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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
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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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      James Clear

      James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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      Last Updated on July 20, 2021

      How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

      How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)
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      You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.

      Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.

      Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.

      Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:

      1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically

      According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.

      “Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor

      Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:

      Warming up

      If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.

      If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.

      Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:

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      1. Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
      2. Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
      3. Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.

      Stay hydrated

      Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.

      To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.

      Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.

      Meditate

      Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.

      Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.

      Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.

      Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:

      2. Focus on your goal

      One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.

      Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’

      Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.

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      Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.

      If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.[1]

      3. Convert negativity to positivity

      There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?

      ‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’

      It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.

      Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”

      Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.

      Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:

      4. Understand your content

      Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.

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      However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.

      “No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

      Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.

      Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.[2]

      One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.

      5. Practice makes perfect

      Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.

      In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.

      Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

      6. Be authentic

      There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.

      Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.

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      Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.

      To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.

      With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.

      Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:

      7. Post speech evaluation

      Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.

      Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation

      We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.

      You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.

      Improve your next speech

      As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.

      Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:

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      • How did I do?
      • Are there any areas for improvement?
      • Did I sound or look stressed?
      • Did I stumble on my words? Why?
      • Was I saying “um” too often?
      • How was the flow of the speech?

      Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.

      If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too:

      Reference

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