplace.

That was disappointing for me to hear. When I reached out for expert advice, I’d already spent several of the preceding months focused on getting more sleep, running more often, and trying to take short vacations. All of these habits support good mental health, and might even offer short-term relief, Bianchi says—but they don’t get at the root cause of burnout. You can take all the time off you need, he says, but without identifying the root causes of your stress, you’ll eventually return to the same place.

In scientific literature that investigates risk factors for burnout, six come up again and again, according to a review co-authored by Maslach and published in the 2016 book Stress: Cognition, Emotion, and Behavior. There’s workload, the amount of autonomy you have, and fairness in the workplace. Then there’s reward—how much your work is recognized and compensated—and workplace community, or the social support you receive from colleagues or clients. Finally, values and meaning: whether or not the work you’re doing syncs up with your ideals.

Employers have the power to prevent burnout by creating a fair and supportive workplace, Maslach says—one where people feel like they have autonomy and are able to cope with their workload. But people with burnout may need to troubleshoot which factors are negatively impacting them so they know how to take action on their own. For some people, Maslach says, curing burnout might necessitate moving organizations or switching fields entirely.

That wasn’t my route. Instead, I worked through Maslach’s six risk factors like a checklist. The more I thought about it, the more I came to believe that my work load itself wasn’t the main problem; instead, I realized that it had been a long time since I’d thought about what had initially excited me about journalism—talking to scientists, love for the craft of writing itself, the thrill of finding a new story—in other words, my values.

I created spreadsheets of topics that intrigued me, scientists I loved speaking to, and projects I had long put on the back-burner. Then, I brainstormed ways to make time for them, blocking off chunks of time for tasks like going down internet rabbit holes in search of stories.

While I expected the answer to involve loads of rest, curing my own personal case of burnout turned out to be a lot of work. But it was worth it. Three months after starting this research, words excite me again. I’m back to annoying my friends with facts about frogs and physics. And several times a week, without fail, I spend an afternoon in the coffee shop around the corner to work on my personal creative projects.

Nine months ago, before my burnout began, I told a friend “I feel like I have the best job in the world.” By getting to the root of my stress, I’ve managed to get that feeling back again.

By: Isobel Whitcomb

Isobel Whitcomb is a freelance health and environmental journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Passionate about covering the intersection of science and the human experience, they cover everything from wildfire to chronic pain. Her work in Popular Science focuses on exploring the wellness industry and debunking health misinformation.

Source: Burnout Is Real. Here’s How to Spot It—and Recover.

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The Surprising Benefits of Training in the Heat

One of the highest sweat rates ever recorded was that of marathon runner Alberto Salazar at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. In the months leading up to the games, which were expected to be oppressively hot, the marathoner was put through a regimen of temperature acclimation training with the goal of helping him adapt to running in the heat.

While Salazar placed only 15th overall, the program was deemed a success, physiologically speaking—vitals taken after the race found that Salazar’s hormonal and thermoregulatory systems were completely normal. His body had compensated by causing him to sweat at an incredibly high rate—about three liters per hour, compared to the roughly one liter per hour for an average human.

Researchers have been looking at the effects of heat on athletic performance for decades, and their results have been consistently surprising. Studies have found that, in addition to an increased rate of perspiration, training in the heat can increase an athlete’s blood plasma volume (which leads to better cardiovascular fitness), reduce overall core temperature, reduce blood lactate, increase skeletal muscle force, and, counterintuitively, make a person train better in cold temperatures.

In fact, heat acclimation may actually be more beneficial than altitude training in eliciting positive physiological adaptations, says Santiago Lorenzo, a professor of physiology at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and a former decathlete at the University of Oregon. “Heat acclimation provides more substantial environmental specific improvements in aerobic performance than altitude acclimation,” he says.

And in contrast to the live low, train high philosophy, we more quickly adapt to heat stress than we do to hypoxia. In other words, heat training not only does a better job at increasing V02 max than altitude, but it also makes athletes better at withstanding a wider range of temperatures.

Athletes can adapt to heat in one of two ways. The first is through incremental improvements in tolerance over time—work out in the heat a little bit every day, and eventually your body will dissipate heat more effectively. The second way is through thermotolerance, which is a cellular adaptation to an extreme heat experience, like suffering such severe dehydration after a run that you need an IV.

Essentially, if you shock your system, your body will be able to withstand greater temperature stresses later on. But successful heat adaptation is difficult—and clearly dangerous—to achieve outside of controlled settings. Lorenzo explains that performance gains are possible only when athletes elevate their core body temperature, and without careful monitoring, it’s possible to elevate your core temperature to lethal levels.

When performed safely, however, heat training can have extraordinary effects. This phenomena fascinates Chris Minson, a professor of human physiology at the University of Oregon, who studies heat acclimation responses in athletes. According to his research, heat training can expand blood plasma volume, but Minson says there also seem to be inexplicable changes to the heart’s left ventricle, which helps to increase oxygen delivery to the muscles.

In addition, he says that athletes who train in warm temperatures generally get better at regulating heat by sweating earlier, as Salazar did, or developing a colder resting body temperature.  A 2011 study by a group of researchers in New Zealand also found that overall volume of blood plasma increased at a greater rate when athletes did not drink water during exercise. While some coaches are carefully experimenting with dehydration, Minson and Lorenzo are not because it adds too much additional stress.

However, they do say that this type of training can be beneficial because it produces a higher number of “heat shock” protein cells. Ahead of Western States this June, ultrarunning coach Jason Koop worked on heat training with Amanda Basham and eventual winner Kaci Leckteig. Koop believes this type of acclimating is a good example of blending an academic concept with real-world training. But, says Koop, “at a certain level, you have to compromise training quality for the heat acclimation.

Acclimating to the heat is additional stress [on the body], just like more miles or intervals, so you can’t simply pile it on. Something on the training side has to give.” One method of heat acclimation that Minson uses with his athletes is to do hard workouts on colder days or earlier in the morning, and then start training in hotter conditions with less intensity. He is also looking into adding heat in ways that wouldn’t require an athlete to train in high temperatures at all—using hot tubs, for instance. 

All this being said, not everyone responds to heat at the same rate or with the same physiological gains, which makes it similar to altitude training in that it might make a high-performing age grouper, college athlete, or elite a little better, but it won’t compensate for intelligent, consistent training.

How to Incorporate Heat Acclimation into Your Training Schedule

When acclimating to heat, you’ll be forced to compromise training quality, says Koop. While he understands the benefits of heat acclimation, he still prioritizes smart, solid training. But if you want to incorporate heat into your workouts, here’s how he recommends doing it safely.

1. First, pick a protocol (sauna, hot bath, or exercising in the heat) that minimizes the impact on training, both physically and logistically.

2. Koop most commonly recommends that his athletes use a dry sauna immediately after running. “It doesn’t impact training nearly as much as running in the heat, and the effects are similarly positive,” he says. He often tells his athletes to not drink water during these sessions to enhance the effect. Koop recommends spending 20-to-30-minutes in the sauna, depending on tolerance.

3. Koop says that when he has his athletes exercise in the heat—either naturally or by wearing extra clothing to simulate the experience—it will be on a long, slow day for 60 to 90 minutes. The time completely depends on the athlete’s tolerance and previous experience. But he stresses to not do this on a recovery day, because heat training is an added stress on the body. Koop recommends drinking 30 to 40 ounces of an electrolyte drink per hour during these sessions  And for safety, he advises using low-traffic sidewalks and bike paths—not trails.

4. Despite the benefits of heat training, Koop reminds his athletes that running in the heat is extremely difficult and usually replaces a hard day. “You are substituting one potential gain for another one,” he says. In other words, use it carefully.

Source: The Surprising Benefits of Training in the Heat – Outside Online

Critics by issaonline

Although training in the heat offers some benefits, it does have drawbacks too.

The Mayo Clinic reports exercising in a high temperature environment can sometimes result in heat-related illness. The most common illnesses include:

Heat cramps – These are painful muscle contractions. Though caused by excessive heat, they can also occur when body temperature is normal.

Heat syncope – If the client feels lightheaded or faints due to high heat exposure, heat syncope may exist.

Heat exhaustion – This occurs when the body’s core temperature approaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include nausea, vomiting, headache, and clammy skin.

Heat stroke – If the core body temperature exceeds 104 degrees, heat stroke can occur. This results in feelings of confusion, heart rhythm issues, and vision problems. Immediate medical attention is necessary to help preserve the brain and organs. If untreated, death can result.

Heat stress and heat-related illness are a major concern. Reduce this concern by helping clients acclimate to the heat and humidity common in summer training sessions. Research reveals that the human body goes through certain changes when exercising in a hot environment. Our core body temperature increases, first rapidly then at a slower rate. Metabolic rate increases as well, especially in heat stress conditions. Blood flow is altered to transfer the heat from our internal body to our skin, where it is released via our sweat. These changes are necessary to help prevent the body from overheating.

Though the human body is good at adapting to warmer climates, heat acclimation training improves this response. This enables clients to exercise more safely in hot environments. It also improves their performance. What does an effective acclimation program look like? A study on endurance athletes found that, for those not acclimated to the heat, high intensity exercise increased fatigue and weakened performance. Therefore, a lower-intensity workout regimen is recommended. At least until the client becomes used to the heat and humidity.

Another piece of research noted that 6-7 high-heat exposures are needed to improve adaptation. Each one should be at least 30 minutes in length. If you live in an area that is not particularly hot or it isn’t summer, there are a few ways to add heat to an exercise session. These include using a sauna or working out in heated water. Wearing multiple layers of clothing will also raise the body’s internal temp.

Some gyms and fitness facilities have an athletic chamber. This is a room that enables you to raise the heat and humidity to specific levels. You might also find these rooms at universities and colleges.

Yes, heat acclimation helps boost performance. But its number one goal is to help clients avoid heat illness, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke. Here are a few more safety tips that will help too:

Drink lots of water. Dehydration occurs faster in hot environments because heat increases sweat rate. This makes hydration critical when exercising in hot weather. Harvard University suggests consuming 2-3 cups of water per hour if you’re sweating a lot.

But don’t overdo your water consumption. It’s also important to note that you can drink too much water. This is called water intoxication and reduces the sodium in the bloodstream. This can cause headache, nausea, and vomiting. In severe cases, blood pressure rises, it’s harder to breathe, and the client feels confused.

Consume sports drinks for lengthy trainings. During longer workout sessions, water may not be enough. Because your sweat contains many chemicals and salts, these need replacing. In this case, sports drinks can replenish the electrolytes lost via excessive sweat. Sports drinks also supply a limited level of carbohydrates. This gives your body the energy it needs to continue to work out.

Avoid exercise during extremely high temperatures. If you live in a place where extreme heat is common, exercise when it’s a bit cooler outside. This limits the likelihood that you’ll suffer a heat illness. What’s the best time of day to exercise in this type of environment? Either early in the morning or later in the day.

Pay attention to the humidity. When it is both hot and humid outside, the body responds differently than in dry conditions. Specifically, humidity increases your sweat rate, which impacts your hydration. The Cleveland Clinic suggest not exercising if the humidity is over 80 percent and it’s 80 degrees or higher.

Wear the right clothing. Your body must be able to sweat to better control its internal temperature. Lightweight clothing assists with this. Wearing clothing in lighter colors is preferred as well since they don’t absorb as much heat as dark colors.

Monitor your heart rate. Heart rate increases 10 beats per minute for every degree the body temperature rises. So, wearing a heart rate monitor helps clients better identify whether their cardiovascular system is experiencing heat stress. Heart rate monitors can also signal if dehydration exists.

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Is Your Smartphone Ruining Your Memory? Rise of Digital Amnesia

Help! My mind has gone blank: What happens when we outsource part of our memory to an external device?  Photograph: Ilka & Franz/The Observer

‘I can’t remember anything’ is a common complaint these days. But is it because we rely so heavily on our smartphones? And do the endless alerts and distractions stop us forming new memories? Last week, I missed a real-life meeting because I hadn’t set a reminder on my smartphone, leaving someone I’d never met before alone in a café. But on the same day, I remembered the name of the actor who played Will Smith’s aunt in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1991 (Janet Hubert).

Memory is weird, unpredictable and, neuroscientifically, not yet entirely understood. When memory lapses like mine happen (which they do, a lot), it feels both easy and logical to blame the technology we’ve so recently adopted. Does having more memory in our pockets mean there’s less in our heads? Am I losing my ability to remember things – from appointments to what I was about to do next – because I expect my phone to do it for me? Before smartphones, our heads would have held a cache of phone numbers and our memories would contain a cognitive map, built up over time, which would allow us to navigate – for smartphone users, that is no longer true.

Our brains and our smartphones form a complex web of interactions: the smartphonification of life has been rising since the mid 2000s, but was accelerated by the pandemic, as was internet use in general. Prolonged periods of stress, isolation and exhaustion – common themes since March 2020 – are well known for their impact on memory. Of those surveyed by memory researcher Catherine Loveday in 2021, 80% felt that their memories were worse than before the pandemic. We are – still – shattered, not just by Covid-19, but also by the miserable national and global news cycle. Many of us self-soothe with distractions like social media.

Meanwhile, endless scrolling can, at times, create its own distress, and phone notifications and self interrupting to check for them, also seem to affect what, how and if we remember. So what happens when we outsource part of our memory to an external device? Does it enable us to squeeze more and more out of life, because we aren’t as reliant on our fallible brains to cue things up for us? Are we so reliant on smartphones that they will ultimately change how our memories work (sometimes called digital amnesia)? Or do we just occasionally miss stuff when we don’t remember the reminders?

Neuroscientists are divided. Chris Bird is professor of cognitive neuroscience in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex and runs research by the Episodic Memory Group. “We have always offloaded things into external devices, like writing down notes, and that’s enabled us to have more complex lives,” he says. “I don’t have a problem with using external devices to augment our thought processes or memory processes. We’re doing it more, but that frees up time to concentrate, focus on and remember other things.” He thinks that the kind of things we use our phones to remember are, for most human brains, difficult to remember.

“I take a photo of my parking ticket so I know when it runs out, because it’s an arbitrary thing to remember. Our brains aren’t evolved to remember highly specific, one-off things. Before we had devices, you would have to make a quite an effort to remember the time you needed to be back at your car.” Professor Oliver Hardt, who studies the neurobiology of memory and forgetting at McGill University in Montreal, is much more cautious. “Once you stop using your memory it will get worse, which makes you use your devices even more,” he says. “We use them for everything.

If you go to a website for a recipe, you press a button and it sends the ingredient list to your smartphone. It’s very convenient, but convenience has a price. It’s good for you to do certain things in your head.” Hardt is not keen on our reliance on GPS. “We can predict that prolonged use of GPS likely will reduce grey matter density in the hippocampus. Reduced grey matter density in this brain area goes along with a variety of symptoms, such as increased risk for depression and other psychopathologies, but also certain forms of dementia.

GPS-based navigational systems don’t require you to form a complex geographic map. Instead, they just tell you orientations, like ‘Turn left at next light.’ These are very simple behavioural responses (here: turn left) at a certain stimulus (here: traffic light). These kinds of spatial behaviours do not engage the hippocampus very much, unlike those spatial strategies that require the knowledge of a geographic map, in which you can locate any point, coming from any direction and which requires [cognitively] complex computations.

When exploring the spatial capacities of people who have been using GPS for a very long time, they show impairments in spatial memory abilities that require the hippocampus. Map reading is hard and that’s why we give it away to devices so easily. But hard things are good for you, because they engage cognitive processes and brain structures that have other effects on your general cognitive functioning.”

Hardt doesn’t have data yet, but believes, “the cost of this might be an enormous increase in dementia. The less you use that mind of yours, the less you use the systems that are responsible for complicated things like episodic memories, or cognitive flexibility, the more likely it is to develop dementia. There are studies showing that, for example, it is really hard to get dementia when you are a university professor, and the reason is not that these people are smarter – it’s that until old age, they are habitually engaged in tasks that are very mentally demanding.”

(Other scientists disagree – Daniel Schacter, a Harvard psychologist who wrote the seminal Seven Sins Of Memory: How The Mind Forgets and Remembers, thinks effects from things like GPS are “task specific”, only.) While smartphones can obviously open up whole new vistas of knowledge, they can also drag us away from the present moment, like it’s a beautiful day, unexperienced because you’re head down, WhatsApping a meal or a conversation. When we’re not attending to an experience, we are less likely to recall it properly, and fewer recalled experiences could even limit our capacity to have new ideas and being creative.

As the renowned neuroscientist and memory researcher Wendy Suzuki recently put it on the Huberman Lab neuroscience podcast, “If we can’t remember what we’ve done, the information we’ve learned and the events of our lives, it changes us… [The part of the brain which remembers] really defines our personal histories. It defines who we are.” Catherine Price, science writer and author of How to Break Up With Your Phone, concurs. “What we pay attention to in the moment adds up to our life,” she says. “Our brains cannot multitask. We think we can. But any moment where multitasking seems successful, it’s because one of those tasks was not cognitively demanding, like you can fold laundry and listen to the radio.

If you’re paying attention to your phone, you’re not paying attention to anything else. That might seem like a throwaway observation, but it’s actually deeply profound. Because you will only remember the things you pay attention to. If you’re not paying attention, you’re literally not going to have a memory of it to remember.”

The Cambridge neuroscientist Barbara Sahakian has evidence of this, too. “In an experiment in 2010, three different groups had to complete a reading task,” she says. “One group got instant messaging before it started, one got instant messaging during the task, and one got no instant messaging, and then there was a comprehension test. What they found was that the people getting instant messages couldn’t remember what they just read.”

Price is much more worried about what being perpetually distracted by our phones – termed “continual partial attention” by the tech expert Linda Stone – does to our memories than using their simpler functions. “I’m not getting distracted by my address book,” she says. And she doesn’t believe smartphones free us up to do more. “Let’s be real with ourselves: how many of us are using the time afforded us by our banking app to write poetry? We just passively consume crap on Instagram.” Price is from Philadelphia. “What would have happened if Benjamin Franklin had had Twitter?

Would he have been on Twitter all the time? Would he have made his inventions and breakthroughs? “I became really interested in whether the constant distractions caused by our devices might be impacting our ability to actually not just accumulate memories to begin with, but transfer them into long-term storage in a way that might impede our ability to think deep and interesting thoughts,” she says. “One of the things that impedes our brain’s ability to transfer memories from short- to long-term storage is distraction.

If you get distracted in the middle of it” – by a notification, or by the overwhelming urge to pick up your phone – “you’re not actually going to have the physical changes take place that are required to store that memory.” It’s impossible to know for sure, because no one measured our level of intellectual creativity before smartphones took off, but Price thinks smartphone over-use could be harming our ability to be insightful. “An insight is being able to connect two disparate things in your mind. But in order to have an insight and be creative, you have to have a lot of raw material in your brain, like you couldn’t cook a recipe if you didn’t have any ingredients:

You can’t have an insight if you don’t have the material in your brain, which really is long term memories.” (Her theory was backed by the 92-year-old Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist and biochemist Eric Kandel, who has studied how distraction affects memory – Price bumped into him on a train and grilled him about her idea. “I’ve got a selfie of me with a giant grin and Eric looking a bit confused.”) Psychologist professor Larry Rosen, co-author (with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley) of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, also agrees: “Constant distractions make it difficult to encode information in memory.”

Smartphones are, of course, made to hijack our attention. “The apps that make money by taking our attention are designed to interrupt us,” says Price. “I think of notifications as interruptions because that’s what they’re doing.” For Oliver Hardt, phones exploit our biology. “A human is a very vulnerable animal and the only reason we are not extinct is that we have a superior brain: to avoid predation and find food, we have had to be really good at being attentive to our environment. Our attention can shift rapidly around and when it does, everything else that was being attended to stops, which is why we can’t multitask.

When we focus on something, it’s a survival mechanism: you’re in the savannah or the jungle and you hear a branch cracking, you give your total attention to that – which is useful, it causes a short stress reaction, a slight arousal, and activates the sympathetic nervous system. It optimises your cognitive abilities and sets the body up for fighting or flighting.” But it’s much less useful now. “Now, 30,000 years later, we’re here with that exact brain” and every phone notification we hear is a twig snapping in the forest, “simulating what was important to what we were: a frightened little animal.”

Smartphone use can even change the brain, according to the ongoing ABCD study which is tracking over 10,000 American children through to adulthood. “It started by examining 10-year-olds both with paper and pencil measures and an MRI, and one of their most interesting early results was that there was a relationship between tech use and cortical thinning,” says Larry Rosen, who studies social media, technology and the brain. “Young children who use more tech had a thinner cortex, which is supposed to happen at an older age.”

Cortical thinning is a normal part of growing up and then ageing, and in much later life can be associated with degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as migraines. Obviously, the smartphone genie is out of the bottle and has run over the hills and far away. We need our smartphones to access offices, attend events, pay for travel and to function as tickets, passes and credit cards, as well as for emails, calls and messages. It’s very hard not to have one. If we’re worried about what they – or the apps on them – might be doing to our memories, what should we do?

Rosen discusses a number of tactics in his book. “My favourites are tech breaks,” he says, “where you start by doing whatever on your devices for one minute and then set an alarm for 15 minutes time. Silence your phone and place it upside down, but within your view as a stimulus to tell your brain that you will have another one-minute tech break after the 15-minute alarm. Continue until you adapt to 15 minutes focus time and then increase to 20. If you can get to 60 minutes of focus time with short tech breaks before and after, that’s a success.”

“If you think your memory and focus have got worse and you’re blaming things like your age, your job, or your kids, that might be true, but it’s also very likely due to the way you’re interacting with your devices,” says Price, who founded Screen/Life Balance to help people manage their phone use. As a science writer, she’s “very much into randomly controlled trials, but with phones, it’s actually more of a qualitative question about personally how it’s impacting you. And it’s really easy to do your own experiment and see if it makes a difference. It’s great to have scientific evidence.

But we can also intuitively know: if you practice keeping your phone away more and you notice that you feel calmer and you’re remembering more, then you’ve answered your own question.”

By:

Source: Is your smartphone ruining your memory? A special report on the rise of ‘digital amnesia’ | Memory | The Guardian

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Hunger is Rising, COVID-19 Will Make it Worse

The economic crisis and food system disruptions from the Covid-19 pandemic will worsen the lack of nutrition in women and children, with the potential to cost the world almost $30 billion in future productivity losses. As many as 3 billion people may be unable to afford a healthy diet due to the pandemic, according to a study published in Nature Food journal. This will exacerbate maternal and child under-nutrition in low- and middle-income countries, causing stunting, wasting, mortality and maternal anemia.

Nearly 690 million people were undernourished in 2019, up by almost 60 million since 2014. Nearly half of all deaths in children under age five are attributable to undernutrition and, regrettably, stunting and wasting still have strong impacts worldwide.

In 2019, 21 per cent of all children under age five (144 million) were stunted and 49.5 million children experienced wasting.The effects of the pandemic will increase child hunger, and an additional 6.7 million children are predicted to be wasted by the end of 2020 due to the pandemic’s impact.

The situation continues to be most alarming in Africa: 19 per cent of its population is under-nourished (more than 250 million people), with the highest prevalence of undernourishment among all global regions. Africa is the only region where the number of stunted children has risen since 2000.

Women and girls represent more than 70 per cent of people facing chronic hunger. They are more likely to reduce their meal intake in times of food scarcity and may be pushed to engage in negative coping mechanisms, such as transactional sex and child, early and forced marriage.

Extreme climatic events drove almost 34 million people into food crisis in 25 countries in 2019, 77 per cent of them in Africa. The number of people pushed into food crisis by economic shocks more than doubled to 24 million in eight countries in 2019 (compared to 10 million people in six countries the previous year).

Food insecurity is set to get much worse unless unsustainable global food systems are addressed. Soils around the world are heading for exhaustion and depletion. An estimated 33 per cent of global soils are already degraded, endangering food production and the provision of vital ecosystem services.

Evidence from food security assessments and analysis shows that COVID-19 has had a compounding effect on pre-existing vulnerabilities and stressors in countries with pre-existing food crises. In Sudan, an estimated 9.6 million people (21 per cent of the population) were experiencing crisis or worse levels of food insecurity (IPC/CH Phase 3 or above) in the third quarter of 2020 and needed urgent action. This is the highest figure ever recorded for Sudan.

Food security needs are set to increase dramatically in 2021 as the pandemic and global response measures seriously affect food systems worldwide. Entire food supply chains have been disrupted, and the cost of a basic food basket increased by more than 10 per cent in 20 countries in the second quarter of 2020.

Delays in the farming season due to disruptions in supply chains and restrictions on labour movement are resulting in below-average harvests across many countries and regions.  This is magnified by pre-existing or seasonal threats and vulnerabilities, such as conflict and violence, looming hurricane and monsoon seasons, and locust infestations. Further climatic changes are expected from La Niña.

Forecasters predict a 55 per cent change in climate conditions through the first quarter of 2021, impacting sea temperatures, rainfall patterns and hurricane activity. The ensuing floods and droughts that could result from La Niña will affect farming seasons worldwide, potentially decreasing crop yields and increasing food insecurity levels.

The devastating impact of COVID-19 is still playing out in terms of rising unemployment, shattered livelihoods and increasing hunger. Families are finding it harder to put healthy food on a plate, child malnutrition is threatening millions. The risk of famine is real in places like Burkina Faso, north-eastern Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen.

COVID-19 has ushered hunger into the lives of more urban communities while placing the vulnerable, such as IDPs, refugees, migrants, older persons, women and girls, people caught in conflict, and those living at the sharp end of climate change at higher risk of starvation. The pandemic hit at a time when the number of acutely food-insecure people in the world had already risen since 2014, largely due to conflict, climate change and economic shocks.

Acute food-insecurity is projected to increase by more than 80 percent – from 149 million pre-COVID-19, to 270 million by the end of 2020 – in 79 of the countries where WFP works. The number of people in crisis or worse (IPC/CH Phase 3 or above) almost tripled in Burkina Faso compared to the 2019 peak of the food insecurity situation, with 11,000 people facing catastrophic hunger (IPC/CH Phase 5) in mid-2020.

For populations in IPC3 and above, urgent and sustained humanitarian assistance is required to prevent a deterioration in the hunger situation. It is alarming that in 2020, insufficient funds left food security partners unable to deliver the assistance required. For example, sustained food ration reductions in Yemen have directly contributed to reduced food consumption since March. Today, Yemen is one of four countries at real risk of famine.

Source: https://gho.unocha.org/

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Critics:

During the COVID-19 pandemic, food security has been a global concern – in the second quarter of 2020 there were multiple warnings of famine later in the year. According to early predictions, hundreds of thousands of people would likely die and millions more experience hunger without concerted efforts to address issues of food security.

As of October 2020, these efforts were reducing the risk of widespread starvation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Famines were feared as a result of the COVID-19 recession and some of the measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Additionally, the 2019–2021 locust infestation, ongoing wars and political turmoil in some nations were also viewed as local causes of hunger.

In September 2020, David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, addressed the United Nations Security Council, stating that measures taken by donor countries over the course of the preceding five months, including the provision of $17 trillion in fiscal stimulus and central bank support, the suspension of debt repayments instituted by the IMF and G20 countries for the benefit of poorer countries, and donor support for WFP programmes, had averted impending famine, helping 270 million people at risk of starvation.

References:

 

Four Causes For ‘Zoom Fatigue’ & Their Solutions

Professor Jeremy Bailenson examined the psychological consequences of spending hours per day on Zoom and other popular video chat platforms. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Even as more people are logging onto popular video chat platforms to connect with colleagues, family and friends during the COVID-19 pandemic, Stanford researchers have a warning for you: Those video calls are likely tiring you out.

Prompted by the recent boom in videoconferencing, communication Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), examined the psychological consequences of spending hours per day on these platforms. Just as “Googling” is something akin to any web search, the term “Zooming” has become ubiquitous and a generic verb to replace videoconferencing. Virtual meetings have skyrocketed, with hundreds of millions happening daily, as social distancing protocols have kept people apart physically.

In the first peer-reviewed article that systematically deconstructs Zoom fatigue from a psychological perspective, published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behavior on Feb. 23, Bailenson has taken the medium apart and assessed Zoom on its individual technical aspects. He has identified four consequences of prolonged video chats that he says contribute to the feeling commonly known as “Zoom fatigue.”

Bailenson stressed that his goal is not to vilify any particular videoconferencing platform – he appreciates and uses tools like Zoom regularly – but to highlight how current implementations of videoconferencing technologies are exhausting and to suggest interface changes, many of which are simple to implement. Moreover, he provides suggestions for consumers and organizations on how to leverage the current features on videoconferences to decrease fatigue.

Below are four primary reasons why video chats fatigue humans, according to the study. Readers are also invited to participate in a research study aimed at developing a Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale (ZEF) Scale.

Four reasons why

1) Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is highly intense.

Both the amount of eye contact we engage in on video chats, as well as the size of faces on screens is unnatural.

In a normal meeting, people will variously be looking at the speaker, taking notes or looking elsewhere. But on Zoom calls, everyone is looking at everyone, all the time. A listener is treated nonverbally like a speaker, so even if you don’t speak once in a meeting, you are still looking at faces staring at you. The amount of eye contact is dramatically increased. “Social anxiety of public speaking is one of the biggest phobias that exists in our population,” Bailenson said. “When you’re standing up there and everybody’s staring at you, that’s a stressful experience.”

Another source of stress is that, depending on your monitor size and whether you’re using an external monitor, faces on videoconferencing calls can appear too large for comfort. “In general, for most setups, if it’s a one-on-one conversation when you’re with coworkers or even strangers on video, you’re seeing their face at a size which simulates a personal space that you normally experience when you’re with somebody intimately,” Bailenson said.

When someone’s face is that close to ours in real life, our brains interpret it as an intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict. “What’s happening, in effect, when you’re using Zoom for many, many hours is you’re in this hyper-aroused state,” Bailenson said.

Solution: Until the platforms change their interface, Bailenson recommends taking Zoom out of the full-screen option and reducing the size of the Zoom window relative to the monitor to minimize face size, and to use an external keyboard to allow an increase in the personal space bubble between oneself and the grid.

2) Seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is fatiguing.

Most video platforms show a square of what you look like on camera during a chat. But that’s unnatural, Bailenson said. “In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly – so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback – you were seeing yourself in a mirror, that would just be crazy. No one would ever consider that,” he added.

Bailenson cited studies showing that when you see a reflection of yourself, you are more critical of yourself. Many of us are now seeing ourselves on video chats for many hours every day. “It’s taxing on us. It’s stressful. And there’s lots of research showing that there are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror.”

Solution: Bailenson recommends that platforms change the default practice of beaming the video to both self and others, when it only needs to be sent to others. In the meantime, users should use the “hide self-view” button, which one can access by right-clicking their own photo, once they see their face is framed properly in the video.

3) Video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility.

In-person and audio phone conversations allow humans to walk around and move. But with videoconferencing, most cameras have a set field of view, meaning a person has to generally stay in the same spot. Movement is limited in ways that are not natural. “There’s a growing research now that says when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively,” Bailenson said.

Solution: Bailenson recommends people think more about the room they’re videoconferencing in, where the camera is positioned and whether things like an external keyboard can help create distance or flexibility. For example, an external camera farther away from the screen will allow you to pace and doodle in virtual meetings just like we do in real ones. And of course, turning one’s video off periodically during meetings is a good ground rule to set for groups, just to give oneself a brief nonverbal rest.

4) The cognitive load is much higher in video chats.

Bailenson notes that in regular face-to-face interaction, nonverbal communication is quite natural and each of us naturally makes and interprets gestures and nonverbal cues subconsciously. But in video chats, we have to work harder to send and receive signals.

In effect, Bailenson said, humans have taken one of the most natural things in the world – an in-person conversation – and transformed it into something that involves a lot of thought: “You’ve got to make sure that your head is framed within the center of the video. If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up. That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate.”

Gestures could also mean different things in a video meeting context. A sidelong glance to someone during an in-person meeting means something very different than a person on a video chat grid looking off-screen to their child who just walked into their home office.

Solution: During long stretches of meetings, give yourself an “audio only” break. “This is not simply you turning off your camera to take a break from having to be nonverbally active, but also turning your body away from the screen,” Bailenson said, “so that for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.”

ZEF Scale

Many organizations – including schools, large companies and government entities – have reached out to Stanford communication researchers to better understand how to create best practices for their particular videoconferencing setup and how to come up with institutional guidelines. Bailenson – along with Jeff Hancock, founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab; Géraldine Fauville, former postdoctoral researcher at the VHIL; Mufan Luo; graduate student at Stanford; and Anna Queiroz, postdoc at VHIL – responded by devising the Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale, or ZEF Scale, to help measure how much fatigue people are experiencing in the workplace from videoconferencing.

The scale, detailed in a recent, not yet peer-reviewed paper published on the preprint website SSRN, advances research on how to measure fatigue from interpersonal technology, as well as what causes the fatigue. The scale is a 15-item questionnaire, which is freely available, and has been tested now across five separate studies over the past year with over 500 participants. It asks questions about a person’s general fatigue, physical fatigue, social fatigue, emotional fatigue and motivational fatigue. Some sample questions include:

  • How exhausted do you feel after videoconferencing?
  • How irritated do your eyes feel after videoconferencing?
  • How much do you tend to avoid social situations after videoconferencing?
  • How emotionally drained do you feel after videoconferencing?
  • How often do you feel too tired to do other things after videoconferencing?

Hancock said results from the scale can help change the technology so the stressors are reduced.

He notes that humans have been here before. “When we first had elevators, we didn’t know whether we should stare at each other or not in that space. More recently, ridesharing has brought up questions about whether you talk to the driver or not, or whether to get in the back seat or the passenger seat,” Hancock explained. “We had to evolve ways to make it work for us. We’re in that era now with videoconferencing, and understanding the mechanisms will help us understand the optimal way to do things for different settings, different organizations and different kinds of meetings.”

“Hopefully, our work will contribute to uncovering the roots of this problem and help people adapt their videoconference practices to alleviate ‘Zoom fatigue,’” added Fauville, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. “This could also inform videoconference platform designers to challenge and rethink some of the paradigm videoconferences have been built on.”

If you are interested in measuring your own Zoom fatigue, you can take the survey here and participate in the research project.

By Vignesh Ramachandran

Source: Four causes for ‘Zoom fatigue’ and their solutions | Stanford News

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