TIME Education

Education Does Not Make You a Happier Person

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A new study finds that the chance of happiness is the same, whether you went to college or not

There is no link between your education level and your personal happiness, says a new mental-health research study published by the British Journal of Psychiatry.

According to a press release, researchers from Warwick Medical School were inspired by the strong association between poor education and mental illness and wanted to investigate if the opposite was true: Does being educated lead to happiness?

The team discovered that the odds of happiness were equivalent throughout all levels of educational attainment.

“These findings are quite controversial because we expected to find the socioeconomic factors that are associated with mental illness would also be correlated with mental well being,” said Sarah Stewart-Brown, the lead author on the study. “But that is not the case.”

Researchers defined happiness as a state of high mental well-being in which people “feel good and function well.” They applied this to data from the Health Survey for England, which was administered to 17,030 people in 2010 and 2011.

Stewart-Brown said that her discovery means that socioeconomic factors may not be applicable to programs aimed at boosting mental well-being.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

Why Certain Noises Drive Some People Totally Nuts

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The condition, misophonia, means "hatred of sound"

A primary care physician recently made an unusual confession in the New York Times: Barron H. Lerner, MD, admitted that some of the sounds his patients make, like loud yawns and sniffling, bug him. A lot.

He has misophonia—the “hatred of sound”—a condition that causes people to feel irritated, or even enraged or disgusted when they hear specific noises. The most common culprits are eating sounds (think lip smacking), hand sounds (such as pen clicking), and breathing sounds (including any activity in the nostrils).

Scientists don’t fully understand why these noises cause angst for misophonia sufferers, but early research suggests a hyperconnectivity between the auditory system and the limbic system, a part of the brain that deals with emotions, explains Dr. Lerner, a professor of medicine and population health at the NYU Langone Medical Center.

Read more: 10 Things You Should Never Do When You’re Angry

He writes that “one of the most frustrating aspects of misophonia is what I call the ‘incredulity factor.’ For years, I could not believe that my friends and relatives were not getting as upset at what I considered rude behaviors. They were getting frustrated with me for focusing on sounds they did not really hear.”

I imagine noise-sensitive folks around the country were nodding in relief as they read Dr. Lerner’s essay and discovered they weren’t alone. In the comments section, hundreds shared their own misophonic grievances, from the crinkling of a bag of chips to the grating scrape of a fork against a plate.

The response led the Times to poll its readers on the most cringe-worthy sounds of all. The top five are:

5. Kunckle cracking (8% of the vote)
4. Nail clipping (10% of the vote)
3. Nose sniffling (17% of the vote)
2. Gum chewing (18%) of the vote)
1. Soup slurping (25% of the vote)

Think you might have misophonia? Dr. Lerner says the website misophonia.com has a sample letter about the condition you can bring to your doctor, and it also has a self-test.

Read more: 12 Worst Habits for Your Mental Health

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

Why Loneliness May Be the Next Big Public-Health Issue

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Living alone is linked with increased chance of mortality

Loneliness kills. That’s the conclusion of a new study by Brigham Young University researchers who say they are sounding the alarm on what could be the next big public-health issue, on par with obesity and substance abuse.

The subjective feeling of loneliness increases risk of death by 26%, according to the new study in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Social isolation — or lacking social connection — and living alone were found to be even more devastating to a person’s health than feeling lonely, respectively increasing mortality risk by 29% and 32%.

“This is something that we need to take seriously for our health,” says Brigham Young University researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad, an author of the study. “This should become a public-health issue.”

The researchers emphasized the difference between the subjective, self-reported feeling of loneliness and the objective state of being socially isolated. Both are potentially damaging, the study found. People who say they are alone but feel happy are at increased risk of death, as are those who have many social connections but say they are lonely. People who are both objectively isolated and subjectively lonely may be at the greatest risk of death, says Holt-Lunstad, though she notes that more data would be needed to know with certainty.

“If we just tell people to interact with more people, that might solve the social-isolation issue, but it might not solve the loneliness issue,” she said. “I think we need to acknowledge that both of these components are important.”

MORE: You Asked: How Many Friends Do I Need?

Many social scientists say technology and housing trends are increasing the risk of loneliness. More Americans are living alone than ever before, and technology like texting and social media has made it easier to avoid forming substantive relationships in the flesh and blood. Yet research shows that relationships can improve health in a variety of ways, by helping us manage stress, improving the functioning of the immune system and giving meaning to people’s lives.

Holt-Lunstad says that maintaining meaningful and close relationships, as well as a “diverse set of social connections” is key. Policy interventions for loneliness may be more difficult to imagine but could range from encouraging doctors to identify at-risk patients to rethinking the way neighborhoods are designed, Holt-Lunstad says.

“People’s response is oftentimes to say, ‘What are you going to do, tell everybody to give someone a hug?'” she says. “But there are many potential ways in which this could be implemented.”

Read next: 7 Timeless Ways to Be Happy at Any Age

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TIME Mental Health/Psychology

You Asked: How Many Friends Do I Need?

You Asked: How Many Friends Do I Need?
Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

Maybe just a handful, though quality trumps quantity.

Friends do your health so many favors. They protect your health as much as quitting smoking and a great deal more than exercising, according to a large 2010 review in the journal PLOS One. More research has shown that socially isolated people are more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those with a solid social circle.

“Strong social relationships support mental health, and that ties into better immune function, reduced stress and less cardiovascular activation,” says Dr. Debra Umberson, a sociologist at the University of Texas, Austin. Umberson says emotional support is just one of a dozen ways friends may safeguard your health and extend your life.

MORE Here’s How Hugs Can Prevent the Flu

Unfortunately, though, many of us don’t have enough of them. According to data from the General Social Survey (GSS), the number of Americans who say they have no close friends has roughly tripled in recent decades. “Zero” is also the most common response when people are asked how many confidants they have, the GSS data show. And adult men seem to be especially bad at keeping and cultivating friendships.

That may seem strange in the era of Facebook, Twitter and boundless digital connectivity. But the “friends” orbiting at the farthest reaches of your digital galaxy aren’t the ones that matter when it comes to your health and happiness.

The vital friendships—the pals you hug and laugh and lament with—are the ones who have the greatest impact on your health and happiness. You need between three and five of them for optimal wellbeing, suggests research from Dr. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford.

Dunbar’s name comes up a lot when you start digging into the subject of friendship. From his early work studying the brains and social circles of primates, he recognized that the size of a human’s social network might be limited by the size of a certain part of the human brain called the neocortex, a critical site for higher brain functions. After some complicated study, he came up with a figure now known as “Dunbar’s number.”

That number—usually cited as 150, but actually a range between 100 and 200—is the approximate size of a person’s social circle, or the perpetually changing group of friends and family members that you would invite to a large party. While you may have far fewer than 150 of these people in your life, your brain really can’t hold a close connection with more than 150, Dunbar’s research shows. Within that group, he says your closest 15 relationships—including family members or “kin”—seem to be most crucial when it comes to your mental and physical health.

But that’s not to say a brother or sister offers you the same benefits as a close friend, Dunbar says. While your kin are more likely to be there for you when you need help, your good friends tend to fire up your nervous system and trigger the release of feel-good neuropeptides called endorphins. Whether you’re laughing with your pal or feeling him or her touch your shoulder in sympathy, the resulting rush of endorphins seems to “tune” up your immune system, protecting you from disease, Dunbar explains.

So yes, for the sake of your health, you need friends—ideally the really close kind you see face-to-face on a regular basis. But even one very good friend can improve your life in profound ways, says Dr. Mark Vernon, a philosopher, psychotherapist and author of The Meaning of Friendship.

Despite their value in terms of your health and wellbeing, don’t think of them as your personal social doctors. Vernon warns against turning your friends into what he calls “service providers”—that’s not what friendship should be about, he says, even if your pals are good for you.

In the end, Vernon says Ralph Waldo Emerson may have offered the best advice when it comes to making and keeping close pals: “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”

Read next: 5 Types of Friends That Everyone Has

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TIME Mental Health/Psychology

Workplace Suicide Is a Small But Growing Issue: Study

40,000 Americans die of suicide in the U.S. every year

People with protective services job, like police and firemen, are at more than three times great a risk of workplace suicide than people in the general population, according to a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Workplace suicide represents a small fraction of the total number of U.S. suicide deaths—more than 40,000 Americans died of suicide in the U.S. in 2013, on par with traffic accidents deaths. Still, the rate of work place suicide is rising across the board, the study found.

“Occupation can largely define a person’s identity, and psychological risk factors for suicide, such as depression and stress, can be affected by the workplace,” said Hope M. Tiesman, an epidemiologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in a statement. The paper, which evaluated 2003-2010 data from a occupational injury database, found that more than 1,700 people died while on the job during the eight-year period. The study did not include data from active military personnel.

Farming and related professions fall directly behind protective service workers in workplace suicide risk, followed by maintenance workers and transportation laborers like truck drivers.

Access to the means to commit suicide at work was among the most important factors that explain the disparate suicide risk, researchers said. Firearms were involved in 84% of workplace suicides of protective service workers. Firearms are used in about half of overall suicides. Frequent exposure to high-stress situations may also contribute to the high rate of workplace suicide for these particular professions, researchers said.

Read More: This Bill Could Help Reduce the Risk of Veteran Suicide

The results suggest that policymakers should pay closer attention to addressing mental health issues in the workplace, researchers said. “Suicide is a multifactorial outcome and therefore multiple opportunities to intervene in an individual’s life—including the workplace—should be considered,” said Tiesman.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

17 Surprising Reasons You’re Stressed Out

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Watch out for these hidden anxiety triggers

You’re probably all too aware of the major sources of stress in your life—money, your terrible commute, the construction workers who start jackhammering at 5 a.m. But stress and anxiety don’t have to just come from obvious or even negative sources. “There are plenty of chronic strains and low-grade challenges that don’t necessarily overwhelm you in the moment, but almost take more of a toll in the long run,” says Scott Schieman, PhD, professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. These are some of unexpected reasons why you might feel anxious or agitated. By recognizing them for what they are, says Schieman, you can better prepare to cope.

Your significant other

Even if you have a blissfully happy relationship with your live-in partner or spouse, you’re both bound to do things that get on each other’s nerves. “Early in the relationship, it’s usually about space and habits—like whether you squeeze the toothpaste from the middle or the bottom of the tube,” says Ken Yeager, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Later on, you might clash over parenting style or financial issues, and finding a unified front to face these issues together.” So what’s the key to surviving and thriving in your life together? Finding balance, says Yeager: spending the right amount of time together (not too much and not too little), making compromises, keeping communication open and honest, and remembering to acknowledge what you love about each other on a daily basis.

Everyday annoyances

We’re told not to sweat the small stuff, but sometimes it’s the little things that have the biggest impact on our mood: the never-ending phone calls with your insurance company, the rude cashier at the grocery store, the 20 minutes you lose looking for a parking space. “We let these things bother us because they trigger unconscious fears,” says Yeager—fears of being seen as irresponsible, of being bullied or embarrassed, or of being late all the time, for example. “Sometimes you need to take a step back and realize that you’re doing the best you can given the circumstances.”

Read more: 12 Signs You May Have an Anxiety Disorder

Other people’s stress

Stress is contagious, according to a 2014 German study: In a series of experiments, most participants who simply observed others completing a stressful task experienced an increase themselves in production of the stress hormone cortisol—a phenomenon known as empathic stress. You can also experience stress when someone you know is affected by a traumatic event, like a car crash or a chronic illness. “You start to worry, ‘Oh my gosh, could that happen to me?’,” says Yeager. “We tend not to think about these things until they hit close to home.”

Social media

It may seem like Facebook is the only way you keep up with the friends you don’t see regularly—which, during particularly busy times, can be just about all of them. The social network also has a downside, according to a 2015 study from the Pew Research Center: It can make you aware of stressful situations in your friends’ lives, which in turn can add more stress to your life. The Pew report didn’t find that social media users, overall, had higher levels of stress, but previous studies have suggested that frequent social-media use can be associated with negative body image and prolonged breakup pain.

Distraction

A distraction can be a good thing then when it takes your mind off of a stressful situation or difficult decision, like when you take a break from work to meet a friend for lunch. But it works the other way, as well: When you’re so busy thinking about something else that you can’t enjoy what’s going on around you, that kind of distraction can be a recipe for stress. Practicing mindfulness gives you brain the refresh it needs, says Richard Lenox, director of the Student Counseling Center at Texas Tech University. Paying full attention to your surroundings when you’re walking and driving can help, he adds. “Stress and anxiety tend to melt away when our mind is focused on the present.”

Read more: 12 Worst Habits for Your Mental Health

Your childhood

Traumatic events that happened when you were a kid can continue to affect your stress levels and overall health into adulthood. A 2014 University of Wisconsin-Madison study found that these childhood experiences may actually change parts of the brain responsible for processing stress and emotion. The way you were raised can also have a lasting impact on your everyday angst, suggests a 2014 Johns Hopkins University study. Researchers found that children of parents with social anxiety disorders are more likely to develop “trickle-down anxiety”—not simply because of their genes, but because of their parents’ behaviors toward them such as a lack of warmth and emotion, or high levels of criticism and doubt.

Tea and chocolate

You probably know to take it easy on the coffee when you’re already feeling on edge. “Caffeine is always going to make stress worse,” says Yeager. But you may not think as much about drinking several cups of tea at once, or chowing down on a bar of dark chocolate—both of which can contain nearly as much caffeine as a cup of joe. “Chocolate is a huge caffeine source,” says Yeager. “I know people who don’t drink coffee but they’ll eat six little candy bars in a two-hour period because they want the same kind of jolt.” Too much caffeine, in any form, can cause problems with sleep, digestion, and irritability.

Read more: 25 Surprising Ways Stress Affects Your Health

Your expectations

When things don’t go the way you’ve planned, do you tend to get upset and act defensively, or do you roll with the punches and set off on a new plan? If it’s the former, you could be contributing to a mindset of pessimism and victimization that will slowly wear you down, even when things may not be as bad as they seem. “Your level of serenity is inversely proportionate to your expectations,” says Yeager. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set ambitious goals for yourself or settle for less than what you want, of course, but being realistic about what’s truly possible is important, as well.

Your reaction to stress

If you tend to deal with stressful situations by working long hours, skipping your workouts, and bingeing on junk food, we’ve got some bad news: You’re only making it worse. “We know that physical activity and healthy foods will help your body better deal with stress, and yet we often avoid them when we need them the most,” says Yeager. “People really need to think about this downward spiral we get into and work harder to counteract it.”

Multitasking

Think you’re being super efficient by tackling four tasks at once? Chances are you’re not —and it’s only decreasing your productivity while increasing your stress. A 2012 University of Irvine study, for example, found that people who responded to emails all day long while also trying to get their work done experienced more heart-rate variability (an indicator of mental stress) than those who waited to respond to all of their emails at one time. Focusing on one task at a time can ensure that you’re doing that job to the best of your abilities and getting the most out of it, so you won’t have to worry about or go back and fix it later, says Schieman. And don’t worry: You’ll have enough time to do it all. In fact, you may discover you have more time than you thought.

Your favorite sport

Watching a tight game of college hoops can stress you out—even if your alma mater wins. “The body doesn’t distinguish between ‘bad’ stress from life or work and ‘good’ stress caused by game-day excitement,” says Jody Gilchrist, a nurse practitioner at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Heart and Vascular Clinic. Watching sports can even trigger the body’s sympathetic nervous system, releasing adrenaline and reducing blood flow to the heart. Those temporary consequences aren’t usually anything to be concerned about, but over time, chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure and increased disease risk. And, of course, it doesn’t help if you’re adding alcohol and binge-eating to a situation that’s already stressful on your body. You may not be able to control the outcome of the game, says Gilchrist, but you can limit its effects on your own body.

Read more: 11 Things You Should Never Do When You’re Angry

Digital devices

Whether you’re using it for work or play, technology may play a large role in your mental health, says Yeager. Using computers or e-readers too close to bedtime could lead to sleep problems, he says, and spending too much time virtually socializing can make real-life interactions seem extra stressful. (Plus, texting doesn’t trigger the same feel-good hormones as face-to-face talk does.) Then there’s the dreaded “work creep,” says Schieman, when smartphones allow employees to be tethered to their jobs, even during off-hours. “People say they’re only going to check email for an hour while they’re on vacation, but the problem with email is that they’re filled with responsibilities, new tasks, and dilemmas that are going to be hard to compartmentalize and put out of your head once that hour is up.”

Your (good) health

While it may not be as stressful as having a chronic illness or getting bad news at the doctor’s office, even people in the best shape of their lives worry about their bodies, their diets, and their fitness levels. In fact, people who take healthy living to an extreme may experience some rather unhealthy side effects. People who follow low-carb diets, for example, are more likely to report being sad or stressed out, while those on any kind of restrictive meal plan may feel more tired than usual. And it’s not unheard of for someone to become obsessed with healthy eating (known as orthorexia) or working out (gymorexia). Like any form of perfectionism, these problems can be stressful at best, and extremely dangerous at worst.

Housework

Does folding laundry help you feel calm, or does it make your blood boil? If you’re in a living situation where you feel you’re responsible for an unfair share of work, even chores you once enjoyed may start to feel like torture. “Dividing up housework and parenting responsibilities can be tricky, especially if both partners work outside the home,” says Schieman. “And whether you define that division of labor as equal or unequal can really change your attitude toward it.”

Read more: 19 Natural Remedies for Anxiety

Uncertainty

Stress can be defined as any perceived or actual threat, says Yeager, so any type of doubt that’s looming over you can contribute to your anxiety levels on a daily basis. “When you know something could change at any minute, you always have your guard up and it’s hard to just relax and enjoy anything.” Financial uncertainty may be the most obvious stressor—not being sure if you’ll keep your job during a round of layoffs, or not knowing how you’ll pay your credit card bill. Insecurities in other areas of life, like your relationship or your housing status, can eat away at you too.

Your pet

No matter how much you love your furry friends, there’s no question that they add extra responsibility to your already full plate. Even healthy animals need to be fed, exercised, cleaned up after, and given plenty of attention on a regular basis—and unhealthy ones can be a whole other story. “Pets can be the most positive source of unconditional love, but at the same time they require an extreme amount of energy,” says Yeager. People also tend to underestimate the stress they’ll experience when they lose a pet. “I’ve had people in my office tell me they cried more when their dog died than when their parent died. It’s a very emotional connection.”

Your education

Having a college degree boosts your odds of landing a well-paying job, so although you’re less likely to suffer from money-related anxiety, your education can bring on other types of stress, according to a 2014 study by Schieman and his University of Toronto colleagues. His research found that highly educated people were more likely to be stressed out thanks to job pressures, being overworked, and conflicts between work and family. “Higher levels of authority come with a lot more interpersonal baggage, such as supervising people or deciding whether they get promotions,” says Schieman. “With that type of responsibility, you start to take things like incompetency and people not doing their jobs more personally, and it bothers you more.”

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Research

Liberals are More Honest Than Conservatives When They Smile

President Barack Obama speaks at Georgia Tech
David Goldman—AP

But conservatives report being happier

In the “who’s happier?” race, a whole body of research shows conservatives report being happier. Four new studies published in Science hint at a possible reason why. Most happiness research is based on subjective, self-reported data, as opposed to objective measures of happiness, which can be harder to study. The new research highlights a difference between the two.

The studies, led by Sean Wojcik, a doctoral student in psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine, first confirmed what’s already known: In a survey of 1,433 people, political conservatives reported being more satisfied with life than liberals. But researchers found another pronounced trend else among conservatives: They were more likely to judge themselves and their circumstances in an overly positive way.

That may explain the happiness gap, the researchers thought. To test it, they embarked on a series of studies. In one, they analyzed transcripts from Congress to determine the kinds of emotionally charged language people used, and found that liberals used more positive words than conservatives. In another study, researchers assessed photos of Congress members and gauged the smiling intensity of the delegates, finding that liberals were more intense and genuine smilers. “We saw greater activation of the muscles around the eye,” says Wojcik. “That typically indicates more genuine feelings of happiness and enjoyment.” The same held true in non-politician liberals, according to an analysis of the profile photos of liberally and conservatively aligned LinkedIn users.

So when conservatives say they’re happier, but liberals actually display happier behavior, who is, in fact, happiest?

It’s impossible to call. “It really depends on how you measure and define happiness,” Wojcik says.

Wojcik says he plans to study the impact of the benefits of this kind of “self-enhancement” seen in conservatives but less in liberals. So far, research suggests it’s related to an increased ability to care for others, more creative and productive work and better mental health, Wojcik says.

“It’s not that conservatives are lying about their happiness,” Wojcik says. “They just have a more confident style of self-assessment where they evaluate themselves positively across a whole bunch of different kinds of traits, and happiness just appears to be one of them.”

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

Why 40% of Americans Misremember Their 9/11 Experience

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'Human memory is not like a computer.'

Where do you think you were on September 11, 2001? Turns out there’s a good chance you’re wrong, according to a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

In the days following the 9/11 attacks, researchers from more than a dozen universities asked 2,100 Americans across the country about their personal 9/11 experience—questions like where they were, who they were with and how they responded. Forty percent of people in the study changed their stories and gave fundamentally different answers when the researchers followed up at 1-year, 3-year and 10-year intervals.

“Human memory is not like a computer,” says study author William Hirst, PhD, a professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research. “Human memory is extremely fallible.”

The tendency to misremember is likely the result of a “time-splice error,” Hirst explains. In other words, people remembered facts about their 9/11 experience, but they forgot how pieces fit together. In the survey, one man remembered being on the street when he heard news of the attack but was actually in his office. The man probably spent time in both places at some point that day, but his memory of the truth blurred with time, Hirst says.

Once people have come up with an inaccurate but coherent narrative, they often stick with it, the study finds. While many people’s memory of their experiences changed in the year following 9/11, they tended to continue telling the same false memory in the decade that followed.

“You begin to weave a very coherent story,” says Hirst. “And when you have a structured, coherent story, it’s retained for a very long period of time.”

In contrast to poor memory of personal details, Americans recalled the actual events of 9/11 remarkably well. Researchers found that the people surveyed recalled event information about 80% accurately at all time intervals after the initial survey. Some inaccurate memories tended to be corrected over time, likely a consequence of frequent media reports on the topic, Hirst says.

The study may also help explain why suspended NBC anchor Brian Williams retold a false narrative about his time in Iraq, says Hirst. Williams’ evolving story is consistent with the patterns in the study, he says.

There’s no way to tell for certain whether your 9/11 memories are accurate, Hirst says. “We don’t have a memory that allows you to check things so easily,” he says. “In fact, one could argue that the whole notion of accurate memory is some invention of technology.”

Read next: We’re Not Doing Enough To End Hate Among Our Children

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TIME Heart Disease

Depression and Stress Could Be ‘Perfect Storm’ for Heart Disease Patients

The combination of depression and stress may increase the chance of a patient dying of heart disease

Intense stress and depression in people with coronary heart disease creates a “perfect storm” that can increase the risk of death, according to a new study in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

Overall, patients with both conditions are nearly 50% more likely to die or experience a heart attack as a result of heart disease than those with low stress or depression. The results were most apparent in the first two and a half years after observation began.

“The increase in risk accompanying high stress and high depressive symptoms was robust and consistent across demographics, medical history, medication use and health-risk behaviors,” said lead study author Carmela Alcántara, a researcher at Columbia University Medical Center.

The study, which looked at nearly 4,500 adults, expanded on previous research that found that both depression and stress can independently increase the risk of heart disease. The study suggested that some previous research may have misattributed the cause of heart-disease death to stress or depression independently. In reality, the study suggests, the interaction between stress and depression may have led to death rather than either independent factor.

The study traced participants for an average of nearly six years and asked patients to self-report symptoms of depression and stress. Overall, 6.1% of study participants had both high stress and intense symptoms of depression. Only 5.6% of the total sample had high stress alone, and 7.7% had intense symptoms of depression alone.

Researchers said the results suggest that doctors may want to consider additional methods to treat heart disease that include interventions to treat stress and depression.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

20 Things You Shouldn’t Do Before Bed

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Having trouble sleeping? These insomnia-inducing habits could be to blame

Getting a good night’s sleep is important for your mood, your energy levels, and your overall health. It’s also dependent on what you do during the day—how much physical activity you get, what you eat and drink, and how mentally stimulated you are—especially in the hours before you crawl into bed.

“When people suffer from insomnia or other sleep issues, it’s often because of something they’re doing, probably unintentionally, when they should be preparing for rest,” says Michael Grandner, PhD, a psychiatry instructor and member of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Here are 20 things you might want to avoid at night, especially if you’re suffering from a lack of shuteye.

Use an e-reader or smartphone

Several studies have suggested that using electronic devices like e-readers and smartphones, or even watching television in or before bed can disrupt sleep. Robert Rosenberg, DO, author of Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic Every Day, recommends avoiding any light-emitting technology for at least one hour before bedtime.

“The blue light given off by computers, smartphones, tablets, and TV prevents the production of melatonin which helps the body become sleepy,” he says. If you don’t want to give up reading your Kindle Fire or using your iPad in bed, follow this advice from a 2013 Mayo Clinic study: Keep the device at least 14 inches from your face and turn down your screen’s brightness to reduce your risk of light-related sleep problems.

Take certain medications

If you take medicines or supplements on a daily basis and you’re also experiencing sleep problems, ask your doctor whether the time of day you take your dosage may be keeping you awake. “The effects may be subtle, but some medicines can make you alert for several hours after taking them,” says Grandner. For example, antidepressants can have strong effects on sleep in either direction, and some pain medications may upset your stomach and make sleep more difficult. (On the other hand, some other medicines—such as some types of blood pressure pills—have been shown to work best when taken at night; talk to your do about when to take yours.)

A sleeping pill isn’t always the answer, either: They’re generally only recommended for short-term use—over-the-counter meds, especially—so if you find yourself taking them regularly, talk to your doctor about other options. A prescription drug will be safer and more effective to use for more than a few weeks at a time, but a longer-term solution that doesn’t rely on medication is your best bet.

Read more: 27 Mistakes Healthy People Make

Text a friend

You may think a text is less disturbing late at night than a phone call, but think twice before you message a friend or family member, or get involved in a group text conversation, shortly before bed. If you sleep with your phone in or near your bed, you could be disturbed by replies after you’ve already retired or fallen asleep.

In fact, a 2011 National Sleep Foundation poll found that about 10% of kids 13 to 18 are awakened after they go to bed every night or almost every night by a phone call, text message or email, and about one in five 13- to 29-year-olds say this happens at least a few nights a week. If you are worried about getting messages late at night, put your phone in another room or mute it.

Drink coffee (maybe even decaf)

A cup of coffee contains anywhere from 80 to 120 milligrams of caffeine per cup, and you probably already know you should avoid it right before bed. But some still like the idea of a hot drink after dinner, says Grandner, and may not realize that although they’re still several hours away from turning in, their habit could disturb sleep. Truth is, caffeine can stay in the body for up to 12 hours. “Even caffeine at lunch can be too close to bedtime for some people,” says Grandner.

Perhaps even more surprising: decaf coffee may not even be a safe bet. A 2007 Consumer Reports report found that some “decaf” samples” contained up to 20 milligrams of caffeine. But there’s good news for people who love a hot cup of joe in the evenings: The new (truly) decaf Counting Sheep Coffee ($12,amazon.com) contains valerian, an herb that promotes sleep.

Drink tea

Even if you do avoid coffee, you may not be as careful about another major source of caffeine: tea. Drinks labeled as “herbal tea“—such as peppermint or chamomile varieties—are probably caffeine-free, says Grandner, but varieties that contain black, green, or white tea leaves do indeed contain the stimulant.

There may still be able to enjoy your favorite caffeinated tea at night. Dunk your teabag quickly into a cup of hot water, then dump it out and make a second cup using that same tea bag. Most of tea’s caffeine is released early on in the steeping process, explains Grandner, so this may help you enjoy the flavor and warmth without so much of the stimulant.

Read more: A Sleep Meditation for a Restful Night

Eat chocolate

Another sneaky source of caffeine is chocolate, especially dark chocolate with high cocoa contents. “People might not think about ice cream that contains chocolate or coffee as something that might potentially keep them awake, but if they’re sensitive to caffeine that could definitely do the trick,” says Grandner.

Milk chocolate bars usually have less than 10 milligrams of caffeine per serving, but a Hershey’s Special Dark Bar, for instance, contains 31—the amount in almost a whole can of Coke. Chocolate also contains the stimulant theobromine, which has been shown to increase heart rate and sleeplessness.

Skip your wind-down time

When people say they can’t shut their mind off in bed, it’s often because they haven’t given themselves adequate time to relax in the hour or so beforehand, says Grandner. “When you’re going from one distracting activity to another and not giving yourself time to sit back and reflect on your thoughts, it’s no wonder that your mind is racing when you finally climb into bed,” he says. He recommends taking at least 30 minutes before you head into your bedroom to put away anything that’s too stimulating, thought-provoking, or absorbing—anything from action-packed TV shows to work that you’ve brought home with you. Instead, focus on activities that relax you and bring closure to your evening, like making a to-do list and packing a bag for the next day.

Check your work email

Aside from the fact that a blue-light emitting device can mess with your body’s natural sleep rhythms, there are other potential problems with checking your email too close to bedtime. “Unless you’re waiting for a specific email that’s going to put you at ease and help you sleep better, I would advise against it,” says Grandner. Checking in with the office too late at night is more likely to make you nervous or agitated, or fill your mind with things you’ll need to do in the morning. In a 2014 Michigan State study, people who used their smartphones for work purposes after 9 p.m. reported being more tired and unfocused the next day.

Eat spicy or fatty foods

Having a large meal too close to bedtime can make falling asleep uncomfortable if you’re bloated or painfully full. Spicy or fatty foods may be particularly risky because they’re associated with acid reflux, which often rears its head when a person lies down at night. Ideally, you should have dinner at least two hours before going to sleep says Grandner, to give your body enough time to begin digesting it. If you’re used to eating something right before bed, stick with sleep-promoting foods like simple carbs or a glass of milk. (And ask yourself if you really need it: If you’re not careful, late-night snacking can lead to weight gain.)

Drink booze

“Alcohol tricks you into thinking you will sleep better, because it often makes you drowsy and makes it easier to fall asleep,” says Dr. Rosenberg. “But as your body begins to metabolize the alcohol, REM sleep, the period where our sleep is most restorative, is reduced.” Impaired REM sleep often leads to waking up tired and unable to concentrate, he adds. Plus, a 2014 University of Missouri study points out that alcohol is a diuretic and may make you have to go to the bathroom through the night. Dr. Rosenberg’s advice: For most people, it’s okay to have a drink or two with dinner—but skip the nightcap or the glass of wine on the couch right before bed.

Read more: The Best Pillow for Your Sleep Style

Smoke

We could go on and on about all the ways smoking is terrible for you, including disturbing your sleep. Many people smoke to relax, says Grandner, but nicotine is a stimulant and can make insomnia worse, especially if you light up close to your bedtime. Nicotine withdrawal can also cause smokers to wake up earlier than they normally would in the morning.

“If you’re a smoker and you’re having trouble sleeping, that may be another reason you should talk to your doctor about quitting,” Grandner says. It’s not just traditional cigarettes you should avoid at night; e-cigarettes, smoking cessation patches, pipes, cigars, and chewing tobacco can all keep you up.

Chug lots of water

Staying hydrated is important, but it may not be the best strategy to drink a huge glass of water before bed or sleep with one water by your bed,” says Grandner, “unless your goal is to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Instead, he suggests, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water throughout the day—and always be sure to use the bathroom before you head to bed, even if you don’t feel like you have to.

Work out too intensely

You may have heard that exercise before bed might keep you awake at night. This belief has been largely disproven, says Grandner: “The amount of physical activity that’s required to have an affect on your sleep is pretty intense, and the vast majority of people don’t get enough exercise as it is—we don’t want people to not work out just because they think it’s too late.” In fact, getting regular exercise has been shown to actually help treat insomnia and promote good sleeping habits.

There is some evidence, though, that prolonged or very high-intensity exercise late at night may make it hard for some people to fall asleep. If you’re staying up extra late to squeeze in time at the gym, or suspect that your 9 p.m. kickboxing classes may be keeping you up, see if you sleep better after an earlier workout.

Play video games

The science on television’s effects on sleep is somewhat inconclusive; some studies show that watching TV before bed can disrupt sleep (due to its melatonin-impairing blue light, its mental stimulation, or both), while others show it has little effect. One thing that most experts do agree on, however, is that electronic media that requires a lot of interaction—like video games—can definitely wreak havoc on your slumber.

“Browsing the web or flipping through TV channels before bed may not be so bad if you’re not super sensitive to light,” says Grandner, “but anything that’s highly engaging will almost certainly keep you awake.” Dr. Rosenberg agrees: “Stimulation from these devices can activate and excite the brain, which presents a challenge when it comes to trying to fall asleep.”

Turn up the heat

Everyone’s preferences are different, but most tend to sleep best between 60 and 70 degrees. “People sleep better when it’s cooler—sometimes a little cooler than they think,” says Grandner. That’s because the body’s temperature drops during the night, and also because a lower temperature allows for people to cover up with blankets without getting too hot.

Of course, if it’s freezing in your house and you can’t fall asleep without shivering, there’s nothing wrong with bumping the heat up a degree. But know that you’ll probably sleep better at a slightly cooler temperature than your house is set at during the day.

Read more: 10 Sleep Compatibility Problems, Solved

Let your pet into bed

“Everyone with a pet knows that inviting that pet into your bed is inviting a whole lost more awakenings during the night,” says Grandner. In fact, in a recent University of Kansas study, 63% of people who shared a bed with a furry friend experienced poor sleep. “If you’re cool with that, go right ahead—but it’s definitely something to consider if it starts to affect your sleep quality,” Grandner says.

And those sleep disturbances can come from more than just your dog or cat’s movements through the night. Pet hair and dander in your bed could also contribute to allergies and breathing difficulties, which can also affect your slumber.

Take a shower

If you shower after working out at night or you are simply in the habit of bathing before bed, there’s certainly nothing wrong with it; a hot bath may even help relax you and prime your body for sleep. But if you normally rinse off in the morning and you only switch it up occasionally, bathing at night could send the wrong message to your brain.

“Showers often wake people up, so it might not be the best thing to do before bed,” says Grandner. People with long hair should be careful not to go to bed with wet hair, either; not only can it be uncomfortable and cause knots and tangles, but it can also make sheets and pillows damp, which could cause mold to grow.

Pick a fight

There’s a good reason couples are told to never go to bed angry. “Stress is a major cause of insomnia,” says Dr. Rosenberg. “If a conversation is stressful, it will elevate cortisol and other stress hormones impending your ability to fall asleep.” Plus, he adds, angry people tend to ruminate, or play over thoughts again and again in their minds, which can also make falling asleep difficult.

Going to bed with unresolved issues may not be your best bet either, but Dr. Rosenberg suggests trying to hash out any problems earlier in the night, and saving important decision-making or serious conversations for days when you have more time to reflect and relax afterward. “A serious conversation before bed is not a good idea,” he adds.

Alter your routine

Doing the same thing every night before bed is one of the tenets of good sleep hygiene. Brushing your teeth, washing your face, and setting out your clothes for the morning, for example, can all send a signal to your brain that it’s time for bed—especially if you do them in the same order, at the same time every night.

But switching up that routine, by doing things out of order or earlier in the night than usual, can disrupt that mental process. “Without a consistent bedtime routine, your brain doesn’t go into sleep mode until you crawl into bed and turn out the light,” says Grandner. “You’ll fall asleep much faster if you can start that process a little bit earlier, as you’re getting ready.”

Anything that’s too exciting

Reading in bed can be a great pre-slumber activity, and if it helps you wind down and makes you tired, says Grandner, then go for it. The same goes for any routine habit that helps you get to sleep—chatting on the phone with your best friend, organizing a photo album, or knitting, for example.

But if that book or that knitting project or whatever else you’re doing draws you in too much, you may have a hard time putting it down and turning out the lights. “When I read at night, I get too absorbed in the story and the next thing I know it’s 3 a.m.,” says Grandner. If this happens to you, be careful about the activities you choose before bed, and set strict time limits for whatever you do decide to take on.

Read more: 10 Products That May Help You Sleep

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

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