Tag: Psychology and Psychologists

7 Ways to Reset Your Relationship

Experts say couples can emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever by learning from the past and looking toward the future.

As we emerge, blinking, from our pandemic seclusion, all of us have, in ways great and small, changed. So, too, have our relationships.

“During this time, couples may have been spending about as much time with each other as would normally be stretched across a two to three year period,” said Bryce Doehne, a clinical psychologist in Portland, Ore. “And they’ve had to occupy multiple roles that would have been previously filled by others, like friends, which is impossible.”

Now, as many couples plunge back into the hum of life, is a perfect opportunity for a relationship reset — to learn from our time hunkering down together and look toward the future.

Here is a seven-point plan to get started.

Do a relationship review.

First, have a sit-down together to assess what worked about your relationship — and didn’t — during quarantine, said Christiana Ibilola Awosan, a therapist in New York City. In order to make positive changes going forward, start by sharing with your partner what you learned about yourself during the pandemic, she recommended.

Then, Dr. Awosan said, consider using these prompts to continue the conversation: What did the pandemic show us about our relationship? What do we want to keep going forward? What do we want to discard? What has surprised you about me during this pandemic?

“Sometimes we tend to focus on what annoyed us about our partner, but there might be some good things that surprised you, like a strength you didn’t realize they had,” she said.

Voice your appreciation.

Perhaps over the past year, you haven’t felt like giving compliments to your partner — but positive feedback is important, according to a nearly three-decade study of marriage and divorce by Terri Orbuch, a research professor at the University of Michigan and a sociology professor at Oakland University. One of her divorced subjects’ biggest regrets was that they had not given their mate more “affective affirmation,” or encouragement and support in the form of words or thoughtful gestures. That includes compliments like: “You’re a great parent.” Dr. Orbuch has called the neglect of these simple acts “an overlooked relationship-killer.”

You know that fleeting moment when a burst of affection or attraction for your partner flits through your mind? “Don’t just think it,” said Don Cole, a licensed marriage therapist and clinical director of the Gottman Institute in Seattle. “It should not ‘go without saying.’”

“Many of us believe our partners should know that we love them, especially after being together for years,” he said. But research at the Gottman Institute, the renowned laboratory for the study of relationships, found that the most successful couples regularly “opened their mouths and actually spoke their words of love and respect and admiration.”

Those words are even more meaningful, Dr. Cole said, when you are specific. “My wife’s a trained soprano and I told her, ‘Yesterday you were walking around straightening up the house and singing, and I got a thrill down my back when I heard it,’” he said.

Why does specificity matter? Saying “you’re thoughtful” is nice, Dr. Cole said, “but when your partner tells a positive story where you demonstrated your thoughtfulness, that makes you more likely to hold that, to cherish it, to make you feel good about it.”

Build in time apart.

Make sure that each partner builds some alone time into their day, even if it’s a short walk. Liad Uziel, a senior lecturer in the psychology department at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, said that solo time and being with others “both shape our character from different perspectives.”

When we’re alone, Dr. Uziel said, “external pressure is reduced, we are often more in control of events and we can manage our time more freely.” Alone time, he said, is also important for what is called “identity consolidation,” in which one thinks of the past to process events, and the future to set goals.

In our relationships, taking time alone “offers a greater opportunity for each partner to develop their personal identity independently, which they can then bring to their relationship and strengthen it,” Dr. Uziel said.

Take time to connect.

Having less sex these days? It’s not just you. A recent online survey of 1,559 adults about their intimate lives by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University revealed that over 43 percent of participants reported a decline in the quality of their sex lives since the pandemic began.

A sexual dry spell is no surprise, given that the pandemic’s stress and uncertainty were “libido killers,” said Shannon Chavez, a therapist in Los Angeles. If you need a nudge to get back in the game, she said, think of sexual connection “as a form of self-care, which is anything you do to take care of your overall health and wellbeing.” Prioritizing sex as health, she added, makes it easier to make time for intimacy.

That includes putting it on the schedule. “Scheduling sex can be better for your sex life than it sounds,” Dr. Chavez said. “People fear it takes the excitement out of it, but if anything, it adds anticipation by planning, and isn’t rushed or put on the back burner.”

Why not aim for sex once a week? Not only is this an achievable goal, but according to one study of over 25,000 adults, it’s actually optimal. Research published in 2016 in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science found that weekly sex was ideal for maximum wellbeing. If the respondents, who ranged from 18 to 89, had more than that, their self-reported happiness actually leveled off — and that finding held true for both men and women, and was consistent no matter how long they had been together.

Go to a party.

While we’ve seen plenty of our partners during the past year, what’s been missing, said Kendra Knight, an assistant professor of communication studies at DePaul University, is social gatherings in which you view your partner through the eyes of others. She said that seeing your significant other at an event — dressed up, being witty perhaps — can renew your own attraction.

Our estimation of our partner’s attractiveness, sometimes referred to as “mate value,” she said, “is partially a function of others’ appraisals.” That can range, Dr. Knight said, from physical attractiveness to social attractiveness (if, say, they’re the life of the party) to so-called “task attractiveness” — for example, making a batch of their famous margaritas or crushing a backyard horseshoe game.

Of course, if you or your mate is not ready for big events, or never liked neighborhood block parties in the first place, you might just shoot for dinner with close friends or family. Each of us has our own comfort level about heading out into the wider world after so much isolation. “Check in with each other regularly and share how you feel about stepping out,” Dr. Awosan said. “And work on being kind and patient wherever your partner is at.”

Rediscover your playful side.

The past year and half has been heavy. Now that we’re heading into a summer with far fewer restrictions than the last one, it’s OK to think about bringing some levity back. Being more playful in your relationship can revive that sparkle, according to a review from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany.

The study’s lead author, Kay Brauer, a researcher in the psychology department, found that people who scored high in “other-directed playfulness,” or goofing around with others, “might be particularly important for reviving relationships after the long stretches of monotony during quarantine.”

Playful people, he said, tend to share inside jokes, surprise their partner, give them affectionate nicknames or re-enact joint experiences, like your first date or that disastrous time you tried karaoke. Look for opportunities to create inside jokes or act silly, like having your next date at an amusement park. “If there was ever a time to surprise ourselves and our partner with the new and unexpected, it’s now,” Brauer said.

Make plans.

Making plans together, such as for a vacation, a home renovation project, or even just swinging by a new restaurant, activates our brain’s craving for novel experiences, said Dr. Knight, “which in turn can amplify attraction to and interest in our partner.”

It also reinforces your bond, Dr. Awosan said: “Research has shown that when couples work together as a team, their relationship satisfaction and quality increases.”

In the past year and half, “people have lost jobs, lost loved ones, a sense of self,” Dr. Awosan said. “We’ve all lost something.” Planning something to look forward to, together, symbolizes hopefulness and optimism.

“It’s about the future,” she said. “It says, ‘We are moving forward.’”

Jancee Dunn is the author of “How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids.”

¿Tienes insomnio? Tenemos consejos para dormir mejor

¿Tu sueño no es lo que solía ser? ¿Tu mente se acelera cuando tu cabeza toca la almohada? ¿Te despiertas a las 4:00 a. m. y te cuesta volverte a dormir? ¿Sientes somnolencia y falta de sueño sin importar cuántas horas pases en la cama?

Para muchas personas, dormir mal era la norma antes de la pandemia. Después, el estrés, la ansiedad y las interrupciones empeoraron nuestro sueño nocturno, dando lugar a términos como “coronainsomnio” para describir el aumento de las alteraciones del sueño el año pasado. Pero recientemente, los expertos del sueño han observado algo que les ha sorprendido: tras más de un año de pandemia, nuestro sueño colectivo no ha hecho más que empeorar.

En una encuesta realizada a miles de adultos el verano pasado, la Academia Estadounidense de Medicina del Sueño descubrió que el 20 por ciento de los estadounidenses decían tener problemas para dormir debido a la pandemia. Pero cuando la academia repitió su encuesta diez meses después, en marzo, esas cifras aumentaron drásticamente. Aproximadamente el 60 por ciento de las personas dijo que tenía problemas de insomnio relacionados con la pandemia, y casi la mitad informó que la calidad de su sueño había disminuido, a pesar de que las tasas de infección se han reducido y el país se está abriendo de nuevo.

“Mucha gente pensó que nuestro sueño debería mejorar porque podemos ver la luz al final del túnel, pero ahora es peor que el año pasado”, dijo Fariha Abbasi-Feinberg, especialista en medicina del sueño y portavoz de la Academia Estadounidense de Medicina del Sueño. “La gente sigue experimentando grandes dificultades”.

Dormir mal de forma crónica es algo más que una molestia. Debilita el sistema inmunitario, reduce la memoria y la capacidad de atención y aumenta la probabilidad de padecer afecciones crónicas como la depresión, la diabetes de tipo 2 y las enfermedades cardíacas. Los estudios sugieren que cuanto menos se duerme, menos se vive. Y para las personas mayores de 50 años, dormir menos de seis horas por noche incluso puede aumentar el riesgo de demencia.

“En el último año hemos tenido la tormenta perfecta de todas las cosas malas posibles para el sueño”, afirma Sabra Abbott, profesora adjunta de neurología en medicina del sueño de la Facultad de Medicina Feinberg de la Universidad Northwestern de Chicago.

Los estudios demuestran que, durante la pandemia, la gente tendía a mantener horarios de sueño irregulares, acostándose mucho más tarde y durmiendo más de lo habitual, lo que puede alterar nuestros ritmos circadianos. Redujimos nuestros niveles de actividad física y pasamos más tiempo en casa; ganamos peso y bebimos más alcohol; y borramos las líneas que separan el trabajo y la escuela de nuestras casas y dormitorios, todo lo cual es perjudicial para el sueño.

Lo más sorprendente de todo es que nuestros niveles de estrés y ansiedad se dispararon, que son dos de las causas fundamentales del insomnio. En un informe publicado en mayo, la Asociación Estadounidense de Psiquiatría descubrió que la mayoría de las personas del país seguían preocupadas por su salud, sus finanzas y la posibilidad de que un ser querido sufriera COVID-19. Más de la mitad de los padres dijeron que estaban preocupados por el estado mental de sus hijos, y el 41 por ciento de los adultos dijeron que tenían más ansiedad hoy que durante los primeros meses de la pandemia.

No todo el mundo, por supuesto, sufre trastornos del sueño. Un equipo de investigadores internacionales que estudió a tres millones de personas en Nueva York, Londres, Los Ángeles, Seúl y Estocolmo descubrió que, en promedio, la gente ganó 25 minutos más de sueño cada noche durante la pandemia en comparación con el año previo. Los que más se beneficiaron fueron las personas que naturalmente tienden a acostarse tarde, pero que ya no tenían que poner una alarma temprana para ir al trabajo o preparar a sus hijos para la escuela, dijo Matthew Walker, profesor de neurociencia y psicología de la Universidad de California, Berkeley, y autor del exitoso libro Por qué dormimos.

“Si hay una historia de éxito, es la venganza de los noctámbulos en lo que respecta a la covid y el sueño”, dijo Walker. “Por fin, los noctámbulos están empezando a dormir un poco más en sincronía con su biología”.

Pero para otros millones de personas que padecen insomnio, el tiempo extra en la cama puede, paradójicamente, empeorar las cosas. Cuando las personas tienen dificultades para conciliar o mantener el sueño, sus cerebros asocian sus camas con experiencias estresantes. “El cerebro aprende que la cama es el lugar donde no se duerme”, explica Abbott. “Cuanto más tiempo pasas en la cama, más refuerzas esa idea”. Uno de los tratamientos estándar para el insomnio es una estrategia llamada restricción del sueño, que hace que las personas duerman mejor y más eficientemente al enseñarles a pasar menos tiempo en la cama, no más.

Entonces, ¿qué más podemos hacer para recuperar nuestro sueño interrumpido? Sigue leyendo. Y visita nuestras 20 preguntas más frecuentes de los lectores sobre cómo dormir mejor [en inglés].

Cómo vencer al insomnio

Es normal tener problemas para dormir durante los grandes cambios en la vida. Pero cuando las interrupciones del sueño duran más de tres meses puede calificarse de insomnio crónico, que puede tener consecuencias para la salud a largo plazo. Uno de los tratamientos más eficaces es la terapia cognitivo-conductual, o TCC. Este enfoque te ayuda a abordar los pensamientos, sentimientos y comportamientos subyacentes que están arruinando tu sueño. He aquí algunas formas de combatir el insomnio inspiradas en la TCC.

Sigue la regla de los 25 minutos

Si te metes a la cama y no puedes dormirte después de 25 minutos, o te despiertas por la noche y no puedes conciliar el sueño después de 25 minutos, no te quedes en la cama. Levántate y haz una actividad tranquila que calme tu mente y te haga sentir somnoliento. “Simplemente levántate, no te preocupes”, dice Walker. “Si te quedas en la cama despierto durante mucho tiempo, tu cerebro piensa: ‘Cada vez que me meto en la cama, este es el lugar donde debo estar despierto’. Y tienes que romper esa asociación”.

Haz cualquier actividad que te relaje. Levántate y estírate. Siéntate en el sofá y medita o lee una revista. Lee un libro con luz tenue. Haz ejercicios de respiración profunda. Escucha un pódcast relajante. Si quieres, puedes sentarte en una silla y dibujar o tejer. A continuación, cuando empieces a sentirte de nuevo somnoliento, vuelve a meterte en la cama e intenta dormirte. Eso sí, no te metas en la cama si no estás cansado. “Nunca te sentarías en la mesa para cenar esperando a tener hambre”, dice Walker. “Así que, ¿por qué ibas a estar en la cama esperando a tener sueño?”.

Deshazte de tus preocupaciones

Siéntate con un papel en blanco una o dos horas antes de acostarte cada noche. Luego escribe todos tus pensamientos, especialmente cualquier cosa que te moleste. Puede ser lo que vas a hacer mañana en el trabajo, las llamadas telefónicas que tienes que hacer o las facturas que tienes que pagar. “Si la mayor parte de lo que has anotado son cosas que te preocupan, arruga el papel y tíralo a la basura: a eso se le llama descargar tus pensamientos”, dice Ilene Rosen, médica especialista en medicina del sueño y profesora asociada de medicina clínica en la Escuela de Medicina Perelman de la Universidad de Pensilvania. El acto de volcar tus pensamientos en un papel y tirarlo a la basura es un gesto simbólico que te da poder y calma tu mente, dijo Rosen. “Tenías esos pensamientos y ahora se han ido”, dijo.

Pantallas en el dormitorio, reglas de juego

Una de las razones por las que el sueño ha sufrido este último año es que la gente lo sacrifica para ver todas las cosas divertidas que se perdieron durante el día, como mirar Instagram y videos de YouTube. Este fenómeno, conocido como procrastinación por venganza a la hora de acostarse, se ve agravado por nuestro apego a los teléfonos y a las pantallas, que a menudo nos siguen hasta la cama. (¿Cuántas veces has estado pegado a tu teléfono mucho después de tu hora de dormir?)

Todos sabemos que no debemos mirar pantallas brillantes a altas horas de la noche porque la luz azul que emiten indica al cerebro que es hora de estar despierto. Pero muchos lo hacemos de todos modos. Así que sigue esta pauta: si vas a usar tu teléfono o dispositivo después de la hora de acostarte, hazlo solo de pie. Cuando quieras sentarte o acostarte, tienes que guardar el dispositivo. “Descubrirás que después de unos diez minutos de estar de pie a tu hora normal de acostarte, dirás: ‘Necesito acostarme’, y eso es lo que tu cuerpo te dice que tienes que guardar el teléfono y dormir”, dijo Walker.

Hábitos diarios para dormir mejor

Dormir bien empieza mucho antes de acostarse. Muchas de las cosas que hagas durante el día afectarán a la calidad de tu sueño. Así que prueba estos hábitos que favorecen el sueño.

Levántate a la misma hora cada mañana

Nuestro cuerpo sigue un ritmo circadiano diario, y despertarse a horas diferentes lo desajusta. Lo mejor es mantener la misma hora de despertarse. No te quedes dormido, ni siquiera los fines de semana. “Cuando suene el despertador, sal de la cama y empieza el día sin importar cuánto hayas dormido”, dice Rosen. “Puede que no te sientas bien durante unos días, pero estás reforzando que cuando estás en la cama, duermes”. Lo mismo ocurre con la hora de acostarse: mantén la constancia. Cuanto menos te desvíes de tus horarios normales para acostarte y levantarte, mejor dormirás.

Toma la luz del sol cada mañana

Si no sales de casa para ir al trabajo, puede ser fácil pasarte todas las mañanas bajo techo. Pero la exposición a la luz del sol tiene un propósito importante: desactiva la liberación de melatonina, una hormona que promueve el sueño. “La mayor parte de la niebla cerebral por la mañana está causada por la producción continuada de melatonina”, dice Michael Breus, psicólogo clínico y autor de The Power of When. “Cuando la luz del sol golpea tu ojo, envía una señal a tu cerebro para decirle al grifo de la melatonina que se cierre”. Intenta recibir al menos 15 minutos de luz solar a primera hora de la mañana.

Haz de tu cama un santuario

Trabajar desde casa —a veces desde nuestra cama— ha borrado muchos de los límites entre el trabajo y el sueño. Pero convertir tu colchón en una oficina puede condicionar a tu cerebro a ver tu cama como un lugar que te estresa y te pone alerta, lo que puede provocar insomnio. Por eso los expertos en sueño dicen que hay que reservar la cama solo para dos actividades. “La cama es para dormir o para el sexo”, dice Rosen. “Si no estás haciendo ninguna de esas dos cosas, sal de la cama. Si puedes permitirte el lujo de ir a otra habitación, mejor aún. Hay que romper la asociación de estar despierto en la cama”.

Haz ejercicio para dormir mejor

La pandemia hizo que la gente redujera su actividad física. Pero el ejercicio es la forma más fácil de mejorar el sueño, dijo Breus. “El sueño es recuperación”, añadió. “Si no tienes nada de lo que recuperarte, tu sueño no va a ser tan bueno”. Al menos 29 estudios han descubierto que el ejercicio diario, independientemente del tipo o la intensidad, ayuda a conciliar el sueño más rápidamente y a mantenerlo durante más tiempo, especialmente entre las personas de mediana edad o mayores. Según la Fundación del Sueño, las personas con insomnio crónico pueden dormirse unos 13 minutos más rápido y ganar hasta 20 minutos extra de sueño por noche si comienzan una rutina de ejercicios. Una advertencia: termina el ejercicio por lo menos cuatro horas antes de acostarte, de lo contrario podría interferir con tu sueño al aumentar la temperatura central del cuerpo, dijo Breus.

Deja la cafeína a las 2:00 p. m.

La cafeína tiene una vida media de seis a ocho horas y una vida media de unas 12 horas. Eso significa que si tomas café a las 4:00 p. m., “todavía tendrás una cuarta parte de la cafeína flotando en tu cerebro a las 4:00 a. m.”, dijo Breus. Evitar la cafeína por la noche es una obviedad. Pero lo ideal es que te mantengas alejado de la cafeína después de las 2:00 p. m. para que tu cuerpo tenga tiempo suficiente para metabolizarla y eliminarla de tu organismo.

Sigue la regla de los dos tragos.

Si bebes alcohol, limítate a dos tragos por la noche y deja de hacerlo al menos tres horas antes de acostarte. Alterna cada bebida con un vaso de agua. Como el alcohol es un sedante, algunas personas beben una copa para dormirse más rápido. Pero el alcohol suprime el sueño REM y provoca interrupciones del sueño, lo que empeorará la calidad general del mismo. “Cuanto más cerca de la hora de acostarte bebas, peor será tu sueño”, afirma Breus.

Cuándo buscar ayuda

Los ataques ocasionales de insomnio no son motivo de preocupación. Pero si se introducen cambios en la rutina de sueño y nada parece ayudar, puede que sea el momento de consultar a un médico. Un especialista del sueño puede determinar si necesita una terapia cognitivo-conductual, medicación u otro tratamiento. O puede ser que tengas un trastorno del sueño subyacente, como el síndrome de las piernas inquietas o la apnea del sueño. Un médico te evaluará para averiguarlo.

Si vives en Estados Unidos y necesitas ayuda, entra en el sitio web de la Academia Estadounidense de Medicina del Sueño, sleepeducation.org, e introduce tu código postal para encontrar un médico o proveedor del sueño local. “No sufras en silencio”, dice Abbasi-Feinberg. “Pide ayuda si la necesitas. Hay médicos del sueño en todas partes, y para eso estamos”.

Anahad O’Connor cubre temas de salud, ciencia, nutrición y otros. También es el autor de exitosos libros de salud como Never Shower in a Thunderstorm y The 10 Things You Need to Eat.


Virtual Reality Therapy Plunges Patients Back Into Trauma. Here Is Why Some Swear by It.

When a Veterans Affairs therapist first suggested that Chris Merkle try a virtual reality simulation that would mimic his days in combat, he was horrified. “I was like, you want to put me in a virtual world, reliving my worst days, my worst nightmares?” he said.

It was the winter of 2013, and after three tours in Iraq and four in Afghanistan, Mr. Merkle had spent years struggling with the invasive symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. He felt constantly on edge, bracing for an attack. He got angry easily. He avoided thinking or talking about his time as a Marine; he tried traditional talk therapy, but didn’t feel ready to discuss his past.

Months later, after his symptoms intensified and he felt desperate for a salve, he decided to give virtual reality exposure therapy a try at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Long Beach, Calif. The treatment uses V.R. technology to immerse a patient in a three-dimensional environment that mimics a traumatic memory. He strapped into a headset and sank into the past.

The details in the simulation were extremely precise, Mr. Merkle said: the military-issue truck, the weight of the model gun in his hand, the dark swath of sand in the night. He narrated one particularly troubling incident out loud to a clinician, who adjusted the simulation as he spoke. “I was seeing that person shooting at me, that I hadn’t thought about in 10-plus years,” he said. His muscles tensed. His heart raced. He was terrified.

“My body was physically reacting, because my mind was saying, this is happening to us.” But when he took the goggles off, he said, the sense of accomplishment became its own form of comfort. For years, his memories had terrified him. Confronting the past in V.R. proved to him that he could survive revisiting his memories. “That was the biggest leap,” he said.

After about seven runs through the simulation, Mr. Merkle started uncovering fragments of memory his mind had blacked out, which is a common response to trauma. He remembered the name of the soldier who had been next to him in a truck during combat. He remembered the clear feeling that he was going to die. Mr. Merkle walked out in the hall after he was done, grappling with what his brain had revealed.

He felt like he was in a fantasy novel, he said. As he left the session, he imagined that “there was this black smoke pouring out of my mouth, oozing out of me. Like this evil, for lack of a better word for it, was slipping out” of his body. He got to the parking lot and sat in his car for an hour. The treatment was working, he thought. He was less scared of his memories, less scared of himself. He was getting better.

Why V.R.? Why Now?

The most significant disorders that virtual reality therapy has shown success in treating — PTSD, anxiety, phobias — are on the rise. An April survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited significant increases in respondents showing symptoms of anxiety disorders. Health care workers have reported high rates of PTSD during the pandemic — a February study of 1,000 frontline workers reported that nearly one-quarter showed likely signs of the disorder. In contrast, only 6.8 percent of the general population ever experiences PTSD in their lifetime, according to National Institute of Mental Health estimates.

“Covid has been traumatizing to so many people in so many ways,” said Dr. Nomi Levy-Carrick, a psychiatrist who leads outpatient psychiatric services at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Grief, isolation, economic upheaval, housing and food insecurity, the “toxic stress” of lockdown and the surge in domestic violence during the pandemic can all be traumatic stressors, she said. And the constant uncertainty of the past pandemic year created conditions for widespread anxiety.

Academics have studied virtual reality’s potential to treat anxiety disorders since the ’90s, and the practice has incrementally gathered momentum, as the technology has improved and headsets have become more affordable. JoAnn Difede, a psychology professor at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York and one of the leading experts in virtual reality treatment for PTSD, said the headset she used for research with Sept. 11 survivors cost $25,000 at the time and weighed 10 pounds. Now, an average headset retails under $300.

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A virtual reality mindfulness exercise to soothe anxiety.By CenteredVR

Recreational V.R. headset sales to the general public have grown during the pandemic, but the technology has yet to fully enter the mainstream. Experts who study the therapy argue that’s about to change for the medical establishment, as clinicians look for effective and accessible ways to treat anxiety disorders.

Mr. Merkle likened his experience in the virtual reality simulations to a child confronting imaginary monsters in a closet. Each time you open the door, he said, you see there’s nothing to fear. Your body whirs down from fight or flight mode. And each time, the virtual reality treatment gets easier.

Many V.R. therapies build on a sometimes-divisive therapeutic technique called prolonged exposure, developed by Edna Foa, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Prolonged exposure is a cognitive intervention therapy; patients first describe a traumatic event to a therapist, in detail and in the present tense, and then confront triggers of the traumatic event in the real world. While some experts have worried the practice might overwhelm or re-traumatize patients, prolonged exposure is now widely accepted as an effective tool to treat chronic PTSD. Patients become desensitized to their memories; they prove to themselves that their thoughts can be safe.

“If you overcome something in V.R., you overcome it in real life,” said Daniel Freeman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Oxford University who runs virtual reality therapies at 10 public clinics across England.

Direct-to-consumer virtual reality therapy products, for now, remain rare, and only a few are covered by insurance. Companies that sell V.R. therapy software often explicitly state their products should only be used in the presence of a clinician. Experts like Andrew Sherrill, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta who specializes in virtual reality therapy., worry that, as virtual reality expands, people seeking treatment might try out a program for themselves and not consult a therapist. They might shrug off the treatment after not getting results or aggravate trauma symptoms. “It’s the closest thing our field has to just making opioids available over the counter,” he said.

“V.R. is not going to be the solution,” said Jonathan Rogers, a researcher at University College London who has studied rates of anxiety disorders during the pandemic. “It may be part of the solution, but it’s not going to make medications and formal therapies obsolete.”

Does V.R. Therapy Work?

Virtual reality treatments aren’t necessarily more effective than traditional prolonged exposure therapy, saidDr. Sherrill. But for some patients, V.R. offers convenience and can immerse a patient in scenes that would be hard to replicate in real life. For some people, the treatment can mimic video game systems they’re already familiar with. There’s also a dual awareness in patients who use virtual reality — the images on the screen are almost lifelike, but the headset itself functions as proof that they’re not real.

Months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Dr. Difede and Dr. Hunter Hoffman, who is the director of the Virtual Reality Research Center at the University of Washington, tested virtual reality treatments in one survivor with acute PTSD, one of the first reported applications of the therapy. Dr. Difede said that the first time the patient put on the headset, she started crying. “I never thought I’d see the World Trade Center again,” she told Dr. Difede. After six hourlong sessions, the patient experienced a 90 percent decrease in PTSD symptoms. Dr. Difede later tested V.R. exposure therapy in Iraq War veterans; 16 out of the first 20 patients no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD after completing treatment.

At the University of Central Florida, a team called U.C.F. Restores has been building trauma therapies using V.R. that allows clinicians to control the level of detail in a simulation, down to the color of a bedspread or a TV that can be clicked on or off, in order to more easily trigger traumatic memories. The program offers free trauma therapy, often using V.R., to Florida residents and focuses on treating PTSD.

Dr. Deborah Beidel, a professor of psychology and executive director of U.C.F. Restores, has broadened the treatments beyond visuals, customizing sounds and even smells to create an augmented reality for patients.

Jonathan Tissue, 35, a former Marine, sought treatment at U.C.F. Restores in early 2020 after talk therapy and medication failed to alleviate his PTSD symptoms, which included flashbacks, anxiety and mood swings. In the end, it was the smells pumped into the room while he described his military service to a clinician that helped unlock his memories. There was the stench of burning tires, diesel fumes, the smell of decaying bodies. He heard the sounds of munitions firing. His chair rumbled, thanks to the center’s simulated vibrations.

“It unlocked certain doors that I could start speaking about,” he said. He talked through his newly uncovered memories with a therapist and a support group, processing the terror that had built in his body for years.

Within three days, he said, he started feeling better; by the end of the three-week treatment, his symptoms had mostly faded. “It made me comfortable in my own self,” he said.

‘Ready for Prime Time’

While a significant amount of funding — and consequentially, the bulk of research — on virtual reality’s therapeutic potential has focused on military veterans, “we’re ready for prime time to treat civilian trauma,” said Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a clinical psychologist who specializes in virtual reality and worked with Mr. Merkle at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Several companies and clinicians are using V.R. to treat other disorders. During the pandemic, Johns Hopkins researchers have used it to reduce stress and burnout in medical workers. In one unpublished study, 50 nurses from a Covid-19 ward tested virtual reality mindfulness exercises — guided meditations beside animated fields and waterfalls — and all but one participant reported reduced stress levels.

Researchers are also testing whether they can alleviate childhood social anxiety with virtual reality programs, one of which uses animated artificial intelligence bullies that growl things like, “Give me your lunch money.” BehaVR, which currently sells therapeutic software on pre-loaded headsets to health care providers, plans to expand to direct-to-consumer products for social anxiety and other stress-related disorders, anticipating widespread post-pandemic fears, Aaron Gani, the company’s founder and chief executive said in an interview.

Virtual reality looks promising for treating phobias, according to Dr. Howard Gurr, a psychologist in Long Island, N.Y. He’s been interested in virtual reality for more than 20 years, since he saw Dr. Rizzo discuss a virtual classroom environment to diagnose and treat childhood attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. But the technology has improved drastically in recent years, he said.

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In 2016, Dr. Gurr tried a simulation to treat patients’ fear of heights that convinced him of V.R.’s therapeutic potential. A glass elevator steadily rose over a city, the roofs of the buildings below growing smaller and smaller. A balcony appeared, and he was supposed to take a step onto it, over the chasm. Even though he didn’t have a phobia of heights, Dr. Gurr couldn’t do it. “Part of my brain was hijacked,” he said. “I was like, ‘I got it. This works.’”

Before he found virtual reality, Dr. Gurr would accompany a patient with a phobia of flying on an actual flight — a short distance, like New York to Philadelphia, over and over again. Now, he said, it’s more efficient and convenient to talk them through a virtual plane ride five or six times in a given session, on and off a pixelated runway. About one-third of his patients now come to his psychology practice specifically for virtual reality, he said, referred from other clinicians who don’t offer the treatment.

That number may grow as the pandemic wanes in the United States, he said, and more people grapple with its aftermath. He expects anxiety disorders will continue to rise, that the demand for effective treatments to tackle fear and trauma will only expand. Mr. Merkle, who’s in the process of getting a degree in clinical psychology, mostly relies on traditional talk therapy these days. PTSD has no clear end point; even in recovery, it can trap you, cycling and churning. But for now, he said, thanks to the V.R. treatment, he feels something close to free.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Isn’t Just for Winter

Feeling blue even though everyone seems to be basking in perfect summer weather? There might be a good reason for that.

This is what happens to the Earth during summer: Tilted about 23.5 degrees, it arrives at a place in its orbit where the Northern Hemisphere leans toward the sun. This is what happens in Wisconsin during summer: People go outside, maybe to picnics or parks, to barbecues, on day trips, on summer vacation.

This is what happens to Kristen Ashly during summer: Depression descends like a heavy curtain. She skips picnics, day trips and vacations — the hot, humid days in central Wisconsin make her lethargic, yet also agitated, irritable and unable to sleep. By afternoon, she feels “like a zombie.”

It’s hard to explain the feeling to those around her, said Ms. Ashly, a wrestling journalist and an owner of the women’s wrestling website, Bell To Belles. “People who love summer, they don’t get it. And up here, most people love summer,” she said.

Ms. Ashly has summer seasonal affective disorder, a less common and much less understood counterpart to seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a recurring pattern of depression that comes on in fall and winter.

Different Seasons, Different Symptoms

A team of researchers led by the psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal first described seasonal affective disorder in the scientific literature in 1984. About 5 percent of adults in the U.S. may experience the most extreme version of the condition, which significantly alters their day-to-day life. More people experience a milder version, the “winter blues.” The shorter days of fall and winter, which can be stingy with their sunlight, are thought to be a trigger.

Often, when Dr. Rosenthal talked about his research, someone would approach him to say that the same thing happened to them — but in the summer. In 1987, he and his colleagues published a report of 12 people who experienced a pattern of seasonal depression between March and October. This and subsequent work suggested that summer SAD presented differently than its winter counterpart, and might have different causes.

“Summer SAD is more of an agitated depression,” said Dr. Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. While those with winter SAD tend to oversleep and overeat, summer SAD often shows up with insomnia and lowered appetite.

Concern as Temperatures Rise

When asked by doctors and researchers, people with summer seasonal affective disorder usually say that what bothers them most is the heat and humidity. Each person’s exact pattern may differ — Ms. Ashly’s symptoms usually start in May and vanish in October — but the disorder returns regularly. Still, even the researchers who study summer SAD said there are other uncertainties around it.

“What causes summer SAD? We assume it’s heat and humidity,” said Kelly Rohan, a psychology professor at the University of Vermont. Studies suggest that some of the same compounds in the body that help regulate mood, such as norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine, have also been linked to regulating body temperature. “But what is the trigger that makes people vulnerable?” she said.

An added challenge for the people who experience the disorder is the social pressure to feel summery when the sun is shining. People are used to the idea of mental health struggles during the winter, said Blessing Dada, 21, a student at Technological University Dublin in Ireland. Ms. Dada has experienced a deep sadness that comes on each summer, along with insomnia and migraines made worse by heat.

People tell her, “‘It’s summertime, you need to smile a bit more, be more happy,’” she said. “Comments like that are just not helpful.”

A few researchers, using year-round depression data, have questioned the idea that seasonal affective disorder exists at all. In 2016, researchers from Auburn University at Montgomery, in Alabama, reported that major depression was not associated with a seasonal pattern.

Dr. Rohan conducted a similar study in 2009 that evaluated surveys of about 2,000 children and adolescents, and found no seasonal pattern to their mood. That doesn’t mean that SAD doesn’t exist, she said, but that, in an ocean of modern depression, it is difficult to pick out the much smaller seasonal currents.

Those who study these seasonal currents are concerned that summer SAD, and mental health challenges in general, will increase with climate change. A 2018 study in the journal Nature Climate Change found that both suicide rates and social media posts using language signaling lower mood increased as average monthly temperatures rose in the United States and Mexico. The study suggested that as many as 21,000 additional people in these countries could die by suicide by 2050, based on projected temperature increases of 2.5 degrees Celsius in the United States and 2.1 degrees Celsius in Mexico.

Pollen Possibility

Another seasonal challenge that could worsen with climate change — and play into mood — is pollen, said Teodor Postolache, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He said the immune response to allergens like pollen might create a cascade of changes in the body, including the release of biological compounds called cytokines that regulate inflammation and have been connected to depression.

Dr. Postolache and his colleagues started studying seasonal mood change in Old Order Amish people in Lancaster County, Pa., because of this group’s limited exposure to electric light, making them more subject to natural variations in day length. The Old Order Amish also spend significant time outside in spring and summer, which translates to greater pollen exposure.

When the researchers surveyed about 1,300 Old Order Amish, they found the small group of people who felt at their worst in the summer also tended to report that high-pollen days worsened their mood. Previous work with college students also suggested a link between low summer mood and pollen sensitivity.

While more research is needed to understand how pollen might tie into summer SAD, Dr. Postolache said, “When you feel at your worst relates really well to daylength in the winter” and “to the heat and the pollen for the summer difficulties.”

How to Follow Your Mood Throughout the Seasons

One difficulty in detecting SAD is its transitory nature. Once fall comes, Ms. Ashly said, “you forget all about it.” Even without seasonal affective disorder, other stresses can trigger depression during summer, like being untethered from the structure of school.

Tonya Ladipo, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of The Ladipo Group in Philadelphia, suggested keeping a mood journal to track your moods and look for patterns. This helped Ms. Ashly and her therapist recognize her cycle of summer SAD. If a low mood doesn’t improve within about two weeks, Ms. Ladipo recommended seeking out a mental health professional — and finding help immediately if you are thinking about harming yourself.

If heat dampens your mood, Dr. Rosenthal said that some of his patients have found that frequent cold showers or baths can help; others experienced some relief by walking early in the morning. Sometimes intense summer light, along with heat and humidity, can be problematic; decreasing exposure with dark glasses or curtains may also be worth trying.

“If those things help, then do them,” Dr. Rosenthal said.

Ms. Ashly said she keeps a small misting fan by her desk, takes chilly showers and runs her wrists under cold water to help her cool off. On particularly hard days, she goes to her parents’ house and works in the basement, she said.

For winter SAD, researchers have found that cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of talk therapy, can help. A clinical trial with 177 adults compared it to light therapy, a well-known SAD treatment, and found that both significantly improved how people felt. Dr. Rohan is considering developing a similar therapy for the summer form of the disorder. She recommended contacting a professional to determine whether what you’re experiencing is related to the season or to another source — and, most importantly, to find ways to help you feel better.

Even if summer’s effect is subtle, it’s worth noticing. “Maybe you can get through your day, but you’re not feeling your best,” Ms. Ladipo said. “That still warrants attention.” Being mindful of the seasons outside and within can help you navigate summer as the Earth continues on its journey, its perspective on the sun a little different each day.


Cameron Walker is a writer in California.

It Might Be Time to Break Up Your Pandemic Pod

Yes, you really need to start seeing other people.

You’ve been vaccinated. You’ve joyfully ripped off your mask when outdoors. Now it’s time to pop your quarantine bubble, right?

But finding a good moment to break up the pandemic pod can be tricky. Do you call a meeting? Send a group text to the “quaranteam”? Ceremoniously rip up a contract? Is it possible to ghost someone when they’re practically living in your house?

It may get intense. The quarantine, said Margaret Clark, a psychology professor and director of the Clark Relationship Science Laboratory at Yale University, seemed to have served as a relationship magnifier. “If your relationships were already fraught, the quarantine made them more fraught.”

That might be doubly true for one’s podmates, who have had to become surrogates for all other relationships. “We all have a variety of relationships that serve different purposes,” said Dr. Clark. “Without them, more responsibilities fell on those you were with.”

The emotions that swirl around pod breakups will vary, said Schekeva Hall, a Brooklyn-based clinical psychologist. “They’ll include guilt, despair, regret, scorn and even glee. I’ve heard it all.”

As painful as it can be when quaranteams dissolve, said Dr. Hall, “it’s important to recognize that although you had a shared experience, this does not necessarily always translate to being or feeling the same.” Give yourself and your podmates some space post-breakup, she advised, in order to get some perspective, and to clarify if and how you want the relationship to continue.

But that’s not always how it goes. Here, five tales of how quarantine bubbles popped, imploded or refused to burst.

Are you … cheating on me?

The bubble that Melissa Petro, a New York City freelance writer, formed with four mom friends and their families in upstate New York was, at first, a Shangri-La of invite-only play dates — a utopian commune without the patchouli.

“We had the community we had always longed for, we were sharing resources, and our children were frolicking in the backyard garden together and living their best communal life.” They started calling each other “sister wives.” They baked cakes for each other’s birthdays.

Then, despite having agreed as a group to a set of strict safety standards, the podmates began to stray. Confessions were made of a clandestine massage, a trip to the hairdresser, a covert train journey to the city.

As more infidelities surfaced, arguments broke out. “Why did we have this pod when we were all seeing other people?” said Ms. Petro. “It’s like saying you’re married and you’re sleeping with everybody. Nobody wanted to commit. I was like, ‘I promise to stop getting my daily latte at the cafe if you stop letting your family visit.’”

A tense meeting was called, and they all agreed to disband before Thanksgiving. “For a minute there, before it exploded, it was really hot and heavy,” said Ms. Petro, wistfully. “We were all in love.” They’ve seen each other post-breakup, she said, “and we’re kind of there again, but not completely. Because you can’t go back to that naïveté.”

It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.

After spending the first third of 2020 in pandemic solitary, Joe Silva, host of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Athens 441” radio show, decided to “bubble it up” with four friends. All hard-core movie buffs, they liked convening to complain about matters of weight, such as the death of cinema, and “reclining theater seats, which are so noisy.”

Most of their pod-time was spent “test driving ‘brunch beers’ and debating the grim rise of Disney+,” Mr. Silva said. The pod’s eventual breakup, decided during a film confab after their second vaccines kicked in, was a civilized affair. (The only moment it got heated, Silva said, was when one member suggested they watch Zach Snyder’s director’s cut of “Justice League.”)

They promised each other that, once vaccinated, they’d rent out a screening room “and bathe in butter flavoring once again.” But when they finally ventured out to the screening room, despite it being private, they felt vulnerable. They felt cranky. They weren’t ready.

“It wasn’t until we got in the theater that we realized how damn conditioned we’d become in the pod,” Mr. Silva said. “No one enjoyed those post-quarantine Milk Duds as much as we thought we would.” Mr. Silva, who admitted to some “phantom limb” sensations without his podmates, remained hopeful that his Milk Duds will someday “taste more like freedom” as he gets more comfortable in theaters.

I can’t quit you.

Anika Jackson, an entrepreneur in Redondo Beach, Calif., formed a pod with 13 family members but can’t yet face the idea of a breakup.

“I’m tearing up just thinking about it,” she said. “I feel like, during the pandemic, we had to live in our authentic selves all the time.” Gone, she noted, were “preconceived notions of each other, or what our lives are like, that we would normally get only from seeing each other at one or two holidays a year or on social media.”

So she and her siblings are taking baby steps. Now that the adults are fully vaccinated, they are cautiously moving from a committed relationship to a more open one. “We’ve all started socializing more with other people,” Ms. Jackson said, “but when I think about breaking up, I’m still very emotional.”

Do you like me? Check yes or no.

Lucia O’Sullivan, a psychology professor in Fredericton, New Brunswick, admits that she felt like a nervous teenager when she invited another family of four to pair up.

When they accepted, she rejoiced, “because they’re our favorite family, and our kids grew up together.” But it was awkward, she said, “to have to draw a line in the sand, and say, ‘This group is in, and this group is out.’”

Ms. O’Sullivan has yet to shake those teenage feelings of social hierarchy. “You’re so aware that your primary source of all socialization has to be this other family,” she said. “And I spend a lot of time having these strange insecurities, and thinking, ‘Oh, they’re sick of us, they’re rolling their eyes and they don’t want to hang out.’”

In Canada, personal gatherings remain limited to 15 people, so the families are still podding — but Ms. O’Sullivan is anticipating more teenage feelings when they split. “I definitely feel like a nerd with the cool kids,” she said. “I think our pod family is not going to want to see our mugs for a while.”

We are never, ever getting back together.

Maya from Brooklyn, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she is still enmeshed in her pod, joined forces last August with five families, all of whom had children in kindergarten.

The ensuing inter-pod drama, she said, was exhausting and stressful. “It was very intense having kids while some of us were working at home, and half the people in the pod were unemployed,” she said. Suddenly, she had the codependent dysfunctional family she never asked for, “with all the drama that goes with it.”

In a terse recent meeting, they decided to stick it out until the kids’ school year ends in June, and then scatter.

“We are so ready to leave,” she said. “I’ve never lived communally since college. I want a social life beyond these folks. I am never, ever going to do this again.”


Jancee Dunn is the author of “How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids.”

Why Your Kid Likes Comparing Neptune to a Dust Mite

Bigger than a planet? Smaller than an atom? Size comparison videos are all the rage and may scratch a very old itch.

Not long ago, my 7-year-old son looked up from a picture he was drawing.

“Mom,” he said, “If atoms had eyes, would they be able to see subatomic particles?”

His question had been inspired by a specific kind of video that has recently captured his interest and seized it with an iron grip.

Size comparisons videos are animated shorts that use special effects to show the scale of things, typically from smallest to largest. Most are done without narration, just 3-D renderings of objects, scaled in size and then moving as if on an assembly line. They are widespread on YouTube and free to watch, though some have ads. You can find videos that compare planets, animals, bones in the human body, even fictional starships.

On this day, my son had been drawing tiny things on a whiteboard in the living room: an atom, a dust mite, protons. The day before, it was enormous things: galaxies, black holes, supergiant stars.

At first, I assumed these videos were just another in a long line of YouTube sensations that are popular among kids and bewildering to parents. Think disembodied hands opening gift boxes or Thomas trains crashing repeatedly on a loop. Similarly, size comparisons are simple and hypnotic, a rush of dopamine to a 7-year-old brain. In our house, they were all my son wanted to watch, unseating Pokémon and the entire Marvel franchise.

He’s not alone. One size comparison video, titled “Universe Size Comparison 3D,” has been viewed more than 77 million times. Alvaro Gracia, an animator from Spain, has made nearly 100 size comparison videos, and they’re frequently used by teachers who build them into lesson plans. Matthew Lawrence, who creates size comparisons targeted to kids on his channel, Kids Learning Tube, said his views have jumped 40 percent during the pandemic.

So how should parents understand these? What explains the appeal? Do they have educational value or is this just mindless screen time?

Simple patterns help young kids make sense of the world.

The ability to order things by size or quantity has a name in cognitive development: seriation. In the 1940s, the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget noticed that, while adults can almost mindlessly sort a series of jumbled sticks by size, children under 5 often fail at this task. And it’s not until roughly age 7 that they can do it with ease.

Maggie McGonigle, a retired senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and author of the textbook “Understanding Cognitive Development,” replicated Piaget’s observations in a series of experiments that tested the ability of children to sort five or more squares or rods on a touch-screen. She also found that while 5-year-olds initially struggle, they can be trained to sort objects successfully.

Her colleague, Iain Kusel, developed a computer model that simulated their learning process during this sorting exercise. They concluded that the 5-year-olds go through a process of ranking by trial and error, during which they eventually begin to look for the smallest difference between objects. An increased working memory capacity, which develops from ages 5 to 7, allows the 7-year-olds to use this smallest difference information to help them solve the problem spontaneously.

Dr. Kusel said he’s not surprised that kids would latch onto this kind of video at the time this developmental growth is occurring.

“I have a hunch that the videos are tapping into something,” he said. “It’s a way of allowing them to express a new engine, a new muscle,” he said.

Humans are exceptional at seeing patterns, and they enjoy analogies, even at a young age, said Dedre Gentner, professor of psychology at Northwestern University. In fact, she believes it’s key to our success as a species. Patterns also have great value in a child’s intellectual development and are critical to science and math.

Both size comparison videos and sorting tasks feature more than just the objects, she said, but also how the objects relate to one another.

“That’s part of what I think is the thrill for kids,” Dr. Gentner said. “You get this constant shift off the object and into a relational pattern. It’s making sense of the world in a way that’s extremely satisfying.”

The concept of scale is mind-boggling.

It’s not just the relationship between objects in these videos: They also show scale. Consider the solar system. Nearly every picture of the sun and planets that a kid sees, whether in a textbook, a storybook or a puzzle, is grossly distorted. Planets often appear close together and similar in size. Because of this, kids (and adults) of all ages develop inappropriate ideas of scale. And it takes creativity to untangle these misconceptions.

One reason children develop misconceptions about size, scale and distance, said Matthew Schneps, a former senior scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, “is they are trying to make sense of things they do not have the experience to understand. Puzzled, they try to build an understanding from whatever experience they do have, whether or not the experience applies.”

Dr. Schneps has devoted much of his career to helping students understand science more comprehensively. And he studied video as a learning tool. He was the lead author in a study that found that even brief exposure to virtual 3-D simulations of the solar system advanced students’ understanding of spatial scale and helped clear up deep-seated misconceptions. His paper points out that inconceivably large and small comparisons of scale are common in science, such as geologic time, the size and age of the universe, biological evolution, and the size and speed of atomic and subatomic particles.

Some of these scales are so big or so small that they boggle the brain. To give a sense of sheer size, for example, a group of friends in 2015 built a scale solar system across seven miles of a dry lake bed in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Neptune, at the system’s outer limit, was placed more than three miles away from Earth, which was the size of a marble. Neptune was the size of a tennis ball.

Like the simulations in Dr. Schneps’ study, size comparison videos may be an example of screens succeeding where schoolbooks fail. Many of these videos are made by animators, not necessarily scientists or educators, and they are generally not independently checked for accuracy. Still, Dr. Schneps said, he likes size comparison videos because they provide “enough enriching information, expressed via the detail in the images, to allow learners at every level to take away something useful.”

How to teach kids about scale.

There are screen-free ways to teach kids about scale that require a little creativity — and a lot of space. David Jackson, associate professor of science education at the University of Georgia, suggests one such activity for use by middle school science teachers. Placing major events in geologic history along a 131-foot hallway, he demonstrates a geologic time scale of the history of the solid Earth, dating back 4 billion years. The earliest bacteria appear 16 feet from the wall, and the first evidence of multicellular life shows up 96 feet later, nearly seven-eighths of the way down the hall.

Students are always surprised to see how recently modern humans emerged, he said: a mere one-eighth of an inch from present-day. That’s a peppercorn’s length from the finish line.

Using everyday objects to represent scale is memorable for all kids, Dr. Jackson said. For example, if Earth was the size of a standard globe, the moon would be a softball and Jupiter would fill the average bedroom.

Encourage active thinking.

If children really enjoy this kind of thinking, encourage it, Dr. Schneps said. Give them the tools to explore it — even if that’s a YouTube video.

“Children are brilliant thinkers, they’re formulating lots of ideas. And we have to engage that active thinking process if they’re going to learn,” he said.

Which brings me back to my son’s question: Could atoms with eyes see subatomic particles? I had no idea, and my husband was stumped, too.

Fortunately, a science-minded friend came up with a calculation. He compared the size of an average 7-year-old to the tiniest thing that child could see — that’s about a 10th of a millimeter, or about the size of a grain of pollen. He then applied that same resolution to a nitrogen atom. And he concluded that no, even the biggest protons and neutrons, which are fantastically tiny, would be too small for that atom to see.

I told my son, who thought about it for a second, nodded and then said: “Now ask him what boogers are for.”


Jenny Marder is a senior science writer for NASA and a freelance journalist. She was formerly digital managing editor for the PBS NewsHour.

Día 4: Pregúntale a alguien algo profundo

El desafío

¿Qué papel interpretaste en la obra escolar? ¿Cuál ha sido tu momento más vergonzoso? ¿Qué superpoder te gustaría tener? Para el desafío de hoy, encuentra un amigo o alguien para compartir una pregunta de conexión. La ciencia nos dice que cuando pasas por alto la charla superficial y más bien revelas algo sobre ti mismo, creas lazos más profundos con tu interlocutor, ya sea un amigo, un familiar o tu pareja. Elige una pregunta y empiecen a conversar. (Hay más opciones más adelante).

¿Por qué hacerlo?

La pandemia ha fortalecido algunas relaciones y fracturado otras. Muchas personas dicen que han olvidado cómo hablar con otros y les abruma la idea de volver a socializar. Por fortuna, los especialistas en relaciones han estudiado el mejor modo de forjar conexiones humanas más profundas.

Varios estudios muestran que es más probable formar vínculos cercanos cuando revelamos nuestras opiniones y sentimientos en lugar de solo datos elementales sobre nuestra vida. La autorrevelación es el concepto detrás de un estudio titulado “Generación experimental de cercanía interpersonal”, dirigido por Arthur Aron, científico en la Universidad Estatal de Nueva York en Stony Brook. El objetivo de Aron era crear cercanía entre dos extraños en un entorno de laboratorio con fines de investigación.

Como sabían que la autorrevelación fomenta la cercanía, Aron y sus colegas teorizaron que podrían acelerar el proceso de acercamiento al pedir que los desconocidos hablaran durante 45 minutos sobre una serie de preguntas personales, cada una más reveladora que la anterior. Lo llamaron, “revelación personal sostenida, creciente, recíproca”. (Pronto averiguaron que su cuestionario tuvo un efecto duradero después de que se reportó cercanía continua entre las parejas en el estudio, incluida una pareja que se casó).

Aunque las preguntas luego se hicieron conocidas como las 36 preguntas que llevan al amor, Aron indica que el objetivo no es generar romance. La mayor parte del tiempo, las preguntas ayudan a que los desconocidos se conviertan en amigos, los amigos se acerquen y las parejas románticas se sientan más conectadas.

“Una de las principales razones por las que la autorrevelación es positiva para las amistades o las relaciones románticas es porque brinda a la otra persona la oportunidad de responder”, dijo Aron. Preguntar y responder las preguntas te permite saber “que comprenden, escuchan, que valoran lo que sientes”.

Las preguntas se dividen en tres grupos. Las primeras sirven para que las personas se sientan cómodas y las de más adelante son más desafiantes. Pueden elegir una preguntar o elegir varias de cada grupo. Aquí hay algunas preguntas del estudio. Puedes encontrar la lista completa aquí.

Serie I

1. Suponiendo que pudieras elegir a cualquier persona del mundo, ¿a quién te gustaría invitar a cenar?

2. ¿Qué constituye un “día perfecto” para ti?

3. Nombre tres cosas que tú y tu interlocutor parecen tener en común.

4. Si pudieras despertar mañana habiendo adquirido una cualidad o una habilidad, ¿cuál sería?

Serie II

5. ¿Hay algo que hayas soñado hacer desde hace mucho tiempo? ¿Por qué no lo has hecho?

6. ¿Cuál es el mayor logro de tu vida?

7. ¿Cuál es tu recuerdo más preciado?

8. Alternadamente, menciona una característica positiva de la persona tu interlocutor. Menciona un total de cinco características.

Serie III

9. Cada uno haga tres declaraciones verdaderas usando “nosotros”. Por ejemplo: “Los dos estamos en esta sala sintiendo…”

10. Cuéntale a tu interlocutor un momento bochornoso de su vida.

11. Tu casa, que contiene todo lo que posees en la vida, arde en un incendio. Después de salvar a tus seres queridos y mascotas, tienes tiempo de una carrera final para rescatar algún objeto. ¿Cuál sería y por qué?

12. Expón un problema personal y pregunta a tu interlocutor cómo lo manejaría. Asimismo, pídele que te diga cómo pareces sentirte respecto del problema que eligió.

Tara Parker-Pope es la editora fundadora de Well, el galardonado sitio de salud para el consumidor de The New York Times. Ganó un Emmy en 2013 por la serie de videos Life, Interrupted y es la autora de For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage. @taraparkerpope