Mental Platter: Psych hack#1 - Chew gum to reduce post-traumatic stress
Chewing gum reduces stress, makes you smarter, and helps you lose weight
From anxiety and mood disorders including some eating disorders, depression, and posttraumatic stress (PTSD), there are many conditions that can negatively impact your mental health every day. Chronic stress is a global health problem that can lead to various physical and mental diseases. The symptoms of chronic stress can severely interrupt your daily existence and have long-term consequences that may be difficult to mitigate. Some people, such as persons with PTSD, have a lower tolerance for stress.
What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault... PTSD can occur in all people, in people of any ethnicity, nationality or culture, and any age. It affects approximately 3.5 percent of U.S. adults… Women are twice as likely as men to have PTSD.”
A person with PTSD may experience a mentally constant replay of a traumatic event. Certain places or things could trigger disturbing memories. He or she might have nightmares, mental numbness, and or a hyper awareness of the surrounding environment that disrupts mood. It is not uncommon for people with PTSD to become reclusive, startle easily, avoid reminders of the traumatic event, lose interest in things they used to care about, and find it hard to concentrate on tasks and in conversations. Effective treatments for PTSD include Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) or Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). Medication such as Depakote (Divalproex) can also help ease symptoms (I take this med daily).
How I cope with PTSD
I have lived with PTSD for 37 years (since the age of 6). In my dark ages and until my most recent hospital release in November of 2019, I was suffering from PTSD, Major Depression, and Schizoaffective Bipolar Disorder. I contemplated suicide and prepared to swallow a bottle full of antipsychotic prescription pills. I ran away from home in the middle of the night but went back before the morning. I experienced severe hyperarousal, an over sensitivity to my surroundings that manifested in being easily startled and often anxious about leaving home (agoraphobia).
In May of 2000, I completed a BA in Psychology and a BA in General Studies (although I chose to attend commencement in 2001 for this degree so that I could “graduate” twice). I initially studied psychology seeking self-help for PTSD. I tried to do self-therapy because "going to a shrink" was highly stigmatized. Seeing a therapist meant that you were weak. That stigma has changed (although it has not completed disappeared) largely due to the work of the National Alliance on Mental Health.
To help manage my mental health, I currently visit (or tele-visit due to COVID-19) a psychotherapist twice a month. I visit a psychiatrist every three months, or sooner if necessary. I take two different medications every morning and three every night. I listen to soothing music as much as possible, and blog daily. I also write books.
My therapist allows me to vent my life issues in a safe and productive way, gain a deeper understanding of how to implement CPT or CBT, and how to get the best results out of my life experiences. My psychiatrist helps me to understand the impact of my prescribed medications, what to do in an emergency, and how to know when I am at my limit for stimulation, stress, and anxiety, in order to maintain mental health. And now that I know what chewing does to symptoms of stress, focus, and my daily calorie count (since I am on a diet and gum has much fewer calories than anything else I eat), I chew gum every day.
How chewing gum reduces stress
Although the benefits of gum chewing on stress remain a matter of debate, studies show that mastication (chewing) is an effective stress-coping behavior that causes alterations in the nervous system, hippocampus, hypothalamus, plasma, and salivary cortisol levels.
The hippocampus mainly controls spatial cognitive function and is sensitive to stress and aging. Hypothalamus controls cardiovascular activity. Cortisol reduces mental stress. This could be why eating for comfort food is so irresistible. It naturally calms you. Nail-biting, teeth-clenching, and biting on objects such as pencils, are also outlets for emotional tension or stress. Loss of chewing ability is an epidemiologic risk factor for Alzheimer's disease.
How chewing gum makes you smarter
In addition to relieving stress, gum chewing is reported to improve task performance. Chewing gum is associated with increased alertness and more positive mood. In a study conducted by Andrew Smith, reaction times were faster in subjects who were allowed to chew gum. Chewing gum also improved selective and sustained attention. Maternal chewing during prenatal stress appears to effectively prevent learning deficits in the adult offspring.
Scholey et al. of the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, UK investigated the effects of chewing gum on multitasking efficiency and found that chewing gum significantly increases self-rated levels of alertness, decreases self-rated levels of anxiety and stress, reduces salivary cortisol levels, and enhances overall task performance. People who chewed throughout tests of both long-term and short-term memory produced significantly better scores than people who did not.
How chewing gum could help you lose weight
Need to shed a few pounds? I recently found a weight loss weapon: sugar free chewing gum. (I like Wrigley's Extra, Watermelon). This is a low calorie answer to the strong urge to chew when you feel like snacking (which adds to your daily calorie count unnecessarily and is sometimes an excuse to eat something even when you are full or not hungry in your stomach). Fewer calories mean less weight gain from day to day.
I usually eat candy or mints while I am at work, walking around and when I am not helping customers. It keeps me happy. Even though I am not hungry, I just feel like eating or chewing something. The morning of July 1, while I was at work, I had three sticks of watermelon gum (only 5 calories a piece) in my apron. I worked a five-hour shift and chewed all three pieces of gum - a total of 15 calories as opposed to my typical 400+ calories worth of candy and mints.
Taking swallows intermittently throughout the work shift, I drank one bottle of BODYARMOR mango juice - 120 calories a bottle as opposed to my typical Arizona mango juice that is 100 calories per serving with 4 servings in a 1 Liter bottle (that's 400 calories - a full meal's worth in a single drink).
In my total workday, I went from 800+ calories to a 665-calorie reduction at 120 + 15 = 135. Chewing gum kept me from even thinking about candy or chewing fistfuls of mints for my whole shift. On my break, I did not even buy Peanut M&M's like I usually do (250 calories a pkg). When I left work, I was not even hungry after consuming only 135 calories during the full work shift. This is astounding since I usually still feel like eating after consuming 800+ calories (not including breakfast) at work before noon!
Are you prone to overeating, which is a primary source of weight gain? Try chewing sugar free gum for a while to pass the time with fewer calories and satisfy your urge to chew. It really works!
Kubo K., Iinuma M., and Chen H. (2015, May 18). Mastication as a Stress-Coping Behavior. National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4450283/
PTSD. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Accessed July 20, 2020. https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/ptsd/index.asp
Scholey A, Haskell C, Robertson B, Kennedy D, Milne A, Wetherell M. (2009, Jun 22). Chewing gum alleviates negative mood and reduces cortisol during acute laboratory psychological stress. Physiology & Behavior; 97(3-4):304-12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19268676/
Young, Emma. (2002, March 13). NewScientist. Chewing gum improves memory. https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn2039-chewing-gum-improves-memory/
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