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

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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

      More by this author

      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 November 18, 2021

      10 Proven Ways to Judge a Person’s Character

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      10 Proven Ways to Judge a Person’s Character

      We all fall into the trap of judging a person’s character by their appearance. How wrong we are! All too often, the real character of the person only appears when some negative event hits them or you. Then you may see a toxic person emerging from the ruins and it is often a shock.

      A truly frightening example is revealed in the book by O’Toole in Bowman called Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Instincts Betray Us. A perfectly respectable, charming, well dressed neighbor was found to have installed a torture chamber in his garage where he was systematically abusing kidnapped women. This is an extreme example, but it does show how we can be totally deceived by a person’s physical appearance, manners and behavior.

      So, what can you do? You want to be able to assess personal qualities when you come into contact with colleagues, fresh acquaintances and new friends who might even become lifelong partners. You want to know if they are:

      • honest
      • reliable
      • competent
      • kind and compassionate
      • capable of taking the blame
      • able to persevere
      • modest and humble
      • pacific and can control anger.

      The secret is to reserve judgment and take your time. Observe them in certain situations; look at how they react. Listen to them talking, joking, laughing, explaining, complaining, blaming, praising, ranting, and preaching. Only then will you be able to judge their character. This is not foolproof, but if you follow the 10 ways below, you have a pretty good chance of not ending up in an abusive relationship.

      1. Is anger a frequent occurrence?

      All too often, angry reactions which may seem to be excessive are a sign that there are underlying issues. Do not think that every person who just snaps and throws his/her weight around mentally and physically is just reacting normally. Everyone has an occasional angry outburst when driving or when things go pear-shaped.

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      But if this is almost a daily occurrence, then you need to discover why and maybe avoid that person. Too often, anger will escalate to violent and aggressive behavior. You do not want to be near someone who thinks violence can solve personal or global problems.

      2. Can you witness acts of kindness?

      How often do you see this person being kind and considerate? Do they give money to beggars, donate to charity, do voluntary work or in some simple way show that they are willing to share the planet with about 7 billion other people?

      I was shocked when a guest of mine never showed any kindness to the weak and disadvantaged people in our town. She was ostensibly a religious person, but I began to doubt the sincerity of her beliefs.

      “The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.”

      Abigail Van Buren

      3. How does this person take the blame?

      Maybe you know that s/he is responsible for a screw-up in the office or even in not turning up on time for a date. Look at their reaction. If they start blaming other colleagues or the traffic, well, this is an indication that they are not willing to take responsibility for their mistakes.

      4. Don’t use Facebook as an indicator.

      You will be relieved to know that graphology (the study of that forgotten skill of handwriting) is no longer considered a reliable test of a person’s character. Neither is Facebook stalking, fortunately. A study showed that Facebook use of foul language, sexual innuendo and gossip were not reliable indicators of a candidate’s character or future performance in the workplace.

      5. Read their emails.

      Now a much better idea is to read the person’s emails. Studies show that the use of the following can indicate certain personality traits:

      • Too many exclamation points may reveal a sunny disposition
      • Frequent errors may indicate apathy
      • Use of smileys is the only way a person can smile at you
      • Use of the third person may reveal a certain formality
      • Too many question marks can show anger
      • Overuse of capital letters is regarded as shouting. They are a definite no-no in netiquette, yet a surprising number of  people still use them.

      6. Watch out for the show offs.

      Listen to people as they talk. How often do they mention their achievements, promotions, awards and successes? If this happens a lot, it is a sure indication that this person has an over-inflated view of his/her achievements. They are unlikely to be modest or show humility. What a pity!  Another person to avoid.

      7. Look for evidence of perseverance.

      A powerful indicator of grit and tenacity is when a person persists and never gives up when they really want to achieve a life goal. Look for evidence of them keeping going in spite of enormous difficulties.

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      Great achievements by scientists and inventors all bear the hallmark of perseverance. We only have to think of Einstein, Edison (who failed thousands of times) and Nelson Mandela to get inspiration. The US Department of Education is in no doubt about how grit, tenacity and perseverance will be key success factors for youth in the 21st century.

      8. Their empathy score is high.

      Listen to how they talk about the less fortunate members of our society such as the poor, immigrants and the disabled. Do you notice that they talk in a compassionate way about these people? The fact that they even mention them is a strong indicator of empathy.

      People with zero empathy will never talk about the disadvantaged. They will rarely ask you a question about a difficult time or relationship. They will usually steer the conversation back to themselves. These people have zero empathy and in extreme cases, they are psychopaths who never show any feelings towards their victims.

      9. Learn how to be socially interactive.

      We are social animals and this is what makes us so uniquely human. If a person is isolated or a loner, this may be a negative indicator of their character. You want to meet a person who knows about trust, honesty and loyalty. The only way to practice these great qualities is to actually interact socially. The great advantage is that you can share problems and celebrate success and joy together.

      “One can acquire everything in solitude, except character.”

      Stendhal

       10. Avoid toxic people.

      These people are trying to control others and often are failing to come to terms with their own failures. Typical behavior and conversations may concern:

      • Envy or jealousy
      • Criticism of partners, colleagues and friends
      • Complaining about their own lack of success
      • Blaming others for their own bad luck or failure
      • Obsession with themselves and their problems

      Listen to these people talk and you will quickly discover that you need to avoid them at all costs because their negativity will drag you down. In addition, as much as you would like to help them, you are not qualified to do so.

      Now, having looked at some of the best ways to judge a person, what about yourself? How do others see you? Why not take Dr. Phil’s quiz and find out. Can you bear it?

      Featured photo credit: Jacek Dylag via unsplash.com

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