Monday, August 29, 2016

Humpday Hint: How to Avoid Computer Vision Syndrome

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

The unparalleled spread of technology in the last 50 years has produced a crop of medical conditions unique to it. Technology evolves far faster than human biology can adapt, and one result is the profusion of technology-based maladies which include everything from deep vein thrombosis to carpal tunnel syndrome and chronic back pain.

One such condition is Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) -- a form of eye strain and fatigue which creeps up on those who spend more than 3 hours a day at their computers.1 But with 40% of the planet's population now hooked up to the Internet,2 and the computerisation of most of the world's workplaces, it means billions of computer users are actually staring at their screens for much longer than 3 hours a day. Desk-bound jobs can mean people stay at their computers for the entire working day. As computerisation in the 21st century becomes more of a necessity than an option, professionals and others at potential risk include accountants, architects, bankers, engineers, flight controllers, graphic artists, journalists, academicians, secretaries and students, all of whom cannot work without the aid of computers.3 Then there are the gamers and virtual environment users: millions of children and adolescents play computer games for hours each day; similarly, users of virtual worlds such as Second Life and OpenSim are known for regularly spending half a day inworld; MMORPG and video gamers can be just as screen-bound.

Computer vision syndrome, as such, is a health problem which is increasingly common. Symptoms include dry eyes, red eyes, blurred vision, double vision, eye irritation or burning, chronic headaches, and neck or back pain.4 Statistics indicate that 70 to 90 percent of people who use computers extensively suffer from one or more symptoms of CVS.5 There is also concern that heavy computer use may put children at risk for early myopia:6 a 2009 study conducted by the National Eye Institute noted that the prevalence of nearsightedness among Americans had increased from 25 to 41.6 percent of the population in the 30 years since 1972 -- an increase of over 66 percent.7 While the study offered no conclusions for these statistics, it is interesting to note that the years 1974 -1977 saw the arrival of the first personal computers on the market -- among them the Scelbi & Mark-8 Altair, IBM 5100, RadioShack's TRS-80 and the Commodore PET8 -- events which kicked off a personal computing frenzy in history which continues to this day.

A key reason for CVS's overwhelming impact is that every sighted person who uses a computer screen is subject to its digitalised display aspects. Unlike words printed on paper which have sharply defined edges, the electronic characters generated by a computer monitor are made up of tiny pixels, creating blurred outlines. The blurred edges make it difficult for our eyes to maintain focus, and they "repeatedly attempt to rest by shifting their focus to an area behind the screen, and this constant switch between screen and relaxation point creates eyestrain and fatigue."9 There are additional factors contributing to CVS: the tendency to blink less while staring at screens (our blink rate drops from 17 or more blinks a minute to 12 - 15 blinks); a distance between eyes and screen which isn't optimal for comfortable focus (20 - 26 inches from the face); and screens which are placed too high (the centre of the monitor should be 4 - 8 inches lower than the eyes) which lead to too much exposure of the eye surface and neck discomfort.10

So what can we do? There are quite a few tricks we can utilise to lessen the risk of CVS.

  • Ensure that there is sufficient contrast on the screen, such as black writing on a white background.
  • Try to keep the screen brighter than the ambient light, so that your eyes do not strain to make out what is on the screen.
  • Keep your monitor brighter rather than dimmer (but not TOO bright), as a brighter monitor encourages the pupils to constrict, thus allowing your eyes a greater range of focus.
  • Avoid facing a sunlit window if you can, or use window shades to reduce glare.
  • Anti-glare covers for flat screen monitors are also available, as are glare-reducing spectacles.
  • Use a font size that is comfortable for your eyes - if you find yourself constantly squinting or leaning forward to read what is on the screen, the font size is too small.
  • Keep the screen free of dust, and if you have to, get a monitor with a high-resolution display.11

In addition, have your eyes examined regularly, and keep your prescription up to date. The American Academy of Ophthalmology also suggests the "20-20-20" rule for computer users: every 20 minutes, look at something at least 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds. They also suggest using artificial tears to hydrate dry eyes, and using a humidifier.12 If, despite all these precautions, your eyes remain problematic, see your ophthalmologist.

References

1 Computer Vision Syndrome Affects Millions, Jane E. Brody

2 Internet Live Stats

3 Impact of Computer Technology on Health: Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), T.R. Akinbinu & Y.J. Mashalla

4 Computer Vision Syndrome Affects Millions, Jane E. Brody

5 Impact of Computer Technology on Health: Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), T.R. Akinbinu & Y.J. Mashalla

6 Children and Computer Vision Syndrome, Gary Heiting & Larry K. Wan

7 Increased Prevalence of Myopia in the United States Between 1971-1972 and 1999-2004, Susan Vitale, et al, JAMA Ophthalmology

8 History of Computers: A Brief Timeline, Kim Ann Zimmermann, LiveScience

9 Computer Vision Syndrome Affects Millions, Jane E. Brody

10 ibid.

11 ibid.

12 Computers, Digital Devices and Eye Strain, American Academy of Ophthalmology

Friday, August 26, 2016

Research Shows Two Ways to Lose Weight Without Increasing Exercise

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

For some of us with certain disabilities, losing weight can be a challenge. Spinal cord injuries and chronic pain conditions, for example, can make exercising difficult if not impossible. As we get older, losing weight also becomes harder as our metabolisms slow down. Consequently, for many of us, watching our diet is the only way to keep our weight constant. The following two methods of losing weight will be useful to those of us who cannot increase the amount of exercise we already do, or indeed, exercise at all.

Method #1: Increase the length of your fasting period at night

In January 2016, the University of Surrey teamed up with BBC Two's Trust Me, I'm A Doctor's (TMIAD) medical team to conduct a first-ever experiment on time-restricted food intake and weight loss, on humans.1 Prior studies on mice had already revealed that moving their feeding times closer together in the day, which produced a longer 'fasting' period overnight during which no food was eaten, resulted in the mice losing weight and acquiring healthier blood sugar and cholesterol levels - even though they consumed exactly the same food and number of calories.2,3 The University of Surrey and TMIAD carried out an equivalent controlled and randomised study with 16 human volunteers over 10 weeks. Half the subjects carried on with their normal routines. The other half took their breakfasts later by 90 minutes, and their dinners earlier by 90 minutes, effectively extending their 'fasting' period at night by 3 hours. All subjects ate the same amounts of food as normal. At the end of 10 weeks, the time-restricted group had lost body fat, and showed significantly healthier changes in fasting blood sugar and cholesterol levels, than the control group. There was no difference in the groups' blood fats (triglycerides).4

Researchers believe two factors are at work. The first is that intermittent fasts can be good for you, by limiting the body's expression of an insulin-like growth hormone called IGF-1. Food consumption generates IGF-1, which keeps the body in a 'growth' or 'go' state, where cells are driven to reproduce and facilitate growth. This state also speeds up the aging process. University of Southern California's biogerontologist Professor Valter Longo compares the 'growth' mode to "driving along with your foot hard on the accelerator pedal." Fasting, however, reduces IGF-1 and encourages the body to go into 'repair' mode, by switching on DNA repair genes.5

The second factor is that your body has a 'body clock' which regulates how it deals with food over the 24 hour period. Your body starts preparing naturally for sleep and night-time fasting towards the evening. Melatonin hormonal levels, which are associated with sleep, begin to rise, and along with them, blood fat and sugar levels. This occurs because the body is preparing to handle the impending fast by bringing fats out of storage. Consequently, eating during this period when blood sugar and fat levels are already high, can be harmful to your health.6

Method #2: Eat BEFORE exercise if you are female, AFTER if you are male

Yet another "world-first" experiment was conducted by the University of Surrey and BBC Two's Trust Me, I'm A Doctor television series in January 2016.7 Like the experiment on time-restricted feeding, this second experiment was conducted to see if levels of body fat responded to a minor change in daily routine. Research by nutritionist Dr Adam Collins had suggested that the amount of fat people burned off during exercise responded to whether they exercised before or after they ate - and that this sequence was different for women and men.8 TMIAD and the University of Surrey carried out a randomised and controlled 4 week experiment with 30 volunteers, putting them through a regime of exercise conducted both before and after consumption of carbohydrate drinks or placebos.9

The results supported Dr Collins' previous studies: men and women burn carbohydrates differently. TMIAD noted that: "Men are very much 'carbohydrate burners' - if as a man you eat carbohydrate then your body is going to burn it rather than fat. Just giving the men carbohydrate at any time in our experiment made them burn a bit less fat!"10 This means that if you are a man, it is better to eat AFTER exercising, as this will force your body to burn off fat in the absence of carbohydrates. For women, the opposite is at work: Eat BEFORE exercising if you want to burn more fat. This is because women's bodies "tend to burn fat more easily than men's, and are not fueled so much by carbohydrate. Moreover, women are much better at conserving carbohydrate during exercise. So when women eat carbohydrate soon after exercise, this is effectively overloading them with fuel, and interferes with the body's ability to burn fat."11

References

1 The big experiment: Could I lose fat just by changing my meal times?, Trust Me, I'm A Doctor, BBC Two

2 Time-restricted feeding without reducing calorie intake prevents metabolic diseases in mice fed a high-fat diet, Megumi Hatori, et al, Cell Metabolism

3 Time-restricted feeding and risk of metabolic disease: A review of human and animal studies, Jeff Rothschild, et al, Nutrition Reviews

4 The big experiment: Could I lose fat just by changing my meal times?, Trust Me, I'm A Doctor, BBC Two

5 The 5:2 diet: Can it help you lose weight and live longer?, Michael Mosley, The Telegraph

6 Is eating in the evenings bad for me?, Trust Me, I'm A Doctor, BBC Two

7 Trust Me, I'm A Doctor, Series 4, Episode 1 Guide, BBC Two

8 The effect of food timing on fat oxidation during exercise and resting recovery, M. Honnor, et al, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society (2012), 71 (OCE3), E236

9 The big experiment: How can I get my body to burn more fat, without doing more exercise?, Trust Me, I'm A Doctor, BBC Two

10 ibid.

11 ibid.

Image from Pixabay

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Humpday Hint: Prioritise Practicality Before Perfection

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

As an autism spectrum individual, the Tortoise experiences and understands the frustration of not getting things 'right' or 'perfect' enough. While 'perfect' implies that nothing more can be done to something to increase the quality or impeccability of its shape, sound, look, position, etc, and hence is an entirely subjective term, it also refers, at least in this individual's case, to a personal bar of acceptability, a clear mental and sensory point which divides "not good enough: carry on" from "good enough: stop now". Because this point is so definitive in its feel and presence, there is no question about discontinuing a (specific) task until the 'stop' signal has been triggered. This can generate huge amounts of frustration and anxiety if, for some reason, you cannot get something 'right' enough to suit you. On the other hand, getting something 'just right' can produce feelings of immense satisfaction and achievement. So how can someone prone to perfectionist tendencies help themselves?

Self-confessed perfectionist,1 clinical psychologist, and executive director of the International OCD Foundation Dr. Jeff Szymanski says perfectionism can be a strong suit or a stumbling block, depending on how it is channeled.2 He explains:

The core of all perfectionism is the intention to do something well...If you can keep your eye on intention and desired outcome, adjusting your strategy when needed, you're fine.... But when you can't tolerate making a mistake, when your strategy is to make no mistakes, that's when perfectionism starts veering off in the wrong direction.3

If unchecked, the urge for perfectionism can lead to the inability to complete any task for fear of making a mistake. To help perfectionists prioritise appropriately, Dr Szymanski offers the following exercise:4

Task: To identify projects and activities that are most important to you, and to keep your personal strategy in line.

Ask yourself: What do you find valuable in life? What would you want 50 years of your life to represent? If that seems overwhelming, think about where you want to put your energies for the next 5 years.

Think about your current goals and projects, and assign them priorities. Use the letters 'A,B,C,F' to help you decide where you want to excel (A), be above average (B), be average (C), or identify what you can let go of (F). For example:

  • A (100% effort): This is reserved for what is most important to you. For example, if your career is most valuable to you, your goals might be to impress the boss, make sure clients are happy, put out good products at work.
  • B (above average, maybe 80% effort): Reserved for things important but not critical. Perhaps you like playing golf or tennis or want to learn a new language. You enjoy these activities, but have no plans to go pro.
  • C (average effort): Reserved for tasks that simply don't need to rule your life. Perhaps having a clean home is important... but how often does your home need to be cleaned? People are not coming to see it every day. Could you just clean up on the weekends? Or focus on a few rooms that get the most traffic?
  • F (no effort): Reserved for time-consumers that do not advance your values or bring you pleasure -- for example, lining up all your clothes hangers or folding all your clothes in a specific way. Do you have any tasks, upon reflection, that don't really matter -- you've just done them one way for so long that you're on autopilot? These deserve to be pruned.

References

1 Learn the Art of being Practically Perfect, Dr. Jeff Szymanski

2 Trying to be perfect can cause anxiety, Harvard Medical School, Healthbeat

3 ibid.

4 ibid.

Images from Pixabay

Monday, August 22, 2016

Handling Obsessional Thoughts

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

Some of us suffering from depression and anxiety also experience repetitive or obsessional thoughts. These are thoughts which come upon you with remarkable clarity and power, with incredible insistence, and which defy attempts to stop their recurrence. They are intrusive, meaning you are not consciously choosing to think them. They repeat themselves, or simply take hold and 'stay'. They rarely respond to conscious attempts to rationalise them, or 'argue them out' - in fact, the more you think about them, the worse the spiral gets. They can take on a life of their own. Some of them are powerful enough to seem like actual 'voices' in your head. And for some reason, obsessional thoughts are rarely 'happy' or 'good' thoughts, being disturbing, dark and discouraging more often than not.

Mental health advocate and Project Beyond Blue founder Therese Borchard, herself a long-time sufferer of obsessional thoughts or 'stuck thoughts', as she calls them, offers some advice for dealing with them. Borchard is the author of three books on the topic of depression, and the recipient of the 2014 Ray of Light Award from the Dave Nee Foundation.1

Here are 14 of her personal tips to help alleviate the persistence of obsessional thoughts:

  1. Don't Talk Back.
    Trying to respond with logic to an obsessional thought can actually empower it instead of quieting it. The more you try to analyse the obsession, the more attention and focus you give it, and the more it achieves central placement in your mind. Do not dwell on it. Do not argue with it. Do not feed the thought.
  2. Know It Will Pass.
    According to Borchard, her obsessional thoughts can last two or three days. During this time, she "bears with them and ... refrains from doing anything stupid", and eventually, she says, "my brain would be mine again".2 Obsessional thoughts are not permanent. Keep telling yourself they will be gone soon enough.
  3. Focus on Now.
    Borchard says that obsessional thoughts are very often based in the past, as with feelings of regret, etc., or focused on the future. She says that stuck thoughts rarely obsess about things happening in the present, "because we are too busy living this moment."3 So the more we are able to focus on what is happening to us NOW, such as being around people and holding a conversation with them, the more we are able to escape the obsessional thought.
  4. Tune Into the Senses.
    For Borchard, our five senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching are powerful tools which can help break the chain of obsessional thinking. She describes how the sudden grip of her young daughter's hand helped her refocus during a moment of obsessional thought.4 By concentrating on the very immediate, tangible and attention-holding powers of sound, sight, taste, smell and touch, we can push aside a stuck thought.
  5. Do Something Else.
    Distraction is a good tactic for moving stuck thoughts to one side. Read a good book. Watch a riveting film. Work on a puzzle. Listen to some music and sing along. Engage in something you LIKE, that allows your mind to change gears and escape from the obssession.
  6. Change Your Obsession.
    If necessary, replace an undesirable or damaging obsession with a different and less destructive one. Borchard cites an example where a "benign" obsession with securing a restaurant booth in the face of competition took the place of another stuck thought which had been plaguing her.5 Redirection of this sort can help steer the brain away from more destructive obsessions to less worrying ones, if nothing else works.
  7. Blame the Chemistry.
    Remind yourself that obsessional thoughts are, like Borchard says, the result of "special biochemistry inside my noggin [which] is wired to ruminate a LOT."6 Reminding yourself that YOU are not to blame for these thoughts, but rather your biochemical genetics, can help you box up the obsessive process and push it away from you. As Borchard notes, remembering that it is really the fault of her chemistry gives her "great relief".7
  8. Picture It.
    In her article, Borchard describes how watching her young son, who also suffers from obsessional thoughts, can help her. Believing his stuck thoughts to be 'real', her son reacts with bizarre behaviour and language. Borchard says watching his temper tantrums are helpful to her because they serve "as a display of what's going on inside my head, and when I can visualize it, I see how ridiculous it all looks."8
  9. Do the Thing in Front of You.
    When panic engulfs her, and her thoughts spin out of control, Borchard concentrates on the task right in front of her.9 That could be crafting a single sentence, or helping the children with their homework, or making a snack. Concentrating hard on the immediate task before you helps to narrow your mind's focus and to block out peripheral intrusions by unwanted thoughts - a form of protective tunnel vision for your brain.
  10. Rely on Other Brains.
    When your mind is deep in the grip of obsessional thoughts, it is not reliable as a gauge of what is accurate or not. During episodes of stuck thoughts, logic and perspective go out the window. At such times, trust the perspectives of your friends and loved ones. Believe them when they say, "It's NOT you, it's just faulty wiring!" Borchard writes down what her friends tell her, and uses the information to refute her own obsessional mislogic. As she says, "I try to trust them because I know I can't trust my own brain."10
  11. Investigate the Thought (briefly).
    Although Borchard tells us at the beginning that arguing with a stuck thought can be the worst thing you can do, she also acknowledges that sometimes simply asking yourself the question, "Is this true?" can remind yourself that the obsessional thought is a complete fantastical construct of your brain.11 Sometimes that is enough to break the cycle and let reality back in.
  12. Visualise the Thoughts as Hiccups.
    Borchard reminds us that obsessional thoughts are symptoms of a condition as much as nausea or fever, or even bad hiccups. So when obsessional thoughts hit, remember not to berate yourself for them, or feel that they are the result of a character weakness. Blaming yourself for such thoughts is a common reaction to the madness and despair of the moment. Do not beat yourself over the head. Do not feel it is YOUR fault. Remind yourself that these thoughts are a symptom of an illness, a biochemical hiccup.
  13. Use a Mantra.
    Some people find that repeating a mantra helps them diffuse and disempower obsessional thoughts. It can be anything that holds meaning or power for you - such as a phrase from a religious text, or words from a favourite song, or a quote that resonates with you. As a friend of Borchard says, "When my thoughts become intense, I will use a mantra as a kind of racket to hit the ball back."12
  14. Admit Powerlessness.
    Borchard writes that when she has tried every technique and is still tormented by the voices in her head, she lets them be. She admits "powerlessness to my wonderful brain biochemistry." Borchard stops fighting the voices and allows them to "be as loud as they want and to stay as long as they want", because she knows "they will eventually go away."13 As long as you remember you are not to blame for your obsessional thoughts, conceding to them for a short time is not a failure on your part.

References

1 About the Author, Therese Borchard

2 9 Ways to Let Go of Stuck Thoughts, Therese Borchard, Everyday Health

3 ibid.

4 ibid.

5 ibid.

6 ibid.

7 ibid.

8 ibid.

9 5 Ways to Free Yourself from Dark and Obsessive Thoughts, Therese Borchard, Everyday Health

10 ibid.

11 ibid.

12 ibid.

13 9 Ways to Let Go of Stuck Thoughts, Therese Borchard, Everyday Health

Images from Morguefile and Pixabay.