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Reducing Stress: What Scientists Learned From the Children Who Survived a Famine During the Deadliest War in History

Reducing Stress: What Scientists Learned From the Children Who Survived a Famine During the Deadliest War in History

There was nothing left to eat.

The butter had disappeared in October. By November, adult food rations had been cut to 1000 calories per day. A few months later, in the dead of winter, rations dropped to 500 calories per day. Food stocks throughout the country were empty. If you were lucky enough to have food ration coupons, you could get 100 grams of cheese every two weeks. Meat was a fantasy. By April of 1945, each person was limited to 1 loaf of bread and 5 potatoes — for the entire week. [1]

It was the middle of a terrible famine known as the Dutch Hunger Winter. World War II was nearing an end and Allied forces were able to push the German army out of the southern half of the Netherlands. As the Nazi’s retreated, however, they destroyed docks and bridges, flooded the farm lands, and set up blockades in the northern half of the country to cut off shipments of food and fuel. What little food had been stockpiled and saved was nearly impossible to transport. Starving and without options, many people ate tulip bulbs and sugar beets.

Among those struggling to survive was a 9-year-old boy from Amsterdam named Henkie Holvast. During the worst period of the famine, Henkie was one of the many children who would carry spoons with them wherever they went “just in case.” Photographer Martinus Meijboom captured this iconic image of Henkie during the Dutch Hunger Winter. Two of Henkie’s younger siblings died during the famine. Somehow, he managed to survive.

hunger-winter-henkie-holvast-by-martinus-meijboom
    Source: National Institute for War Documentation, Amsterdam

    To make matters worse, winter had come early that year. Canals and waterways had frozen, further restricting food transport. Gas and electricity were either unavailable or inoperable because of the war. The Holvast family, like many others throughout the Netherlands, had begun burning their furniture to stay warm. By April 1945, the situation was desperate. Approximately 20,000 Dutch had died from malnutrition.

    In April 1945, the Royal Air Force flew from Great Britain and coordinated a series of air drops known as Operation Manna. In total, they dropped more than 6,600 tons of food in German-occupied territory. The Dutch responded with a simple message of “MANY THANKS” written in tulips on the countryside. [2]

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    hunger-winter-operation-manna-many-thanks

      The famine mercifully ended the next month, May of 1945, when Allied forces regained control of the Netherlands. The most surprising part of the famine, however, was just beginning.

      The Impact of Stress

      As far as famines go, the Dutch Hunger Winter was remarkably unique. Most famines occur in areas that suffer from overpopulation, severe crop failure, or repeated periods of political instability. The Netherlands experienced none of these influences. Once the war ended and Allied troops arrived, the Dutch quickly recovered to a normal diet.

      From a scientific perspective the Dutch survivors were perfect for study. The population consisted of a well-defined group of people who experienced one period of malnutrition at exactly the same time.

      In the 1990s, Dr. Tessa Roseboom, a medical faculty member from the University of Amsterdam, began diving into the data about the children conceived and born during the Dutch Hunger Winter. Thanks to meticulous record keeping by the Dutch, Roseboom was able to track thousands of the children throughout their lives. What she discovered was remarkable. [3]

      According to Roseboom’s research, children who were conceived during the Dutch Hunger Winter have:

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      • Higher risk of cardiovascular disease as an adult (up to 2x greater risk)
      • Higher rates of obesity throughout life
      • Increased risk of high blood pressure as an adult
      • Higher rates of hospitalization as an adult (i.e. increased illness)
      • Lower likelihood of being employed [4]

      In other words, the children who were still in their mother’s womb during that brutal winter have poorer health six decades later. These studies were groundbreaking because they revealed just how deeply stress can burrow into our lives. Not only do the effects of stress and malnutrition impact us at the time they occur, they can have lingering effects on ourselves and our children for decades to come.

      Stress In Our Lives

      The studies on the Dutch Hunger Winter offer a clear and dramatic look at how stress changes our bodies and stays with us throughout our lives. While we don’t have to live in such extreme situations (hopefully), we do deal with stress on a day-to-day basis. Because this is something we deal with everyday, our best defense against the effects of stress is to build daily habits that counteract those effects.

      In other words, reducing stress isn’t something that only those in dire circumstances need to consider. It is something we all need to handle. And the research above makes it clear: reducing stress is something you need to do not only for yourself, but also for your children and grandchildren as well.

      Now for the million dollar question: What can we do to reduce stress in our lives?

      7 Scientifically Proven Ways to Reduce Stress

      Here are 7 scientifically proven ways to reduce stress in your life.

      1. Exercise

      I can’t tell you how many times exercise has saved my sanity. If I didn’t lift weights consistently, I wouldn’t have a business. The stress of entrepreneurship would have run me into the ground by now. There are many studies linking exercise to reduced stress levels. My method of choice is strength training or sprinting, but all types of exercise are useful. (Yoga, for example.)

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      2. Meditation / Deep breathing

      Yes, meditation can reduce stress. [5-7] That’s probably not a surprise. If you’re like me, then you know meditation is good for you, but you just never find a way to fit it in. Here’s a tip I recently got from a monk: start your meditation habit by meditating for 1 minute. Do that for a month. Then increase to 2 minutes and do that for a month. And so on, until you get to the level you desire. Talk about slow gains. I love it!

      3. Music

      Listening to music can actually trigger the release of stress-reducing chemicals in the body, which is pretty awesome. [8,9] (Want more? I wrote a previous article on the health benefits of music.)

      4. Sleep

      If you are feeling stressed, a nap or a solid 8 or 9 hours of sleep can really help. In some cases, sleep is not only the solution, but actually the problem. Sleep deprivation can be brutal on your health. Most people aren’t getting enough sleep each night and sleep debt is a cumulative problem. The stress of too little sleep can add up and the only real solution is to give yourself the chance to rest. Make time to rest and rejuvenate now or make time to be sick and injured later.

      5. Laughter

      Everything is better when you laugh, including your stress levels. [10-12]

      6. Stand up straight

      Surprisingly, research from Harvard has revealed that your body language can impact the amount of testosterone and cortisol in your bloodstream. I wrote about the research here, but this TED Talk is a fantastic summary as well.

      7. Art

      I have written about the health benefits of art previously and one of them is stress reduction. Don’t confuse creating art with being artistic. What we are really talking about here is creating something rather than sitting around and passively consuming. Worrying about all of the things on your to-do list is passive and naturally provides a feeling of being out of control. Creating something – whether that means writing in a journal, taking a photo, crafting a ceramic pot, and flashing your scrapbooking skills – naturally makes you feel in control of something and gives you a healthy outlet for your energy.

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      Where to Go From Here

      Thankfully, most of us will never have to live through a period of intense stress like the Dutch Hunger Winter. That said, stress is still part of our daily lives and it is perhaps the greatest burden to our long-term health. Stress can decrease your heart health. It can increase the rate at which you age. It can disrupt your immune system.

      The best path forward is to build stress-reducing habits into our lives (like the ones listed above), so that we can curtail the long-term impact that it has on us and our loved ones.

      This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

      Sources

      1. Technically, rations were measured exactly as 400 grams of bread and 1 kilogram of potatoes. This is approximately 1 loaf of bread and 5 large potatoes.
      2. After much searching, I can’t find the original source for the “Many Thanks” photo. If you know who took it, please share and I will happily cite them.
      3. Effects of Prenatal Exposure to the Dutch Famine on Adult Disease in Later Life: An Overview by Tessa J. Roseboom, Jan H.P. van der Meulen, Anita C.J. Ravelli, Clive Osmond, David J.P. Barker, Otto P. Bleker.
      4. Long-Run Effects on Gestation During the Dutch Hunger Winter Famine on Labor Market and Hospitalization Outcomes by Robert S. Scholte, Gerard J. van den Berg, and Maarten Lindeboom
      5. Mindfulness-based stress reduction by Marchand
      6. A randomized, controlled trial of meditation for work stress, anxiety and depressed mood in full-time workers by Manocha, Black, Sarris, and Stough
      7. Effects of mental relaxation and slow breathing in essential hypertension by Kaushik, Kaushik, Mahajan, and Rajesh
      8. From music-beat to heart-beat: a journey in the complex interactions between music, brain and heart by Cervellin and Lippi
      9. Emotional foundations of music as a non-pharmacological pain management tool in modern medicine by Bernatzky, Presch, Anderson, and Panksepp
      10. Effects of laughter therapy on postpartum fatigue and stress responses of postpartum women by Shin, Ryu, and Song
      11. A case of laughter therapy that helped improve advanced gastric cancer by Noji and Takayanagi
      12. Laughter and depression: hypothesis of pathogenic and therapeutic correlation by Fonzi, Matteucci, and Bersani

      Featured photo credit: Michael Clesle via flickr.com

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      Last Updated on November 5, 2018

      8 Powerful Reasons to Love Your Enemies

      8 Powerful Reasons to Love Your Enemies

      We’ve all got our enemies; people who take pleasure in causing us pain and misery. Sometimes, the development of an enemy is due to certain differences in your characters and events have led to that. Other times, some people end up hating you for apparently no reason at all.

      Regardless of how you got this enemy, as opposed to the paradigm of fighting fire with fire, consider the following reasons and see why you should actually appreciate your enemies. This article will show you not only how to not be bothered by your enemies, but how to actually foster love for them.

      Read on to learn the secret.

      1. It’s a practical lesson in anger management

      To be honest, your enemies are the best people to help you understand your sense of anger management. When it might be true that your enemies have a way of bringing out the worst in you as regards anger, it is also true that they can help you in your quest to have that anger managed. You can’t get truly angry at someone you love and it is only in that time when you get truly annoyed that you learn how to manage it.

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      Anger management is more effective when it is in practice and not in theory

      Your enemies are like the therapists who you need, but actually don’t want. Inasmuch as you might want to hate them, they provide you an opportunity to control the anger impulse that you have.

      2. It’s an opportunity for healthy competition

      You might not know it, but your enemies make for great rivals as they help harness the competitor in you (sometimes, you might not even know or bee conversant with this competitive side until you come across an adversary). You get the right motivation to compete and this can go a long way to spur you to victory.

      However, while doing so, it is also essential that you remember not to become a worse version of yourself while competing. Working against an adversary is tricky, and you need to ensure that you don’t cause harm to yourself or your morals in the process. Healthy competition is all you need to get out of this.

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      3. Their negative comments can help you make a breakthrough

      It is true that your enemies never really have much good to say about you. However, in as much as they might be talking out of a place of hate, there might be some truth to what they’re saying.

      To wit, whenever you hear something mean or nasty from an enemy, you might want to take a step back and evaluate yourself. There is a chance that what this enemy is saying is true and coming to face that fact is a major step in helping you to become a better person overall. This is another testament to the fact that enemies can be therapists in their own way.

      4. Enemies can also be powerful allies

      Loving your enemies can also mean making an effort to interact and make peace with them. In the end, if you are able to establish some common ground and patch things up, you’ll have succeeded in making another friend. And who doesn’t need friends?

      This can also help you in working with people in the long run. You get to hone your inter-personal skills, and that can be a big plus to your ledger.

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      5. It gives you the ability to realize positivity

      In a multitude of negativity, a speck of positivity always seems to find its way through.

      Sometimes, a knowledge of the fact that you have enemies will also help you to focus on the many positives and good things that are in your life. A lot of times, we neglect what really matters in life. This can be due to being overly concerned with the enemies we have.

      However, it is also possible for this acknowledgement to spur you to take a step back and appreciate the goo things (and people who surround you).

      6. There might just be a misunderstanding

      Sometimes, the reason why you have an enemy might be something very innocuous. You might not have known the cause of this fractured relationship and your enemy will help complete the picture.

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      Simply approaching them will help you to understand the reason for the fracture. This, in turn, can help you to work towards healing your relationship moving forward. Misunderstandings happen, and you need to be able to work around them.

      7. You learn to appreciate love as well

      A constant reminder of the fact that there are enemies will also help you not to take those who love you for granted. Love and hate are two opposing emotions and it is possible for one to momentarily overshadow the other.

      However, while you’ll always have enemies, there will also always be people who love you. These people need to be appreciated for what they do for you. Never let the hate projected to you from your enemies take the place of that.

      8. Do you really need the hate?

      The truth is that enemies bring only toxic emotions and generate bad reactions from you. If you’re truly to live a prosperous life, you can’t really be carrying all this baggage around.

      Hate is bad and you should try all you can to get rid of it. It is a well-known fact that nobody can get really far in life while carrying a lot of emotional baggage. Well, hate is the biggest form of emotional baggage there is.

      Featured photo credit: rawpixel via unsplash.com

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