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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 September 17, 2019

      10 Simple Ways To Always Think Positive Thoughts

      10 Simple Ways To Always Think Positive Thoughts

      Positive thinking can lead to a lot of positive change in your life. Developing an optimistic outlook can be good for both your physical and mental health.

      But sometimes, certain situations arise in life that makes it hard to keep a positive outlook. Take steps to make positive thinking become more like your second nature and you’ll reap the biggest benefits.

      Here are 10 ways to make thinking positive thoughts easy:

      1. Spend Time with Positive People

      If you surround yourself with constant complainers, their negativity is likely to rub off on you.

      Spend time with positive friends and family members to increase the likelihood that their positive thinking habits will become yours too. It’s hard to be negative when everyone around you is so positive.

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      2. Take Responsibility for Your Behavior

      When you encounter problems and difficulties in life, don’t play the role of the victim. Acknowledge your role in the situation and take responsibility for your behavior.

      Accepting responsibility can help you learn from mistakes and prevent you from blaming others unfairly.

      3. Contribute to the Community

      One of the best ways to feel good about what you have, is to focus on what you have to give.

      Volunteer in some manner and give back to the community. Helping others can give you a new outlook on the world and can assist you with positive thinking.

      4. Read Positive and Inspirational Materials

      Spend time each day reading something that encourages positive thinking. Read the Bible, spiritual material, or inspirational quotes to help you focus on what’s important to you in life. It can be a great way to start and end your day.

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      Some recommendations for you:

      5. Recognize and Replace Negative Thoughts

      You won’t be successful at positive thinking if you’re still plagued by frequent negative thoughts. Learn to recognize and replace thoughts that are overly negative. Often, thoughts that include words like “always” and “never” signal that they aren’t true.

      If you find yourself thinking something such as, “I always mess everything up,” replace it with something more realistic such as, “Sometimes I make mistakes but I learn from them.”

      There’s no need to make your thoughts unrealistically positive, but instead, make them more realistic.

      6. Establish and Work Toward Goals

      It’s easier to be positive about problems and setbacks when you have goals that you’re working toward. Goals will give you motivation to overcome those obstacles when you encounter problems along the way. Without clear goals, it’s harder to make decisions and gauge your progress.

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      Learn to set SMART goals to help you achieve more.

      7. Consider the Consequences of Negativity

      Spend some time thinking about the consequences of negative thinking. Often, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      For example, a person who thinks, “I probably won’t get this job interview,” may put less effort into the interview. As a result, he may decrease his chances of getting the job.

      Create a list of all the ways negative thinking impacts your life. It likely influences your behavior, your relationships, and your feelings. Then, create a list of the ways in which positive thinking could be beneficial.

      8. Offer Compliments to Others

      Look for reasons to compliment others. Be genuine in your praise and compliments, but offer it frequently. This will help you look for the good in other people.

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      9. Create a Daily Gratitude List

      If you start keeping a daily gratitude list, you’ll start noticing exactly how much you have to be thankful for. This can help you focus on the positive in your life instead of thinking about all the bad things that have happened in the day.

      Getting in the habit of showing an attitude of gratitude makes positive thinking more of a habit. Here’re 40 Simple Ways To Practice Gratitude.

      10. Practice Self-Care

      Take good care of yourself and you’ll be more equipped to think positively.

      Get plenty of rest and exercise and practice managing your stress well. Taking care of your physical and mental health will provide you with more energy to focus on positive thinking.

      Learn about these 30 Self-Care Habits for a Strong and Healthy Mind, Body and Spirit.

      More About Staying Positive

      Featured photo credit: DESIGNECOLOGIST via unsplash.com

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