Why your brain may need time to readjust to social gatherings after the pandemic, according to a neuroscientist

man sitting alone loneliness epidemic
We’ve been lonely for a year, but going back to normal socialization could be more difficult than expected.

  • 36% of adults in the US and 61% of young adults reported “serious loneliness” during the pandemic.
  • Nearly half of Americans also reported feeling uneasy about returning to in-person interaction.
  • Neuroscientist Kareem Clark says it may take time for some to reset their ‘social homeostasis,’ or need to socialize.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

With COVID-19 vaccines working and restrictions lifting across the country, it’s finally time for those now vaccinated who’ve been hunkered down at home to ditch the sweatpants and reemerge from their Netflix caves. But your brain may not be so eager to dive back into your former social life.

Social distancing measures proved essential for slowing COVID-19’s spread worldwide – preventing upward of an estimated 500 million cases. But, while necessary, 15 months away from each other has taken a toll on people’s mental health.

In a national survey last fall, 36% of adults in the US – including 61% of young adults – reported feeling “serious loneliness” during the pandemic. Statistics like these suggest people would be itching to hit the social scene.

But if the idea of making small talk at a crowded happy hour sounds terrifying to you, you’re not alone. Nearly half of Americans reported feeling uneasy about returning to in-person interaction regardless of vaccination status.

Read more: The loneliness economy: Companies and entrepreneurs see a spike in interest for rent-a-friend services, chatbots, and online communities that target feelings of isolation

So how can people be so lonely yet so nervous about refilling their social calendars?

Well, the brain is remarkably adaptable. And while we can’t know exactly what our brains have gone through over the last year, neuroscientists like me have some insight into how social isolation and resocialization affect the brain.

Social homeostasis – the need to socialize

Humans have an evolutionarily hardwired need to socialize – though it may not feel like it when deciding between a dinner invite and rewatching “Schitt’s Creek.”

From insects to primates, maintaining social networks is critical for survival in the animal kingdom. Social groups provide mating prospects, cooperative hunting, and protection from predators.

But social homeostasis – the right balance of social connections – must be met. Small social networks can’t deliver those benefits, while large ones increase competition for resources and mates. Because of this, human brains developed specialized circuitry to gauge our relationships and make the correct adjustments – much like a social thermostat.

Social homeostasis involves many brain regions, and at the center is the mesocorticolimbic circuit – or “reward system.” That same circuit motivates you to eat chocolate when you crave something sweet or swipe on Tinder when you crave … well, you get it.

And like those motivations, a recent study found that reducing social interaction causes social cravings – producing brain activity patterns similar to food deprivation.

So if people hunger for social connection like they hunger for food, what happens to the brain when you starve socially?

Your brain on social isolation

Scientists can’t shove people into isolation and look inside their brains. Instead, researchers rely on lab animals to learn more about social brain wiring. Luckily, because social bonds are essential in the animal kingdom, these same brain circuits are found across species.

One prominent effect of social isolation is – you guessed it – increased anxiety and stress.

Many studies find that removing animals from their cage buddies increases anxiety-like behaviors and cortisol, the primary stress hormone. Human studies also support this, as people with small social circles have higher cortisol levels and other anxiety-related symptoms similar to socially deprived lab animals.

Evolutionarily this effect makes sense – animals that lose group protection must become hypervigilant to fend for themselves. And it doesn’t just occur in the wild. One study found that self-described “lonely” people are more vigilant of social threats like rejection or exclusion.

Another important region for social homeostasis is the hippocampus – the brain’s learning and memory center. Successful social circles require you to learn social behaviors – such as selflessness and cooperation – and recognize friends from foes. But your brain stores tremendous amounts of information and must remove unimportant connections. So, like most of your high school Spanish – if you don’t use it, you lose it.

Several animal studies show that even temporary adulthood isolation impairs both social memory – like recognizing a familiar face – and working memory – like recalling a recipe while cooking.

And isolated humans may be just as forgetful. Antarctic expeditioners had shrunken hippocampi after just 14 months of social isolation. Similarly, adults with small social circles are more likely to develop memory loss and cognitive decline later in life.

So, human beings might not be roaming the wild anymore, but social homeostasis is still critical to survival. Luckily, as adaptable as the brain is to isolation, the same may be true with resocialization.

Your brain on social reconnection

Though only a few studies have explored the reversibility of the anxiety and stress associated with isolation, they suggest that resocialization repairs these effects.

One study, for example, found that formerly isolated marmosets first had higher stress and cortisol levels when resocialized but then quickly recovered. Adorably, the once-isolated animals even spent more time grooming their new buddies.

Social memory and cognitive function also seem to be highly adaptable.

Mouse and rat studies report that while animals cannot recognize a familiar friend immediately after short-term isolation, they quickly regain their memory after resocializing.

And there may be hope for people emerging from socially distanced lockdown as well. A recent Scottish study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found that residents had some cognitive decline during the harshest lockdown weeks but quickly recovered once restrictions eased.

Unfortunately, studies like these are still sparse. And while animal research is informative, it likely represents extreme scenarios since people weren’t in total isolation over the last year. Unlike mice stuck in cages, many in the US had virtual game nights and Zoom birthday parties (lucky us).

So power through the nervous elevator chats and pesky brain fog, because “un-social distancing” should reset your social homeostasis very soon.

The Conversation
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Naomi Osaka’s anxiety concerns make perfect sense – mental health issues in athletes are wildspread, according to experts

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open this week.

  • Naomi Osaka announced she would be withdrawing from the French Open, citing mental health reasons.
  • She initially boycotted post-match press conferences, before pulling out altogether.
  • Media attention can exacerbate anxiety and depression and “impostor syndrome,” according to experts who spoke to Insider.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open this week after saying she gets “huge waves of anxiety” when dealing with press. The 23-year-old tennis pro was fined $15,000 for skipping a post-match press conference, and then pulled out of the tournament altogether when she was threatened with expulsion.

“I get really nervous and find it stressful to always engage and give you the best answers I can,” Osaka, who is currently the number two female tennis player in the world, wrote on Instagram. “So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.”

Osaka’s words highlight the pervasiveness of high-functioning anxiety.

Psychiatrist Dr. Leela R. Magavi, who has worked with many student and professional athletes, told Insider media attention can exacerbate insecurities in sports players, which can lead to “debilitating anxiety as athletes may feel pressured to look, speak or present a certain way.”

It can also increase the chance of developing, or worsen feelings of “imposter syndrome” – a psychological phenomenon where people doubt their skills and talents and constantly worry they will be exposed as a fraud.

“Many athletes ruminate about what they said during an interview or how they were portrayed in an article or television segment,” Magavi said. “They may replay portions of what they expressed and blame themselves for the content of their speech.”

Some athletes have told Magavi in therapy sessions they felt that one comment or statement they made could ruin their professional careers or personal lives, she said. This means some will agonize over questions they might be asked in interviews for hours, and prepare how they might respond if controversial topics are brought up.

“This anticipatory anxiety could adversely affect their processing speed and their performance during the match, game or tournament,” Magavi said. “This kind of pressure can cause demoralization and cause or exacerbate self-esteem concerns, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and suicidal thoughts.”

Osaka’s decision could be a turning point in what is expected from athletes

Ronald Stolberg, PhD, a licensed clinical and sports psychologist and professor at Alliant International University, told Insider Osaka’s situation may be a “watershed moment” for awareness around mental health issues in athletes.

“A young, female, international superstar being bullied by the four major events in her sport because of a mental health condition has awful optics for the tennis tour and sport in general,” he said. “This incident highlights the pressure placed on athletes to participate in press conferences right after competing in their sport.”

Interviewees in other areas of expertise have time to prepare, while tennis players have questions fired at them straight away when they are still full of adrenaline – running on a high of their success, or potentially beating themselves up for under-performing. It could be especially difficult for them if those questions focus on topics they would rather avoid, such as their dating life, finances, lawsuits, or political issues.

Scottish tennis player and former number 1 in the world, Andy Murray, for example, admitted in 2013 he would give bland post-match interview answers on purpose, so he wouldn’t have to deal with “the aftermath of any scandals.”

andy murray 6
Former world number 1 tennis player Andy Murray has been a notoriously prickly interviewee.

Psychotherapist Amy Morin, the editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind who specializes in mental strength, told Insider anxiety is most likely an evolutionary trait that has stuck with us from the early days of humanity, when we developed “fight or flight” in response to danger. It probably used to serve us well when we were faced with a predator, but the adrenaline response in modern-day life is sometimes disproportionate.

Morin said in if an athlete’s body is in a heightened state of awareness, and they’re distracted by looming worries about public speaking, it could be difficult for them to perform at their best.

Sometimes it takes just as much strength to give up on something than to force yourself to keep going

Athletes are masters of self-discipline, but this can feed into a misconception that nothing ever bothers them. Just because someone is an excellent sportsperson, doesn’t mean they will be equally skilled at delivering a talk in front of a crowd.

Morin said she is a big believer in people facing fears in life, but not when it costs them more than it’s worth. It’s about figuring out where your boundaries are and not stepping over that line if the costs are not worth it.

While a common mantra in sports is to never quit, Morin thinks we should actually give up on things far more often than we do. She said ego gets in the way sometimes and forces us to complete a task we set out to do, when it would serve us much better to throw in the towel.

“It takes courage to say to people, I’m not doing this anymore, and facing backlash from people who are going to say, ‘You’re a quitter, you gave up, you didn’t try hard enough,'” she said. “Sometimes it takes a lot more strength to quit something and then it does to keep going.”

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How COVID-19’s effect on the job market could cause widespread health problems

Unemployment benefits line
Out-of-work Kentucky residents wait outside the Kentucky Career Center for help with their unemployment claims.

  • COVID-19 caused a surge in unemployment, and job loss can lead to physical and mental health issues.
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs, eating and sleeping poorly, or exercising less are other risks.
  • Support for people out of work due to COVID-19 will be necessary to mitigate future health issues.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Being out of work isn’t bad just for your finances: It’s bad for your health. Losing a job can cause depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. Research also consistently shows that job loss and unemployment – even just for a few months – are associated with poorer physical health as well, including increased risks for cardiovascular disease, hospitalization and death. These risks can endure for years or even decades after a person returns to work.

As researchers who study the health effects of job loss and unemployment, we see many reasons to worry that the next wave of health problems linked to COVID-19 will not come directly from the virus itself, or the strain it places on health systems, but from its effect on the labor market.

During the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, 25% of US adults said they or someone in their household lost their job because of the pandemic. Among those who said they lost a job, half reported they were still unemployed six months later. Racial and ethnic minorities have been hit hardest by pandemic-driven job losses and deaths. These communities already face long-standing structural inequities in living and working conditions that affect their job prospects and may shape their financial recovery.

Read more: Former Disney employees reveal how they’ve turned their unique talents into sustainable businesses – with the help of a Facebook group

The health impacts of job loss

It’s not hard to see why losing a job, followed by a period of unemployment, can be bad for a person’s health. The initial months following a job loss can reduce social support by straining people’s finances and psychological well-being and limiting their social interactions. People who lose their health insurance along with their job may not seek medical attention when illness arises. The stresses caused by losing a job can also lead people to increase the use of alcohol or drugs, eat poorly, exercise less or develop bad sleep patterns.

These risks persist even if someone receives unemployment benefits or gets another job relatively quickly. Some research shows a few months of unemployment may be associated with worse long-term health and well-being. One study found that in the year after the participants lost their jobs, death rates among them were as much as two times higher regardless of whether and when they got a new one, and remained 10% to 15% higher than expected for the next 20 years. If this rate of increased risk continued indefinitely, the authors noted, losing a job at age 40 could reduce life expectancy by one to one and a half years.

Other research has associated job loss with a higher risk of conditions including hypertension and arthritis, and a twofold higher risk of heart attack and stroke. And that’s not because people in poor health are more likely to lose their jobs. Our 2007 analysis showed that even after removing the influence of baseline health and social background, people who lost their jobs were still more likely to report poor health.

Why pandemic-driven job loss may be the next health crisis

While some of the data on which we base our concern come from other economic recessions and downturns, such as the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009, we expect that there could be even worse outcomes in the wake of COVID-19. The peak unemployment rate during the Great Recession was 10%, while the peak unemployment rate in 2020 was almost 15%. Economic recovery is more precarious when pandemic restrictions are still in place, and some business operations have changed permanently, making it harder for some laid-off workers to regain their old jobs.

Moreover, many of those who became seriously ill with COVID-19 are experiencing slow recoveries. They may not be able to work at their earlier capacities for some time. Other adults may need to take on new caregiver responsibilities because kin have remained ill, or died and left behind others who need care.

What can governments do?

Already, preliminary analyses are emerging about the potential health effects of COVID-19-related unemployment, particularly among vulnerable populations. In a recent New Zealand study, the researchers estimate that pandemic-related job loss could cause a 1% rise in overall cardiovascular disease rates for each additional 1% increase in unemployment. Among the nation’s more vulnerable Indigenous Māori population, however, the disease rate rose to 4% for each 1% increase in unemployment. The authors’ model also suggests that the health effects of pandemic unemployment will persist over the next two decades.

This suggests the need for more robust support for people who are out of work, including continued health insurance coverage, to help buffer the economic toll of job loss and thereby mitigate some of its health consequences. The US has some threads of a social safety net, such as up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits in most states, and Congress created extra pandemic help when it passed the CARES Act in 2020. But these weren’t enough to prevent a huge increase in food insecurity and use of food pantries last year.

Given the potentially long-term negative effects of job loss on health, one way to protect workers may be helping companies to not lay them off. Policymakers should continue to direct resources toward employers that keep businesses going and workers employed. If layoffs are inevitable, then create incentives to rehire laid-off workers as soon as possible. In California, for instance, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill in April requiring companies in hard-hit industries such as hotel and event management to rehire workers who were laid off during the pandemic when jobs become available.

To address all the health consequences of the pandemic, we believe one must think broadly about interventions and policies. We must recognize the wide scope of job losses across households and industries, not just in workplaces making media headlines, and the unequal burden felt by workers already disadvantaged before COVID-19. The real solution lies in not just getting back to work, but getting Americans into secure jobs that pay a living wage and allow economic recovery alongside the healing of people and health care systems.

This article was produced in collaboration with Knowable Magazine, a digital publication covering science and its emerging frontiers.

Jennie E. Brand, professor of sociology and statistics, University of California, Los Angeles and Sarah A. Burgard, professor of sociology, University of Michigan

The Conversation
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Scared of social un-distancing? Many of us still need time to ‘thaw.’

woman mask
A woman wearing a face covering walks past a shop in Cardiff, Wales on October 18, 2020.

  • Vaccines were supposed to be our ticket to normalcy after a grueling year of isolation.
  • But I, among others, have found myself afraid to return to even CDC-approved activities.
  • We’ve been frozen in place by trauma. Now we need time to thaw.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

For months, all I thought about was getting a vaccine. I refreshed pharmacy websites thousands of times, annoying my family members with my nightly phone-tapping on the couch. Just let it go, they begged. You’ll get one when you get one.

I’ll admit I was obsessed. Vaccines were supposed to be the end of a long, traumatic journey – one marked by hospital visits, panicked trips to the grocery store, and total physical isolation from nearly every person in my life.

I fled New York City for my mother’s house in California a year ago in order to deal with long-lasting symptoms of a COVID-19 infection I’d gotten in March 2020. I’d hoped the sunshine and proximity to family would help, though I had also grown afraid of any dense, crowded environment like the one that had gotten me sick.

When my vaccine appointment finally arrived, I sat like a schoolkid in the blue Walgreens chair, my arm tingling from a fresh jab, but I felt oddly numb. I’d expected to be euphoric – things were finally about to return to normal!

I hadn’t considered that it would take time to process what just happened, to accept that the threat of the virus had abated.

When a zebra is hunted by a lion, it has three options: attack (fight), run away (flight), or play dead (freeze). If that third method is successful, the lion won’t eat the zebra – but the zebra won’t necessarily spring from the ground once the predator is gone, either.

Instead, its autonomic nervous system – the brain’s control center that regulates bodily functions – is still reeling from its brush with death. So it stays frozen for longer than may seem necessary. It happens in other animals, too: A 2017 study found that rats continued to freeze for long periods of time even after researchers stopped exposing them to a stressor (in that case, a mild electric shock).

I had fought COVID-19, fled to a safer locale, and gotten my vaccine. But I was still frozen.

It will still take quite some time, I now realize, for me to thaw.

I know I’m not alone in this feeling of paralysis. Many people I’ve spoken to say that even after getting vaccinated, they still feel afraid to social un-distance – to give hugs or remove their masks around other vaccinated folks, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says those activities are safe for vaccinated people. Dining indoors might as well be skydiving without a parachute.

“We’ve been in almost a constant state of arousal for a year,” Eva Ritmo, a psychiatrist in Miami Beach, told me. “It’s been so trying on our nervous systems, watching the news, watching people die, being in such a fear-based state. A part of it is that we’re just so traumatized from all that arousal that we’re sort of stuck.”

Our bodies don’t feel safe yet

Social Distancing
People in masks practice social distancing in line.

The fear of reentering society has an official name: COVID anxiety syndrome. People who experience it have trained themselves to stay alert to possible threats, including contact with others, according to Dr. Emma Seppala, science director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.

Seppala told me she’s seen a similar levels of hypervigilance among people with military training.

“I know many veterans who still locate exits whenever they enter a building, or are always keen observers of their environments for signs of danger,” she said. “We can expect that people will remain anxious and in a hypervigilant way for quite some time.”

Letting go of masks and social distancing requires believing that we’re safe – a trust fall that’s hard to perform when the threat of the virus still lingers. It’s almost like rushing back into a car after you’ve been in an accident, Ritmo said.

“We’ve been told that going out is dangerous. We were told that hugging somebody was dangerous. We were told that being inside with somebody was dangerous,” she said. “You don’t just erase that message when you’ve been hearing it for a year. That messaging is now imprinted in our brain.”

Many Americans are also still wary of government health recommendations, particularly after the CDC first advised people not to wear masks at the start of the pandemic. Some now see the agency as politicized. Breakthrough infections following vaccinations have offered even more reason to stay on guard.

“I don’t think it’s crystal clear what is exactly safe and what we should be doing,” Ritmo said. “That’s going to trigger our arousal and then we’re going to have that fight, flight, or freeze again.”

But we can train ourselves to recover

Meditation
A person meditates on the beach.

Before getting up off the ground, a zebra that escapes a predator will tremble in place. It’s a recovery mechanism: The animal’s parasympathetic nervous system, or resting response, is quite literally shaking off the trauma to feel relaxed.

For humans, it’s not so simple.

“Most of us have not learned how to return to that state of calm and restoration,” Seppala said. “In fact, we often keep stressing about the event for days or years.”

To recover from COVID-related trauma, Ritmo said, it helps to think about areas in which you’ve grown during the pandemic, then try to incorporate those lessons into your life moving forward. Maybe you’ve found a new hobby or rekindled connections on Zoom.

Research has shown that around half of people who have experienced trauma can later see positive psychological changes as a result, such as a greater appreciation for life or enhanced creativity – a concept known as post-traumatic growth.

If you’re struggling to get there, Seppala said, deep breathing is a good place to start.

“When you inhale, your heart rate increases. When you exhale, it slows down,” she said. “Taking just a few minutes to close your eyes and lengthen your exhales – make them twice as long as your inhales – will help you calm down in minutes. Regular meditation, yoga, nature exposure, exercise all helps, too.”

But one thing you can’t do, Seppala added, is talk yourself out of stress.

“Think about how helpful it is when a friend or manager tells you to ‘just relax’ before you have to deal with a difficult client,” she said. “That’s not only unhelpful – it’s often downright irritating.”

Telling myself that a vaccine was a ticket to normalcy, it turned out, created unnecessary pressure.

There’s no set timeline for how long the thaw is supposed to take. For some, it may last much longer than others. But at some point, I and those around me will get up from the ground – hopefully together, in person.

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3 founders share the self-care practices that strengthen their mental health and help them stay mindful

woman writing at home
Writing in a journal is one way founders can practice mindfulness.

  • When COVID cost him business, Isaac Rudansky looked back at his career successes to think more positively.
  • Altering your mindset can give you the confidence to push forward through difficult times.
  • Founders should also try identifying their emotions, seeking support, and taking time for themselves.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

After only six weeks of working in his company’s newly purchased office space, Isaac Rudansky, founder and CEO of AdVenture Media Group, sent his employees home to avoid the spread of COVID-19. He lost 35% of his clients in the first three weeks of the pandemic. “I’m actually an optimistic person, but this was a really dark period,” he said. “Oftentimes, when you’re dealing with feelings of depression and stress, it’s impossible to look at a longer horizon.”

So rather than look forward, Rudansky looked back at the past five years. Even through the peaks and valleys, he saw that his life and career had trended in a positive direction. That perspective gave him the confidence to move forward.

As Eve Lewis Prieto, the director of meditation and a mindfulness teacher at Headspace, said, “one of the best things about mindfulness is that it can be applied to every area of your life. Mindfulness is the ability to be fully engaged and present with a soft and open mind, also known as paying attention on purpose.”

As we pass the one-year anniversary of the country entering lockdown, founders shared with Inc. some of the practices that strengthen their mental health and help them stay mindful.

1. Identify what you’re feeling

When she looked at the options to confront her anxiety and burnout as a software engineer, Meha Agrawal, CEO and founder of Silk and Sonder, felt intimidated by therapy and was bored by meditation. Instead, she found that writing was the outlet she needed.

“There are a ton of benefits of bringing pen to paper,” she said. “It alleviates anxiety and stress, and it helps increase IQ and memory. It’s proven to heal trauma.” Agrawal created a journaling routine back in 2017, and soon after, she began developing her subscription-based journal company to help customers emulate her experience with journaling.

Aaron Sternlicht, a therapist and cofounder of New York City-based Family Addiction Specialist, endorses writing as a way of tracking your emotional mood throughout the day. This practice can help you understand which activities and times of day spark more anxiety, he said. Once you can identify the trigger moments, you can better prepare yourself to respond.

2. Lean on other people

Angela Ficken, a psychotherapist based in Boston, notes that maintaining personal relationships is a constant challenge in a founder’s life. The pandemic has only worsened this, she said, spurring more mental health challenges for founders. In recognizing the importance of community, Agrawal created the Sonder club, an online community where Silk and Sonder users can connect on their wellness journey.

Talking with people can be the best outlet for maintaining your mental well-being, Rudansky said: “It allows a person to express sympathy and empathy for what you’re going through.”

A couple of months ago, he said, one of his executives reached out to him to express that he felt overwhelmed at work. Rather than showing weakness, it showed strength and character, Rudansky said. The two ended up on an hourlong phone call together where they both opened up about their feelings and current struggles.

3. Make time for yourself – and start small

Last month, Tori Farley, cofounder of Better Than Belts, a unisex suspender company, joined a book club and read “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brené Brown, which teaches readers how to reorient their mindsets and explores the psychology of authentic living. Farley was hesitant about reading a “quasi-self-help book,” but “When I read it, it just clicked,” she said. “If I want to spend two hours in the morning doing watercolor painting because that is going to make me feel happy for the rest of the day, then that’s what I should do, and I don’t have to start my day by checking my email.”

Even if it’s just a short moment in time, doing something for yourself can help you get out of a workday slump, Farley said. And Ficken adds that the all-or-nothing mentality can be extremely harmful to mental health. If you can’t get in your full workout that day, she said, don’t give up on physical activity. Instead, walk around the perimeter of your house for a little while or even take a few minutes to walk to your kitchen to get some cold water.

Headspace encourages users to start with just three to five minutes a day, Prieto said. “Some days the mind is going to feel really busy and on other days much quieter, so you are not doing anything wrong if you find that it’s taking longer for the mind to settle,” she said. The goal is not to empty the mind, but to be at ease with where you are.

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Holiday music may be bad for your mental health, according to science

mariah carey santa holiday music
Santa and Mariah Carey.

  • Incessant repetition of holiday music can have a psychological impact.
  • At first, holiday music can be uplifting, but after a certain period of time, it can cause boredom — and even distress.
  • It can remind listeners of the other stressors of the holiday season, like finances and family.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The sights and sounds of the holidays are here – and they’re completely inescapable. No matter where you go, it seems like the same classic songs are played on repeat. 

This perception is spot on: Spotify reports that listening spikes during the last two months of the year. Michael Bublé’s “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” top the list of most streamed tunes

But the incessant repetition can have a psychological impact. There’s a U-shaped relationship between how often we hear a song and how much we like it, what’s known as the mere exposure effect

At first, holiday music may spark nostalgia and get you in the holiday spirit. But hearing “Jingle Bells” for the millionth time can lead to annoyance, boredom, and even distress, researchers say.

That’s because the brain becomes oversaturated, triggering a negative response. If you’re already worried about moneywork, or seeing family during the holidays, the constant inundation of cheerful tunes may reinforce your stress instead of relieving it. 

It can also be downright distracting, affecting employee productivity and irritating consumers. In fact, a 2011 Consumer Reports survey found that 23% of Americans dread holiday music.

Clinical psychologist Linda Blair says Christmas music can be mentally draining:

“People working in the shops [have to tune out] Christmas music, because if they don’t, it really does stop you from being able to focus on anything else… You’re simply spending all of your energy trying not to hear what you’re hearing.”

How can you strike the right balance of good cheer that doesn’t drive you crazy?

Switch up your music so people’s brains don’t get bored. Playing the same Christmas songs all season long produces cognitive fatigue. Practice good sound management by varying your playlists and keeping the volume in check.

Studies also show that wintry scents like pine and cinnamon help conjure happy emotions, so recruit other senses when celebrating. 

If all else fails, a set of ear plugs makes a nice stocking stuffer.

This Inc story was originally published on Business Insider December 24, 2018.

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