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Prevention in Practice

Sloooow down. Stop your headache in its tracks

"Trying to do everything at once means failing at everything."

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799), German physicist

The stress epidemic

In a 2018 study by Turner and Houle, headache patients were asked what factors commonly trigger their pain. Three-quarters said stress was the main trigger, closely followed by "irregular meals" and "not staying hydrated." These answers are consistent with the massive increase in stress-related health problems observed by doctors and social scientists in recent decades. Stress is high on the agenda of the World Health Organization (WHO), which even calls it “the health epidemic of the 21st century”. Slowing your pace is an obvious way to reduce your risk and counteract stress-related health hazards.

So much to do, so little time

Everyone deals with it differently, but anxiety and lack of time are common to us all. Many people feel constantly under pressure, stressed out, unable to keep up, struggling to cope – a pervasive anxiety that seems to be increasingly common these days, to the point where it has reached epidemic proportions. The pace of life is getting faster for everyone, everywhere: at work, at home, even at play. Self-optimization has become the mantra of success. Not choosing to join the race for perfection can condemn a person as a “weirdo” or “loser”.

Constantly on the run

There is a widespread belief that you save time by jam-packing each available time slot with action and experiences. It starts on the operational level, by assigning less and less time to the achievement of a defined result. A prime example is speed dating, which used to be about matchmaking eligible singles but has now found its way to scientific conferences, trade fairs and exhibitions. Research results, marketing messages, product concepts and application forms change hands every minute. Multitasking is another part of the same trend.

The myth of multitasking

Doing more than one task at the same time – multitasking – used to be considered the ultimate in enhancing  work efficiency. That view only lasted until scientific research revealed the actual effects of doing multiple things at once. Exal Ophir and others investigated the cognitive effects of multitasking in a Stanford University experiment. Participants were split into two groups, heavy media multitaskers and light media multitaskers, i.e. people who regularly do a lot of media multitasking and people who do not. The participants were given tasks to complete and assessed on their ability to switch between those tasks. The results were quite the eye-opener: Participants who regularly did less multitasking did much better on task-switching than the high multitaskers who should have found it easy. Heavy multitaskers who would have been expected to cope with doing multiple things at once did worse and made more mistakes. The authors attribute this surprising result to multitaskers finding it harder to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information. "They’re distracted all the time," said one co-author.

French neuroscientists Sylvain Charron and Etienne Koechlin used imaging techniques to show that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for simultaneous processing of different tasks, very likely cannot process two tasks same time. Neurophysiologist Henning Beck once put it this way: "Multitasking is an anatomical impossibility for the brain. You can practice all you want.” So if you talk on the phone and write an email at the same time, your brain manages by constantly switching back and forth between the two activities. Far from saving time, multitasking does the opposite, Beck says: “It doesn’t save time. You’re not doing any of the activities right. The back and forth uses up too many of the brain’s resources. The difference is measurable. When you multitask, you make more mistakes, and you waste energy.” No wonder trying to do too many things at once gives you a headache. It’s because your brain is simply overwhelmed.

Shifting down a gear helps

In this rat race we call life, health problems abound. Recurring or chronic headache, poor concentration and indigestion are common manifestations. Cardiovascular disease is another well-documented consequence of stress. The common denominator in all these issues is constant stress – sometimes triggered by external factors, but often internal. And therein lies the key to recovery. Take it down a notch, de-compress, don’t overload yourself.

Start by taking baby steps to win back control over your time. Consider your approach to seminar papers, homework and exam preparation. Schedule a realistic period of time for each upcoming project. Evidence from neuroscience suggests it’s better not to have multiple projects on the go at once or nested in each other. Regular breaks that you schedule and stick to are not a waste of time but a great way to free up valuable headspace.

A few little changes in your leisure time activities can do a lot to help you relax. If you need to stand in line in the dining hall, don’t feel you have to spend every second checking your phone or firing off emails. Your brain will thank you for a little time off from the constant barrage of photos, videos, news and trivia. Treat it to a digital detox. Put your phone and laptop away for a few hours in another room, close the door and pick up a book. It can work wonders.

And to all you confirmed indoor dwellers out there: you need to (literally) get out more! A short spell outdoors, a few stretches on your balcony, a walk in the park, an errand on foot, a sit-down coffee in a café instead of a cup to go – all these little things will help you relax, clear your head and banish headaches.

If you take a close look at your daily schedule, you will almost certainly notice ingrained habits that use up a lot more of your time and concentration than they deserve. Getting rid of even half of them will detox your day in a significant way.

The big rethink

Universities and companies are starting to introduce policies to counteract the effects of our fast-paced society. It makes good business sense, after all. Just look at the economic cost of stress-related absenteeism. Some companies are now limiting employee access to business email accounts to specific hours of the day. This is to stop workers from staying up all hours answering work emails. Strange as it may sound, some people apparently need to be saved from themselves – by enforced digital detox.

Ensuring strict compliance with breaks is another trend, and some companies are piloting relaxation programs. Policies like these are part of a larger social rethink. More and more people are realizing that quality of life is not just about the amount of money you earn and how you spend it. Instead, they want more choice in how they spend their time on earth, a reasonable pace of life, and mindfulness in how they treat themselves and others. A slower-paced life means less stress. And less room for headaches.

  • 1. Turner DP, Lebowitz AD, Chtay I, Houle TT. Forecasting Migraine Attacks and the Utility of Identifying Triggers. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2018 Jul 16;22(9):62. doi: 10.1007/s11916-18-0715-3. Review.

    2. Turner DP, Houle TT. Influences on headache trigger beliefs and perceptions. Cephalalgia. 2018 Aug;38(9):1545-1553. doi: 10.1177/0333102417739310.

    3. Martin PR. Stress and Primary Headache: Review of the Research and Clinical Management. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2016 Jul;20(7):45. doi: 10.1007/s11916-016-0576-6. Review.

    4. Houle TT, Turner DP, Golding AN, Porter JAH, Martin VT, Penzien DB, Tegeler CH. Forecasting individual Headache Attacks Using Perceived Stress: Development of a Multivariable Prediction Model for Persons With Episodic Migraine. Headache. 2017 Jul;57(7):1041-1050. doi: 10.1111/head.13137.

    5. Charron S, Koechlin E. Divided representation of concurrent goals in the human frontal lobes. Science. 2010 Apr 16;328(5976):360-3. doi: 10.1126/science.1183614.

    6. Rouault M, Drugowitsch J, Koechlin E. Prefrontal mechanisms combining rewards and beliefs in human decision-making. Nat Commun. 2019 Jan 17;10(1):301. doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-08121-w.

    7. Ophir E, Nass C, Wagner AD. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Sep 15;106(37):15583-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0903620106.

    8. Kouneiher F, Charron S, Koechlin E. Motivation and cognitive control in the human prefrontal cortex. Nat Neurosci. 2009 Jul;12(7):939-45. doi: 10.1038/nn.2321.

    9. Donoso M, Collins AG, Koechlin E. Human cognition. Foundations of human reasoning in the prefrontal cortex. Science. 2014 Jun 27;344(6191):1481-6. doi: 10.1126/science.1252254.

    10. Mansouri FA, Koechlin E, Rosa MGP, Buckley MJ. Managing competing goals – a key role for the frontopolar cortex. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2017 Nov;18(11):645-657. doi: 10.1038/nrn.2017.111.

    11. https://www1.wdr.de/wissen/mensch/multitasking-102.html Multitasking – Mythos oder machbar? Autorin: Elke Hofmann

    12. https://www.zeit.de/karriere/beruf/2012-08/multitasking-gehirnleistung Multitasking – Alles gleichzeitig funktioniert nicht Autorin: Tina Groll

    13. Harald Neumeyer: Der Flaneur, Internetlink: https://books.google.de/books?id=dxjdAt41XpcC&printsec=frontcover&hl=de&source=gbs_atb#v=onepage&q&f=false







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