As we barrel through the fall and winter, the idea of walking outdoors may seem like a far-off, warm-weather memory. Earlier sunsets and colder days make walking outside tough for many people.
But if you’re someone who counts on their walk for fitness or a mental health boost, there are still ways to get in some steps while staying warm and safe at home (or within other spaces).
Here, experts share how to get in a meaningful walk (or other low-intensity exercise) in the chilly months:
Head to a hallway or similar space in your home
According to Dr. Aaron Baggish, a professor of medicine at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, the most straightforward way to get in a walk at home is to simply do that — go for a walk indoors. But keep in mind that the degree to which an indoor walk can be done depends on what your home looks like, he said.
“What I typically tell people is to find either a loop within the house that goes through consecutive rooms or the longest straight distance, which is usually a hallway,” Baggish said.
From there, pick a time goal or a step goal and start moving. If you get bored (and circling around an indoor loop can be boring), you can turn on some music, flip on the TV or call a friend as you walk, he said.
“You can get a good 20-to-30-minute walk just in your house without going anywhere,” Baggish said.
Hit the stairs
If you live in a home with multiple levels, you can walk up and down the stairs as a way to get moving. “Stair-walking is a great exercise,” said Catherine Hagan Vargo, a physical therapist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
As far as how many times you need to climb them, that’s up to you, she added.
“If you get fatigued walking up and down one flight upstairs, that’s enough for now,” Vargo said. But if you find that one time isn’t hard enough for you, bump it up to two or three.
Vargo noted that while you don’t want to push yourself too much, you do want to make this exercise challenging — and you should build on it, too. If you eventually are able to walk up and down the stairs twice with no issue, increase your reps from there.
Do some outdoor chores
Shoveling snow and raking leaves aren’t exactly activities that many people look forward to as colder weather arrives, but they are good ways to get moving, said Gerard Burley, a wellness strategist and the founder of fitness studio Sweat DC.
“They utilize your core, your arms, your legs,” he said, adding that these “are great two-for-one activities ― you get to clean up and get your body moving.”
The National Institute on Aging even categorizes tasks like yardwork as endurance-building physical activities. But it’s also important to remember that shoveling snow has been linked with heart attacks, since it can put significant strain on the body, according to Cleveland Clinic.
If you are used to physical activity, you’re probably fine. But if not, it’s best to break up your shoveling throughout the day. That way, you can still get the benefits without the risk. If you’re ever unsure, chat with your doctor.
Go to an indoor shopping mall or grocery store
If you are one of the many people who do not have enough room for a walk inside their homes, try another indoor space instead.
“There’s an amazing resource that many people have at their disposal that they overlook, and that is the use of shopping malls or shopping centers,” Baggish said.
Malls have a huge amount of indoor space that you can use to get in your steps during the winter, and many open their doors before the stores do. Baggish said that you can head to the mall early for your walk so that it’s less busy and you aren’t tempted to shop. He even recommended leaving your wallet at home.
“You can get as long a walk as you want, cover a lot of distance [and] even go up and down stairs,” he said.
Baggish added that the same can be done at a large grocery store. You can visit the store during its off hours and walk some laps through the aisles.
″[This] is great for people with balance or mobility issues,” Baggish said. “Grab yourself a shopping cart and push that around for 20 minutes, and get in a great workout in a safe environment.”
Have a dance party
“A dance party in the house is a fantastic way to get some steps, some movement [and] some cardio,” Vargo said.
You can put on your favorite song or artist and dance along as you wait for a pot of water to boil or as you heat up your lunch. This is “a great destressor,” she said. “It’s great for mental health, and it’s great for physical health.”
In fact, research shows that moderate-intensity dance has been linked with a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Plus, dancing is just a way to get moving if you’re not someone who typically looks forward to a traditional workout.
If you work in an office setting, use what’s in front of you to move more
Those who work in an office can add to their daily step count by using a printer or a water bottle refill station that is somewhat far away, Vargo said.
While it may not seem like an extra minute on your feet amounts to much, these small changes can actually add up to a real difference at the end of the week or month.
Burley, of Sweat DC, suggested leaning on co-workers to help you stay accountable during the workday. That can mean setting up a group text for everyone to check in on their movement goals or picking a specific time for a group walk on the office stairs.
Set reminders for yourself to get moving
“The key now is to be intentional about [movement],” Burley said.
You can try setting a timer or using the natural transitions within your day — like the end of a meeting or when you have gone through all your unread emails — to remind yourself to get up. During those breaks from sitting, you can move around for a bit however you like, whether that’s doing jumping jacks, going for a short walk or doing some squats.
Not only is moving around good for your physical health, but “it’s also proven that the energy helps you [be] a little bit sharper mentally,” Burley said.
And remember that you can still walk outside in the colder months
Baggish noted that while walking outdoors in the fall and winter may be more challenging because of earlier sunsets and colder weather, it is certainly still a reasonable thing to do.
“It’s not harmful for the body to walk in cold air, assuming [you’re] wearing an appropriate jacket,” he said.
The only cause for concern comes from slippery surfaces as a result of snow or ice. To help prepare for this, make sure you’re wearing shoes with some form of tread that can give you a proper grip, Baggish said. (It’s also important to keep safety in mind, so try to walk during daylight hours when possible.)
“If [you] have any tendency of being imbalanced or at a fall risk, strongly consider using something to support [yourself] whether it’s walking sticks or a cane,” he added.
Plus, using walking poles or ski poles incorporates your upper body muscles. This is sometimes known as Nordic walking, which comes with a host of other benefits.
Getting in your weekly movement should be done year-round, but it may just take a little more creativity during the colder months, Baggish said.
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Why You’re Tired Even After You Got A Full Night’s Sleep
Your alarm just went off. Ugh. Still tired, you groan and press “snooze” a couple more times before eventually forcing yourself out of bed. After doing the math, you realize you technically slept enough hours (even though you could definitely sleep more). Maybe you’ve even been trying to go to bed earlier and feel frustrated you aren’t reaping the benefits yet. What gives?
One potential reason: Your sleep hasn’t been as solid as you think. It’s been “junk sleep,” aka not long enough or high-quality enough to nourish your brain and body. For example, maybe you slept a full eight hours, but it wasn’t deep, or you kept waking up throughout the night.
The term “junk sleep” has over 36 million views on TikTok, but if you haven’t heard of it before, how can you know you’re dealing with it, what causes it and how can you beat it?
Signs You’re Experiencing ‘Junk Sleep’
For many of us, waking up feeling tired is a given. It makes sense we need a few minutes (and a few cups of coffee) to fully get going. But at what point is inadequate sleep to blame — and a problem we need to address?
You wonder if you even slept and if you’ll be able to function.
If you’ve ever woken up and questioned if you actually fell asleep, you know what we’re talking about here.
“You might wake up and feel like you didn’t even sleep,” said Kristen Casey, a licensed clinical psychologist and insomnia specialist. “You wake up feeling unrested, groggy or irritable. This type of sleep doesn’t help us restore our bodily functions and causes difficulty for our functioning the next day.”
In other words, it’s not your run-of-the-mill desire to rest longer just because your bed feels so comfortable.
You’re not doing too hot emotionally, mentally or physically.
On the note of functioning, you’re struggling. You might feel extra anxious, depressed, forgetful, easily distracted or irritable, according to Phil Lawlor, a sleep expert at the mattress company Dormeo. Long-term, you might notice you get sick more easily, experience chronic pain, have digestive or cardiovascular issues, or feel extremely fatigued.
Additionally, you may notice changes in your eating patterns. “Another less-known symptom is that you may eat more than usual,” added Nicole Eichelberger, a certified sleep expert specializing in insomnia and a consultant at Mattressive. This is because sleep deprivation — even one night of it — increases levels of ghrelin, the “hunger hormone.”
You don’t really believe in the importance of sleep and sleep hygiene.
Casey loves helping people look at how they think about sleep, since “our thoughts can impact how we feel, behave, and experience the world, including the sleep world,” she said. “For example, if you believe sleep isn’t important, you might not prioritize your sleep routine or care about waking up at the same time each day.”
This perspective doesn’t have to be an explicit “I hate sleep and sleep doesn’t matter,” either. It can look more subtle or entail “revenge bedtime procrastination,” for example, which is putting off sleep on purpose because you want more leisure time. (Understandable, but unhelpful!)
As a result, Casey added, you may not practice solid sleep hygiene, such as adding a restful buffer before bed.
What Causes ‘Junk Sleep’ — And How To Beat It
Many factors can contribute to junk sleep, some of which are more in our control than others. Here’s what to know and what you can do:
Casey listed various noises that could keep you from sleeping deeply throughout the night, such as children waking up, pets, traffic, your partner snoring or your roommate watching television.
Other environmental factors are ones we feel, she said, such as being too hot or too cold, sleeping on an uncomfortable mattress, physical pain, sickness and too much light.
The “feeling” aspects extend to our emotions, too. “When people are anxious or depressed, they often experience difficulty sleeping,” Eichelberger added. “This can be caused by a number of factors, including poor self-esteem, guilt, anger or a general sense of hopelessness.” (After all, if emotions weren’t a contributor, would Taylor Swift’s album “Midnights” even exist?)
The fix: Adjust what you can. Examples could be buying a soft mattress topper, turning up the air conditioning, installing blackout curtains, taking Tums to settle acid reflux, making sure you eat enough so you don’t wake up hungry, wearing earplugs and putting stressful items — like your work laptop — in another room.
These variables are more in your control, such as scrolling your phone or watching a movie late at night. According to The Sleep Foundation, it’s best to put your phone away an hour before bed.
“Although scrolling social media or watching television gives you something to do, your brain is responding to the stimuli, regardless of if you’re aware of it or not,” Casey said. “This can cause difficulty falling or staying asleep, in addition to experiencing unrestful sleep.”
Lawlor explained how that works: “Phones disrupt your sleep cycle, because the bright blue light emitted from LED screens on electronic devices is a sleep disruptor that fools your brain into thinking that it’s still daytime, so you won’t feel sleepy when it’s time to shut your eyes,” he said.
Additionally, substances — such as alcohol, in particular — aren’t a great idea, either, according to Casey. The Sleep Foundation said alcohol can decrease sleep quality between 9 and over 39%, depending on how heavily you drink. Alcohol and drugs can also disrupt your sleep by leading to nightmares.
The fix: For behavioral causes, we’re looking at some of the same solutions. What are some not-so-great things you’re doing before bed, and what is a better, doable option? Maybe that means drinking decaf coffee, reading in between catching up on a show and sleeping, taking a warm bath or using the bathroom before settling in the sheets.
If you are going to use your phone in bed, Lawlor encouraged putting it on night mode. He said it reduces blue light emissions and turns the brightness down. While not using your phone at all is a better option, this is the next-best thing. For an iPhone, click Settings > Display & Brightness > Night Shift. For an Android, click Settings > Display > Turn the dark theme on or off.
Still feeling rough in the morning? You may want to talk to a professional. “As always, remember to reach out to your doctor if you believe you are experiencing a sleep disorder or insomnia,” Casey said.
While there is some we can do to address all of this, we can’t cure it all. “Some of these we may not have control over, so be patient with yourself,” Casey added. Validate your frustrations and do what you can — without judgment — to help yourself sleep. While sleep struggles can make you feel hopeless, you’re not completely out of luck.
What To Do If You Feel Guilty After Setting Boundaries
If there is ever a time when setting boundaries is necessary, it’s the holiday season. Every year comes with high expectations of love, cheer and good vibes ― but that is not the reality for many people. It can also be a time of intense stress.
And as nice as it is to have family in town and holiday parties to attend, this can often mean violations of personal space or uncomfortable dinner conversations that turn into arguments. Setting boundaries can help stop some of these problems before they start, but can be a challenge for many people to implement.
However, it’s a “really important part of healthy relationship functioning … and I think in general we’re not so skilled at it,” said Jessica Borelli, a professor of psychological science and a clinical psychologist at the University of California, Irvine. Borelli said that “boundary setting occurs between one or more people when one person has to make a statement or set a limit regarding something they will not do within a relationship.”
The need for boundaries varies depending on the person and can be anything from spending less time with someone, not attending an event you don’t feel comfortable going to or setting rules around how much family members are allowed to spend on holiday gifts.
According to Borelli, “what seems like a reasonable or sensible boundary for one person might seem completely unreasonable to another person,” which makes this really, really hard.
Even more so, the act of setting boundaries with loved ones can result in an immense amount of unavoidable guilt, experts say. For example, you may start second-guessing your decision after witnessing your family’s reaction. Or you may feel deep sadness after disappointing a friend.
If this happens, there are ways to manage your guilt and points to remember to make the guilt a little less consuming.
First, know that the guilt you feel isn’t necessarily a bad thing or even possible to totally stop.
Guilt is certainly not a great feeling. That said, it may be an inevitable emotion as you have uncomfortable conversations with loved ones that likely won’t make them happy.
“I don’t know that there’s a time when guilt is not warranted, because warranted to me means validation for your feelings,” said Racine Henry, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York City. “And I think whatever you’re feeling is valid.”
She added that it’s normal to feel guilt when setting a boundary with a loved one, and it’s perfectly normal to have thoughts like “Is this an overreaction?” or “Am I being too sensitive?”
But you’re the only person who knows when a boundary is right for you. It isn’t dictated by someone’s opinion or someone’s reaction. In fact, when someone does have a poor reaction to a boundary you’ve set, it’s likely a sign that it is necessary, Henry added. “Otherwise, they would continue to mistreat you or cross that line with you.”
Though guilt may come when you set boundaries, it’s important to remember that by creating limits in your relationships, you’re making sure you’re treated in the way you want.
Without this, “you would then wrestle with feelings of enabling their behavior and feeling complacent in their negative treatment of you,” Henry added, which would add a whole different level of frustration.
Someone who respects you won’t make you feel guilty about setting boundaries.
It’s important to remember that the people in your life who want to be in your life for the right reasons won’t react badly to boundaries. Even if they have a questionable reaction at first, they’ll be able to come back to you with a fresh mind and understanding viewpoint.
“The people who really love you and care about you and have your best interest at heart will be happy about you creating this boundary,” Henry said. “They are going to want to do whatever they can to make you feel loved and respected and cared for.”
To help combat the feelings of guilt, you can affirm your relationships as you set boundaries.
“It can be really helpful to affirm how important the relationship is at the same time you’re setting a boundary,” Borelli said. This way, you’re sharing how much a relationship means to you to help ease any pain that can come with boundary setting.
For example, if you are having a difficult conversation with your partner and need a break before hashing things out, you could say something like “This conversation is so important to me, and you and our relationship are so important to me. I don’t want to mess this up. In order to do this right, I need an hour to get my thoughts straight, and I’m going to come back to this and do the job I want to do with this conversation,” Borelli added.
Not only are you listening to your own needs when setting this boundary, but you’re affirming to your loved one that you do care about them, which in turn can also help if you are dealing with feelings of guilt.
“If you can affirm the value of the relationship … going back and revisiting that in your mind when you start to feel guilty can also be a way of guarding against those guilty feelings,” she said.
It’s a way to remind yourself that you didn’t reject the whole person, you just set an important boundary, Borelli said, and by affirming the relationship, they know you still care about them.
To further combat guilt, remind yourself of your intentions.
You aren’t setting boundaries to intentionally hurt another person; you’re doing it to protect your mental and emotional well-being.
“The best approach to handle feelings of guilt is [to remind] yourself why you’re doing this in the first place. If your intentions are really about your self-respect, about self-preservation, about protecting yourself, then I think you can focus on those aspects of it,” Henry said.
While that doesn’t mean the guilt will just go away, it does mean you can learn to embrace it as part of the process, she added. “You don’t have to get over the guilt to then have an effective boundary.”
It’s OK to feel bad about having to create this boundary, but you should remember that you are doing this for your own mental health, which is not a reason to feel guilt or shame.
“You aren’t doing this to this person, but rather they’re requiring you to set this boundary because of their inability to respect you or to acknowledge what you need from them on their own,” Henry said.
Try thinking about your guilt in extremes.
For many people, guilt is a default emotion. No matter what you do or what you say, you’ll be faced with guilt about the way you handled a situation — and that isn’t fair or accurate.
Borelli said to combat the guilt you may feel after setting boundaries, figure out if you’re someone whose default is feeling guilty after tough situations.
“Playing out counterfactuals about setting boundaries [is helpful], so if you’re someone who has a lot of difficulty with setting boundaries, you might have difficulty in all kinds of situations,” Borelli said, adding that it can be helpful to mix extremes into your thinking by asking yourself questions like “Do I deserve to be able to have a bed?” or “Do I deserve to decide when I eat?”
You can even ask yourself if there’s ever a situation when you’d be able to set a boundary and not feel uncomfortable about it. If your answer is no, it’s clear that this guilt is “not serving you well,” she said, and is a feeling that may come up no matter what you do. This can be a helpful thing to remember and can help take the power away from the guilt you feel.
Keep in mind that you’ll probably feel more guilt if you are a people pleaser.
Boundary setting is going to be particularly tough for those who are people pleasers or if your self-worth tends to come from meeting the needs of other people, Borelli said.
“Those people may have an especially hard time with setting limits [or] setting boundaries because this is a direct threat to their sense of self-worth,” she said.
For people who fall into this category, it may be hard not to think in extremes, which could include “Is this person still going to want to be friends with me after I set a boundary?” Borelli added.
And this could even bring up concerns like “maybe the relationship only works because I elevate [someone else’s] needs all the time,” she said. And, in the case of boundaries, you’re doing the opposite of prioritizing someone else’s needs ― you’re making your needs the priority and leaving a loved one’s needs unmet.
It’s easy to see why this is a hard situation for a people pleaser and why anyone in this category should cut themself some extra slack when setting boundaries.
And not everyone in your life needs boundaries.
Just because you’re ready to set some boundaries doesn’t mean you need to do so with everyone in your life. Boundaries are intended for those who are violating your self-respect or your inner peace, and not everyone will fall into that category to the same level (or at all).
Some people require just a few boundaries while others require none, Henry said.
“That goes to show there are people who can treat you the way you want to be treated,” she said.
Some Millennials And Older Generations Are ‘Kidulting.’ Maybe You Should, Too.
At the height of the pandemic, I kidulted plenty.
To kidult ― I know it sounds obnoxious, but bear with me ― is to recreate childhood memories by partaking in activities generally considered for children.
In my case, I clocked in more hours of “Animal Crossing” than I care to admit (mostly because my island still looks crap). I went down a rabbit hole of Polly Pocket content on Instagram, I dabbled in watercoloring (or rather, I bought a watercoloring set and used it once). I started playing “The Sims,” basically in villain mode (The goal: Steal Mortimer Goth and the Goth family mansion from Bella Goth. The result: A depressed Mortimer Goth moping around my home, too broken over his divorce to care about my homewrecking self.)
While I never took the plunge and bought a Sims expansion pack or Polly Pockets on eBay for old time’s sake, there are plenty of millennials (and members of older generations, too) who have spent quite a bit on their kidulting activity of choice.
As Bloomberg recently reported, kidult shoppers have helped U.S. toy sales surge 37% over two years to $28.6 billion in 2021, according to data tracker NPD Group. Toy executives and insiders first attributed the spike to exhausted parents buying their kids toys to keep them distracted during lockdown, but a survey last year from the U.S. industry’s Toy Association found that 58% of adult respondents bought toys and games for themselves.
Some examples of popular nostalgia-pegged kidulting?
- McDonald selling out of their limited-edition adult Happy Meals that came with a collectible toy
- TikTok influencers dressing up in Y2K fashions and pretending they’re going out in the early ’00s
- Adult kickball leagues
- The huge popularity of Pokémon Go a few years ago
- Disney adults
- Anyone who’s overly invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)
Before you start tearing into child-free millennials with disposable incomes, older generations have kidulted, too. Jaabo, who runs the YouTube channel Train Tsar Fun, always loved Legos. Now at 54, he finally has the means to make his wildest little-brick dreams come true.
“I have over 6,000 sets now. The most I’ve spent for a single set is $850 for the LEGO Grand Carousel,” Jaabo, who lives in northwest Georgia, told HuffPost.
“I get to do the things I could only imagine doing as a kid,” he said. “Building process is relaxing and satisfying, but the memories are better.”
Debbie Zelasny, a Gen Xer who goes by @TheJerseyMomma on social media, doesn’t restrict her toy collection to just one thing: She collects everything from Funko POP! figurines and blind bags to cute ’80s and ’90s relics (anything from Sanrio, LEGO, Lisa Frank, Calico Critters) and stickers. Pretty much anything that screams “that’s my childhood,” she’ll buy it.
“My sister will text me photos of 1970s Battlestar Galactica figures from garage sales or estate sales and I’ll reply, ’YES, get me those!” she told HuffPost.
Does she feel guilt over her purchases? Sometimes, but then her happiness overrides it. “I think it is important to keep that sense of magic and excitement over fun things that you just love for no reason other than pure happiness,” she said.
For many grown-ups, play got them out of the pandemic.
“Kidulting has been the source of a whole new community for me online recently. It helps me to feel less isolated in our current landscape of uncertainty and distress,” said Cole Chickering, a YouTuber who collects vintage ’90s and 2000s print media like Nickelodeon Magazine and flips through it, page by page, with his followers. (It’s incredibly charming!)
“My viewers and I have so many nostalgic childhood experiences, and it feels good to share those stories and feel that connection,” Chickering told HuffPost. “Physical paper magazines and catalogs are frozen in time, so they serve as an excellent portal back to a simpler life.”
Tapping into nostalgia the way Chickering does ― especially if you share it with others ― can be a powerful mental health booster.
Though nostalgia was once cast in a negative light ― in 1688, Johannes Hoffer, the Swiss doctor who coined the feeling, called it a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” ― today’s researchers are looking at the bright side. According to a study published in April 2021 in the journal Emotion, nostalgia is a highly social emotion that can bolster our feelings of connectedness with others.
Even getting nostalgic on your own has feel-good benefits; a study published in the same journal in 2016 found that nostalgic people tend to have a healthier sense of self-continuity ― meaning a sense of connection between one’s past and one’s present. (Which is not to say that getting wistful about that past can’t be a little depressing; nostalgia is bittersweet, of course.)
“Overall, I think nostalgia is just comforting,” said Nicole Booz, the founder of GenTwenty.com and author of “The Kidult Handbook.”
“Adults who reminisce [in] the nostalgia of childhood are looking back to a time in their lives where they felt secure, when there was an entire lifetime of possibilities in front of them.”
“Play can foster creative benefits of imagination, fantasy, and the temporary suspension of the limits of reality.”
– Krystine Batcho, professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York
Factor nostalgia in with play and you’re bound to feel better about anything.
“When we engage in pure playfulness, the kind of activities that whisks away time and worry, that’s done solely for sheer enjoyment and fun, the frontal cortex of our brains literally burst into fireworks,” said Meredith Sinclair, a “Today” show contributor and author of “Well Played, The Ultimate Guide to Awakening Your Family’s Playful Spirit.”
Serotonin levels go off “giving us a feeling of well being and contentment while creating a fertile soil for creativity, art, invention, and cognitive flexibility,” Sinclair wrote in an email. “We always come away feeling better for taking the time to play.”
Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York and the author of the “Longing for Nostalgia” blog on Psychology Today, thinks more adults should seek out play when they’re feeling stressed or anxious.
“At first, play might serve as an escape from the burdens of responsibilities, disappointments, or worries but given a chance, play can also revive feelings of awe as ordinary things are seen through curious eyes from a new perspective,” she wrote in an email. “Play can foster creative benefits of imagination, fantasy, and the temporary suspension of the limits of reality.”
Pretending there are no limits or boundaries can be liberating and broaden our sense of what’s possible, Batcho added.
“Putting our mental ‘editor’ on pause for a bit can allow innovative ideas to surface and unexpected options or solutions to problems can come to mind,” she said.
Now that we’ve got you all in on play ― or halfway in if you’re being curmudgeonly and grown-up about it ― play scholars share a few ways to tap into your inner kid below.
Allow yourself to get bored.
Jeff Harry, an international speaker who uses positive psychology and play to help teams and organizations build better workspaces, considers boredom the pivotal starter ingredient for play.
Get good and bored, he said, like as bored as you were during the crazy-making height of lockdown.
“That’s one of the best ways to cultivate your inner child and to hear what your inner child has to say,” he said. “And when your inner child starts telling you all these crazy ideas ― like why don’t why don’t you start a podcast, why don’t you start baking sough-dough bread, why don’t you start a TikTok account ― listen.”
By the way, Harry loves TikTok and looks at it as a digital third space for productivity-free fun: “It’s like a playground for a lot of people who didn’t have the opportunity or space to play before.”
Involve your friends and family.
The experts agreed: Play is considerably better with friends. Round up the people in your life who share mutual hobbies and make playtime a collaborative effort, Batcho said.
“Inviting others to play can enhance the pleasant feelings of youth,” she said.
If you have kids, you have an obvious leg up with play, Batcho said. But regardless of what age groups you’re working with, games are an obvious choice for play.
“You can do an adult scavenger hunt, make homemade Dunkaroos, make playdough or pottery together, or do something like play frisbee golf,” Booz said. “These are activities that are reminiscent of childhood and bring out the best in all of us.”
Or it could be something more unconventional and slightly more adult: During the shelter-at-home stage of the pandemic, I had a friend who hosted boozy Zoom read-throughs of bad movie scripts.
Ask your friends when they’ve seen you most playful and happy.
Not really sure what your “play” of choice is? Call three or more of your closest friends and ask them to indulge you in this “play experiment” that Harry created. Ask them these two questions:
1. What value do I bring to your life?
2. When have you seen me most joyful, alive and playful?
With the value question, you’re asking them what you bring to their lives and what you may be good at. The second, specifically on play, will help you explore who you are in your peak state and what activities you’re doing when you’re in a joyful state, Harry said.
“See what patterns emerge, as they may help you discover a new way for you to play based on capturing the essence of what you used to do in the past,” he said.
Grant yourself permission to play.
If you’re a play agnostic, try to acknowledge that you’re doing something really good for yourself when you play.
“You have to push aside your ego, self-consciousness, and adult responsibilities, let go and embark on a fun-finding mission,” Sinclair said.
Kidulting is not about being childish or immature or time-wasting, Booz said: “It’s about re-embracing the positive parts of childhood as adults so that we can practice healthy escapism and tap into things we truly, deeply love.”
If You Drink To Decompress During The Holidays, Try This Instead
From a stereotypical perspective, the holiday season is filled with family, friends, seasonal decor and special recipes (at least according to every feel-good winter movie, right?).
But the reality is that it’s not all cheer between gift shopping, wrapping up end-of-year projects, seasonal affective disorder and holiday loneliness. Many people across the U.S. let loose with booze to decompress — and not just because it’s a popular time for gathering over drinks and celebrating during paid time off.
Hangovers aside, alcohol can cause mental health struggles, liver problems and sleep disturbances — not to mention: even binge drinking just during the holidays can be detrimental to one’s health. After writing about drinking booze for years (as my day job) and attending parties for years (for work and fun), I took a shot at a drink-free month ― and then I wrote about the benefits. My book, ”The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month,” is about how to give up alcohol for 29-31 days, even if you have a holiday, celebration or stressful events on the calendar.
During that my first dry month in January 2017, and in the years since, I’ve discovered ways to de-stress that don’t involve wine, beer, spirits or cocktails. Whether you give up the bottle for good or simply drink less alcohol this holiday season, there are an abundance of options to help you decompress that don’t involve booze. Read on for tips and tricks:
Set the tone for yourself and others
Drinks are the norm at parties, dinners, and late-night chats with friends. In some cases, we don’t remember the evening. And in the morning, hangovers follow. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Make a plan for yourself. Envision what the next 24 hours will look like. That means scheduling a morning coffee with a family member, friend or workout (so I am held accountable for my plans).
“Before sobriety, Thanksgiving looked like a hangover — sleeping until the afternoon and showering right before we sat down to dinner,” said Elisa Hallerman, the founder of Recovery Management Agency. Hallerman, who is 20 years sober, now has a different Turkey-day schedule. She helps her sister cook, participates in storytelling, watches movies with her family, and takes a walk on the beach in the morning.
Aside from setting expectations for yourself, you also should set them with others. Corey O’Brien, 31, doesn’t remember Thanksgiving before getting sober. Now, after 10 years without alcohol, the Los Angeles-based dancer and TikTok personality is frank about his lifestyle. If offered a drink during the holidays (or anytime, year-round), he transparently tells people about his alcohol use disorder. “It’s an icebreaker and straight to the point,” he said.
Try a non-alcoholic option
In 2022, there are a plethora of nonalcoholic beers, wines (including sparkling ones), and spirits for every palate. You can buy ready-made, pre-mixed booze-free cocktails or shake and stir your own at home (if you feel creative).
O’Brien opts for Martinelli’s sparkling cider every holiday and celebration, while Hallerman’s go-to is hot tea so she can be present, warm and cozy. For a sweet treat, she prefers a more nostalgic beverage: hot chocolate. “The smell and the taste bring you right back to feeling like a kid again and just being happy with an extra marshmallow in your cup,” she said.
Prepare a booze-free gift you and everyone else can enjoy
Often guests bring bottles of wine for their hosts and hostesses. Instead, bring a dish, dessert or something else that everyone (including kids) can enjoy. Hallerman noted that it’s also nice to bring something homemade, which you may also benefit from. Research shows activities like doing crafts or baking promote a sense of relaxation.
“You can also stop and get beautiful flowers or a centerpiece for the table,” Hallerman said. “You can bring something fun for everyone to do, like a game or a huge puzzle.” Bonus points if you find a more personal gift to commemorate the day.
Pass the time with activities that engage your hands or brain
I’m a natural busybody: working out, cooking and catching up on streaming movies during the holidays is the best way (for me) to stay alcohol-free. As silly as it sounds — while everyone else is relaxing, drinking, not making concrete plans and letting their calendars rest — I tend to pack my days with fun things that keep me occupied.
“You might cook, prepare the table, or be of service in any way to the host,” Hallerman said. “I love to connect and play with the kids and leave all the grown-up worries at the door. Watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is an excellent pastime; then, of course, there’s football.”
O’Brien’s best advice is to eat everything in sight, second to connecting with his company. “The most important would be spending time with loved ones and having genuine and meaningful conversations,” he said. “Life can be so hectic, and the time I get to share with loved ones is precious.”
If you haven’t seen a friend or family member in a while, prepare some topics in advance, like stories you want to share, hot TV shows of the moment, or what everyone’s looking forward to in the coming year.
Phone a friend who supports you
To be blunt, sometimes these tips work flawlessly and sometimes you need a little extra support ― especially when you’re in unfamiliar territory (like visiting a new partner’s family) or seeing people who don’t understand your lifestyle choices (read: resisting a drink).
It’s important to lean on your circle for encouragement (and venting). Having someone to count on at your fingertips can be extremely helpful and comforting, whether that means bringing a buddy to dinner, excusing yourself to make a call from the bathroom or sending a text from the table.
And, next year, you can always plan your holidays differently if this is something you plan on doing again. “Spend the holidays in an environment that allows you to fill your soul with love,” Hallerman said.
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.
11 Ways Parents Make Their Kids Feel Guilty Without Realizing It
We’ve all been on the receiving end of a guilt trip — from parents, other family members, teachers, you name it. But even if the emotion does lead to changed behavior, that doesn’t mean it’s always a good thing, especially for kids.
“Guilt may work in the moment to stop a behavior, but the long-term effects on a child’s emotions is not helpful or healthy,” said parenting educator Laura Linn Knight. “Parents can use their own experience of how guilt and shame have had a negative impact in their life as a reminder to leave guilt out of their conversations with their children.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s an entirely bad thing either. As kids develop empathy and compassion, they also start to experience feelings of guilt when their actions have a negative impact on others or otherwise violate their values.
“Guilt is not always bad ― especially if it comes from inside, not from outside based on something a parent said,” said Keneisha Sinclair-McBride, a clinical psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts. “Kids are building their internal guiding principles in real time — it’s important to not lose sight of that.”
Parents should be mindful of their role in this. Even if you’re not seeking to guilt-trip your children, there are other common behaviors and comments that make kids feel guilty. Speaking to HuffPost, experts broke down some parenting approaches that instill guilt and should be avoided.
Piling On When They Make Mistakes
“It’s important to separate the kid from the action,” Sinclair-McBride said. “Your kid, whom you love, did something that frustrates you. That’s all. When you put the kid and the action together, this can cause guilt.”
She advised against saying things like “You’re so careless!” when your kid forgets to turn in their homework or “You’re so sloppy!” when they make a mess.
“Parents often do this without realizing it in the heat of the moment because they are tired and frustrated,” Sinclair-McBride said. “Better to take a deep breath and just describe the action and any potential consequences: ‘You forgot to turn in your homework. You worked hard on that. What happened?’ Or ‘I asked you to clean up your art supplies, and they are all over the floor still. Now we need to clean up instead of watching a show before bed.’”
Rather than making emotionally charged, judgmental comments, get your kids into problem-solving mode. Mistakes are opportunities for learning, not shaming.
“If a young child tears a library book and the parent responds angrily with ‘Look what you’ve done! You’ve ruined it! They’ll never let you take any more books out!’ the child may well feel overwhelmed by their parent’s anger, and could internalize that into feeling like they’re a bad kid and they can never fix what they’ve done,” said Kristene Geering, the director of education at Parent Lab, a parenting education resource. “Now compare that with responding: ‘Oh dear, the page is torn, and this book doesn’t belong to you. How do you think we can fix it?’”
The second option still acknowledges the mistake and impact on others but encourages kids to come up with a solution.
“Kids may feel discomfort when they break something that matters to a family member,” echoed Deborah Farmer Kris, a parent educator. “That sense of remorse or guilt can prompt them to come tell us what happened and to make amends. That’s worth celebrating, because it takes courage to say you are sorry and figure out how to move forward.”
Take on the role of coaching and teaching, not shaming and blaming. Kris recommended helping kids connect the dots between their actions and other people’s emotions by saying things like: “When you call your little brother names, it hurts his feelings. I know you get frustrated with him, so let’s brainstorm other ways to handle that feeling.”
Letting Them Feel Responsible For Your Bad Mood
“Kids are by nature self-centered because it’s developmentally appropriate for them to be,” Sinclair-McBride noted. “This means they can take on guilt regarding things for which they actually aren’t responsible. Younger kids are also pretty concrete, so they can interpret guilt and feeling bad about their actions as evidence that they are bad — ‘I did a bad thing, so I’m bad.’”
Children are also very attuned to their caregivers’ moods and behavior, so they may become upset and feel guilty when they notice a parent is upset.
“They will usually believe they are the cause of the parental distress and have a heightened and amplified sense of it,” said psychotherapist Noel McDermott. “You can’t avoid the feelings, but you can acknowledge them and process them with your kids.”
He recommended giving hugs and other shows of affection to reassure younger children that they are loved. Make it clear to older kids that your distress has nothing to do with them, but don’t go into specifics. Emphasize that you recognized your bad feelings and processed them, and try to avoid letting your frustrations impact future interactions with your child.
“On occasion we lash out, are unfair and take things out on them, even for a minor infraction or for no infraction at all,” said Dr. Gene Beresin, a Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor and the executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Examples include a child interrupting and a parent, under stress from work or other pressures, inappropriately blows up at the child.”
“Many a parent has gotten frustrated in traffic when driving to a variety of after-school youth activities,” added Craig Knippenberg, a therapist and the author of “Wired and Connected: Brain-Based Solutions To Ensure Your Child’s Social and Emotional Success.”
“That stress might come out in a statement of frustration about the activity and leaves your child feeling guilty about their activity,” Knippenberg said.
He recalled a time in his childhood when he suggested a family outing to a Daniel Boone museum. On the long drive home, some tar from a freshly paved road got on his dad’s Thunderbird.
“He was very upset and angry and made a side comment about this trip that we were on,” Knippenberg said. “In the back, I was in tears and overwhelmed with guilt that I had caused this mishap. ‘If only I hadn’t made the suggestion,’ I remembered thinking.”
Fighting In Front Of Your Kids
Because children are naturally egocentric, they may believe they’re to blame for parental disagreements. So it’s best to avoid blowing up in front of your kids.
“Your child might express a desire to play youth league football,” Knippenberg said. “Later in the evening, the parents might be discussing this desire and things get heated up when you realize you have two very different views on the subject. Kids don’t like when parents argue, so when they hear it, they might go down the path of ‘This is my fault — if only I hadn’t brought up playing football.’”
In the process of planning a child’s birthday party, parents may notice the costs have exceeded the budget and get upset with each other, leading the child to think they caused the problem because it was their party.
“You have to remember that children aren’t able to understand the complexities of adult relationships and adult emotions,” Knippenberg said. “Rather than understanding that their parents are stressed and maybe have a hard time communicating, they just go right to themselves as the cause for the distress and, subsequently, feel guilty.”
He advised getting on the same page before discussing these sorts of situations in front of or with your child. Affirm their desires and calmly explain how your views might differ.
Calling Them ‘Good’ Or ‘Bad’
“Some children will internalize guilt and feel that their guilt makes them a ‘bad kid,’” Knight said. “This feeling of unworthiness can develop over time into shame if the child is not supported in working through their feelings.”
She advised parents to be mindful of the words they use when children are behaving in a way they like or don’t like.
“Using the language of ‘bad boy/girl’ or ‘good boy/girl’ with your child can unintentionally create pathways in a child’s brain where they are continually assessing themselves as good or bad,” Knight said. “When a child is in the habit of thinking of themselves as good or bad, it can lead to higher feelings of guilt, perfectionism and create unhealthy coping strategies that make the child want to stay in the ‘good’ role (which we know is hard to do and doesn’t honor the fallibility that all us humans have).”
On the flip side, when a child feels labeled as “bad,” they may internalize this notion and misbehave accordingly. To dispel these narratives, parents can try to use clear language.
“For example, if your child yells at you, instead of saying, ‘You’re a bad kid for yelling at me!’ try saying: ‘I love and care about you. However, the behavior of yelling is not OK,’” said Knight.
“Then, when your child has calmed down, you can talk about how all humans make mistakes and we all have things we are working on. Help your child learn new behaviors by focusing on solutions.”
Not Providing The Opportunity To Make Amends
When kids act out or mess up, it’s essential that they have the opportunity to make amends. Parents should try to process their feelings of hurt or frustration and be open to their child’s apology.
“If the parent is available, responsive and accepts reparations from the child (kisses and hugs, a present the next day, a drawing) without resentment, the guilt is resolved,” Beresin said. “If, on the other hand, the parent reacts to the child’s anger with abandonment or retaliation, then it fuels the anxiety and guilt, and prevents resolution.”
Older kids and teens also need to have the opportunity to make reparations and resolve their guilt when they break the rules.
“The parent may punish the teen, and this may be important, but most importantly the parent needs to be emotionally available for an apology, making amends and accepting them,” Beresin said. “It is also important to have conversations about what went wrong, why the teen broke a rule, got themselves in trouble, and have the opportunity, again with the parent available to receive an apology and reparations, to help the teen learn right from wrong.”
He shared the story of a time he and his wife went away for a weekend, and their teenage daughter threw a wild party that resulted in a broken window.
“For the next week, she was grounded from social events, though could attend school and sport,” he recalled. “During that period, she was the ideal teen — taking out the garbage, asking to cook meals, feeding the dogs and more. All were reparations for her making a bad choice. We had many conversations about responsibility, trust and rational decision-making.”
Being receptive to her apology gave his daughter the opportunity to make amends and resolve her guilt, which ultimately strengthened their relationship. She learned the value of taking responsibility for her transgressions and developed greater empathy and awareness of her behavior’s impact on others.
Issuing Overly Harsh Punishments
“Punishments must fit the crime,” Beresin emphasized. “If your child violates a rule or acts in an aggressive, hostile or insulting matter, a timeout or punishment may be in order. But consider how serious the transgression was and consider a punishment that is consistent with the violation.”
He advised also using that punishment time to talk about what happened and show openness to resolving the situation and making amends.
“Excessive punishments, and especially ones that are way out of order given the situation, are unnecessary and experienced as aggression rather than justice in action, and often are more likely to result in longer-lasting guilt as well as unreasonableness,” Beresin said.
Avoiding Conversations About Feelings
“Have frequent conversations about emotions and behavior,” Beresin recommended. “The more we ‘debrief’ after an incident, the more we are able to process what happened. Ask open-ended questions, like ‘What did I just do, and how did it make you feel?’ or ‘How does it make you feel when I yell like that?’”
Rather than brush past or push away the topic of difficult feelings, be sure to listen to your child and validate their emotions.
“Many children experience guilt in their body. And because they may not be able to articulate their feelings of guilt, their emotions may be processed as a stomachache, hurting head or an overall icky feeling in the body,” Knight noted.
Encourage your child to describe those feelings of guilt and how the other person might be feeling as well. Talk about what went wrong and how they can make it better.
“Even in calm situations when no one has done any wrong, talk about concern for others, empathy, acts of kindness and the kinds of warm, caring behavior we all want to achieve,” Beresin said. “Remember that all kids want approval, and knowing what you value and hope for are good ways for them to know to do the right things.”
Acknowledge when your child demonstrates caring behavior and discuss how great it feels to treat others with kindness.
Projecting Your Goals Onto Them
It’s not uncommon for parents to sign their children up for activities they wish they’d had the opportunity to excel at during their own childhoods. Whether it’s cello lessons or ice hockey practice, take the time to assess whether your child actually wants to engage in this activity and if it’s enhancing their life.
Avoid getting too emotionally invested and carried away with your dreams and goals for their success. Otherwise, you may make your child feel like they’re doing something terribly wrong for gravitating toward a different path.
“A common trap is when parents go beyond what they really want to be doing for their child,” Knippenberg said. “Then, when your child has a very normal feeling of not wanting to go to practice, it’s easy to start bringing up how ungrateful they are for all you are doing.”
These sorts of comments aren’t a recipe for long-term success, either.
“Guilt may get something done, but it won’t help intrinsically motivate your kid,” Sinclair-McBride said. “Do you want your kids to obey you simply because they don’t want to hear your mouth and feel guilty, or because you want them to take pride in achieving their goals and being a positive member of your household? The second choice is going to get them further in life. It takes more patience as a parent but is more rewarding.”
Speaking Pointedly About Other People’s Kids
Be mindful of the way you talk about other children. Whether or not that’s the intention, parents who constantly bring up a peer’s kids are setting their own children up to feel compared and inadequate.
“When you say things like ‘My friend Jane’s kids make her breakfast in bed every Sunday’ and ‘Becky’s daughter Susie won the chess championship at her school,’ the ending of ‘And you don’t/didn’t’ is implied,” said Susan G. Groner, the author of “Parenting with Sanity & Joy” and founder of The Parenting Mentor, which provides coaching services.
“Instead, refrain from sharing this,” she added. “Think hard what your real reason is for sharing, and chances are it may be to compare.”
Not Apologizing For Or Owning Up To Your Own Mistakes
“Always apologize and make amends if you are out of line,” Beresin advised. “For example, if we yell at a child for being loud due to playing and being excited, we need to be aware that they are just kids, and our yelling at them is experienced as disapproval and instilling guilt.”
In this situation, he suggested saying something like “Hey, we both should use our indoor voices” and then picking the child up and giving them a big hug.
If you feel like you went too far in making your child feel bad about something, take the time to apologize. Parents sometimes fear that apologizing to their kids undermines their sense of authority, but it actually sows respect and models courage and accountability.
Using Emotional Coercion
“As little ones, the greatest joy for a child is to see their caregivers happy,” said therapist Margaret Ward-Martin. “All they want to do is to please them and so they will — at the cost, sometimes, of what they want, thus giving rise to the disease of people-pleasing. Children feel bad if they feel they have let the grown-ups in their lives down; this is guilt.”
Ward-Martin shared some phrases that induce guilt in children, like “I don’t ask much but please spend the holidays at home” or “I gave up my carer to be a stay-at-home parent to you.” Comments like “I love it when you smile” or “I know I never have to worry about you” can make a younger child feel like they won’t be loved if they feel unhappy or need help. If you’re divorced and say you feel sad when they spend time with their other parent, you put your child in a difficult position as well.
“To break the cycle, look at how you were parented,” Ward-Martin advised. “Did you feel you were good enough? There enough? Earned enough? Please understand that guilt induction is a form of manipulation. You need to know the difference between right and wrong — fair enough — but not to be someone other than who you are to be loved. Guilt in its purest form is a healthy conscience. In its worst, it is coercive control of the child.”
What Makes A ‘Core Memory’?
“Core memories” aren’t a real concept in neuroscience or in mental health. Instead, the idea was made famous by the Pixar movie “Inside Out,” in which core memories are described as “a super important time in [someone’s] life” and a memory that “powers a different aspect of [someone’s] personality.”
In the real world, the idea of core memories remains in the cultural zeitgeist way beyond the film. Now, TikTok videos of special moments are frequently shared using #corememory, while parents of little kids are often heard noting what experiences they hope are a “core memory” for their child.
When asked why this phrase resonates with people, Anthony Quarles, a therapist at Quarles Counseling in Virginia Beach, said it comes down to nostalgia for the good old days.
“As we grapple with uncertain times, people seem to want to go back to when things felt safer, easier or simpler for them,” he said, adding that life has been more challenging lately as we continue to live through the COVID pandemic.
Additionally, Nicole Dudukovic, director of the neuroscience major at the University of Oregon, said research suggests that memories don’t actually contribute much to our personalities — people who have amnesia don’t experience a personality change — but memories do “contribute to our sense of identity.” Meaning that many people view their memories as something that has changed them in some way.
Memories are flawed, which makes them a challenge in neuroscience and mental health.
You may have a good memory, but there is no such thing as a perfect memory — memories are inaccurate, both experts said.
According to Dudukovic, “in the memory world, we don’t really think about specific, special memories that are really formative for people. That’s true for a lot of reasons. A lot of those ‘core memories’ are things that may have happened in childhood, and there’s actually a lot we don’t remember from our childhood.”
Beyond that, memories can change from the time we are kids to when we are adults, Dudukovic said. “There’s this idea [that] every time we’re remembering something, it’s this reconstructive process where our memories are actually changing … so as we’re remembering, we’re changing our memories.”
So, the idea that you’re able to just retrieve memories from years ago doesn’t match up with the science of memory. While you are getting a picture of your past through these memories, you aren’t getting the full story.
Events tied to strong emotions are more likely to be remembered.
There’s a reason why moments of extreme happiness or intense anxiety may feel etched in your brain. According to Dudukovic, events that elicit an emotional response are often turned into memories.
“There’s a lot of evidence to show that emotional events are more likely to be remembered overall than things [that] are more neutral or less emotionally [charged], but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re remembered more accurately,” Dudukovic said.
Quarles added that through a mental health lens, emotionally driven memories may return to you when that particular emotion comes up again. So, if you feel extreme excitement ahead of an upcoming party, your mind may go back to the last time you felt excitement.
“Core memories” aren’t always happy ones.
While the videos using the core memories hashtag on TikTok often showcase euphoric moments, Quarles stressed that “our core memories aren’t necessarily happy memories.” They can also be a sad, fearful or angry ones.
What’s more, core memories can also be traumatic, which “are long-lasting memories for a lot of people,” Quarles said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that traumatic events are “marked by a sense of horror, helplessness, serious injury or the threat of serious injury or death.” So, this could be anything from a car accident to an assault to the sudden loss of a loved one. Signs that your memory is associated with trauma could be nightmares after you encounter a trigger or think of the event, avoiding activities that remind you of the memory or having flashbacks of the traumatic experience.
Of course, not all memories associated with a negative emotion are trauma. But if that is the case, it’s worth getting professional help. There are many resources for mental health support, including the Psychology Today database and Therapy for Black Girls.
There are a few actions you can take to create core memories.
“It’s really hard to predict what you will remember, but there are certain things that … help make these memories stick and last longer,” Dudukovic said.
It all comes down to how you’re processing these moments, she said. “Are you thinking about them a lot? Are you thinking [about them] in a deep, meaningful way?”
Intentionally thinking about moments that you hope will turn into memories — and even rehearsing them in your head — can help make them more likely to become memories, Dudukovic added.
You can also try using retrieval cues, which are tools that help you access memories. “The idea is that if you were listening to [a] song while you were on vacation, it becomes connected to your memories of the vacation,” she explained, “and then later when you hear that song again, it serves as a cue that allows you to retrieve those memories from the vacation.”
Pictures can also be used as a memory retrieval cue when you take time to think about the pictures you’re looking at and the moment they depict, she added.
Having more ways to access memories and connect them to physical things can only help you retrieve them as time passes, she said.
Uterine Fibroids Linked To Chemicals Found In Common Products
Approximately 80% of reproductive-aged women develop uterine fibroids —non-cancerous tumors that grow in the uterus — yet it’s often unclear what causes them.
Scientists have long suspected that genetics play a role, as do hormones, diet and major life stressors. New research from scientists at Northwestern University suggests that chemicals we’re exposed to in everyday life may also contribute to the development of uterine fibroids in many women.
According to the report, these chemicals — which are found in plastics used in food packaging, medical products (like IV bags, for example), and cosmetics — disrupt endocrine function and can lead to the growth of hormone-sensitive tumors like uterine fibroids. Even though these chemicals are toxic and can directly harm human tissue when ingested or inhaled, they are permitted in the United States and used commonly and frequently.
Past research has identified a link between endocrine-disrupting chemicals and uterine fibroids and other hormone-sensitive health conditions like breast cancer and endometriosis. But this report, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is one of the first to identify how these chemicals impair hormone function.
“Currently unbanned environmental pollutants, called phthalates, cause significant reproductive problems including the growth of uterine fibroids using stimulating distinct molecular pathways in these tumors,” corresponding study author Dr. Serdar Bulun, chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a Northwestern Medicine physician told HuffPost.
For the study, the researchers measured the amount of DEHP – the most commonly used endocrine-disrupting phthalate — in the urine of 712 participants. According to the report, we are constantly exposed to DEHP through medical products, food, drinks and dust that hangs in the air.
The team found that those with higher levels of DEHP traces in their urine had a greater risk of having a symptomatic uterine fibroid. Every 10% increase in phthalate concentration was associated with a 6% higher risk of fibroid development.
The researchers also explored why phthalates affect fibroid growth by exposing cells from some of the patients’ fibroid tumors to various types of phthalate metabolites or the substances that are leftover after phthalates are metabolized in the body.
They found that high doses of phthalates activated a hormone pathway that helped fibroid cells survive and expand. “We detected the phthalate DEHP and its breakdown products in much higher quantities in the urine of women who also have symptomatic uterine fibroid tumors. Then we asked the question of whether this association was causal. And the answer was yes,” Bulun said.
What we know about endocrine-disrupting chemicals and our health
Past research has associated endocrine-disrupting chemicals with uterine fibroids, suggesting that the higher the phthalate concentration in the body is, the greater the risk of uterine fibroids. Evidence has also linked these types of chemicals to breast cancer, endometriosis, ovarian aging, and decreased sperm production and function, Bulun said.
Scientists have suspected that phthalates facilitate fibroid cell growth by mimicking or blocking estrogen and progesterone production — two hormones that stimulate fibroid growth in people’s reproductive years — but the evidence has been limited. According to Shannon Whirledge, an associate term professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at Yale School of Medicine, our understanding of how endocrine-disrupting chemicals can impact our health is in its infancy.
But these new findings shed some light on how toxins in our environment change some of our hormonal processes and contribute to the development of uterine fibroids and other reproductive health conditions. “Because the way uterine fibroids develop and grow is not well-understood, this new study is certainly important to uncovering the potential mechanisms by which a woman’s environmental exposures may increase her risk for uterine fibroids,” Whirledge said.
Unfortunately, though commonly-used chemicals are tested for toxicity, their ability to mess with endocrine function is not closely examined, mainly because the health effects can be tricky to evaluate. “The effects aren’t always related to dose, and sometimes big effects are seen at low or high doses, and the effects of endocrine disruptors are not always immediately apparent,” Whirledge said, adding that it’s clear they can significantly alter our health throughout our lifespan.
“This new study is certainly important to uncovering the potential mechanisms by which a woman’s environmental exposures may increase her risk for uterine fibroids.”
– Shannon Whirledge, associate term professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences
Should we avoid certain products?
It’s worth considering, according to Bulun. He recommends avoiding plastic bottles and plastic food packaging — opt for glass containers when possible and avoid polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-containing products packed with phthalates.
It’s a bit harder to completely dodge phthalates since they’re everywhere. “These chemicals are included in hundreds of different products, and in most cases, they won’t be listed on the product packaging labels,” Whirledge said. Bulun recommends carefully checking the ingredients in any foods, makeup or household products that you use. Look for microwave-safe containers, toys and consumer products that are labeled phthalate-free. Because so many medical products contain high levels of phthalates, it may be worth asking your healthcare provider if they have any phthalate-free options.
The best way to effectuate change — build public awareness. Think back to the case of BPA: growing evidence and public pressure eventually pushed legislators to ban the substance from being used in certain products like baby bottles.
The same can, hopefully, happen with phthalates, according to Whirledge. “The study from Dr. Bulun’s group is a great step towards building that foundation of research needed to understand how phthalate exposure can impact health and disease risk so that women can advocate for safer products,” Whirledge said.
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