Saturday, May 13, 2017

Reading Fiction for Better Mental Health

Does reading improve mental health? There's evidence that it does.

It's long been known that reading improves overall cognitive ability. Studies have shown that there's a correlation between early literacy in children and higher IQ scores later in life, and that reading in older adulthood delays cognitive decline to some extent. Reading involves the decoding of symbols (letters) and forces the brain to interpret words in context--perhaps the brain requires this exercise to stay fit. Pictures don't have the same effect, because understanding them doesn't use the same brain functions.

But what about emotional health? There are several ways reading may improve emotional well-being. This rather long article in The New Yorker http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/can-reading-make-you-happier
on bibliotherapy cites some studies indicating that reading fiction improves the capacity for empathy and also, can be a "mindfulness" activity (see my previous post on mindfulness).

This brings up the issue of what type of reading we're talking about: Any type of reading may increase general cognitive function, but reading fiction, particularly the best fiction, may have special benefits: Good fiction convinces the reader, temporarily, of the "realness" of the characters, setting and events (thus inducing a trance state that removes the reader from his/her real-life troubles). Good fiction also includes well-developed, multi-dimensional characters and immerses the reader in the character or characters' inner and outer worlds, helping the reader see through their eyes. It's easy to see how this could increase the capacity for empathy.

The best writers portray villains who perhaps weren't always evil, and heroes who are flawed. These nuanced explorations of human nature may especially help readers with personality disorders. Persons with Borderline Personality Disorder in particular typically divide the world into polar opposites: Good v. Bad people, and simplistic or extreme interpretations of events. These tendencies are found in people with Borderline Personality Disorder even when the person has a high IQ, because these distortions are caused by dysfunctional ego defenses, not by low intelligence (see my previous post on Borderline Personality Disorder from Oct. 14, 2015 ).

Reading fiction might also help persons with depression: The characters in the best fiction grapple with conflicts and make mistakes, even when they are the novel's "heroes."  Reading about their struggles might help self-critical persons moderate their self-criticism.

In short, reading is important, but it matters what you read. I find that although some of my patients read novels, many of my patients read "news," often on the internet, as well as opinion essays from popular websites and magazines. These non-fiction writings are typically superficial, not always well-sourced,  and often not well-reasoned. Many of the opinion essays,  Facebook posts etc. that I come across on the internet are nothing but recitations of popular slogans and catchphrases. They often demonize opponents by using hyperbolic language. They often promote a code of "correct" language that is remarkably reminiscent of the "newspeak" of Orwell's classic dystopian speculative fiction novel "1984." The purpose seems to be to increase fear and hatred of opponents,  as well groupthink and submission to self-promoted "authorities." These are the tools of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. This type of reading can have a negative effect on mental health and perhaps on overall cognitive functioning.

I've noticed over the years that although reading complex novels doesn't prevent mental illness, my patients who read fiction often seem to cope better with their disorders, including serious disorders.

To increase general knowledge, I recommend reading reputable non-fiction books written by academic experts or by reputable journalists who are basing their works on facts and research, not on opinions. To increase emotional well-being, I recommend reading  fiction (in any genre) that includes multi-dimensional characters. Maybe a book club is a therapy group!





Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Mindfulness

The word "mindfulness" is coming up more and more in the popular vocabulary. What does it mean?

"Mindfulness" means simply a state of being aware. The practice of mindfulness is an element of Zen Buddhism that has been incorporated into some Western treatment programs, especially Dialectical Behavior Therapy. I can't comment on mindfulness as a spiritual practice because I am not Buddhist, but I can explain the ways it works psychotherapeutically: Focusing your attention on something stops anxious ruminations. Focusing for a prolonged period of time can induce a trance state, which is relaxing  and also is a component of hypnotherapy. In addition, mindfulness can increase appreciation for the world around you.

Mindfulness is an essential part of meditation.

Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, developed a series of mindfulness exercises to help persons with Borderline Personality Disorder manage their emotions. Mindfulness is a component of DBT, along with interpersonal skills training and elements of cognitive therapy. Since Linehan developed DBT in the early 1990s its use has expanded and DBT is now  used to treat people with anxiety, depression and PTSD. Here's an excerpt of a mindfulness exercise from Linehan's DBT workbook:

" `Awareness Exercises' 1. Awareness of the Positions of the Body: This can be practiced in any time and place. Begin to focus your attention on your breath. Breathe quietly and more deeply than usual. Be mindful of the position of your body, whether you are walking, standing, lying, or sitting down. Know where you walk, stand, lie, or sit. Be aware of the purpose of your position. For example, you might be conscious that you are standing on a green hillside in order to refresh yourself, to practice breathing, or just to stand. If there is no purpose, be aware that there is no purpose."

Another excerpt: "Awareness While Making Tea or Coffee: Prepare a pot of tea or coffee to serve a guest or to drink by yourself. Do each movement slowly, in awareness. Do not let one detail of your movements go by without being aware of it. Know that your hand lifts the pot by its handle. Know that you are pouring the fragrant, warm tea or coffee into the cup. Follow each step in awareness. Breathe gently and more deeply than usual. Take hold of your breath if your mind strays."

Mindfulness can help anxious or depressed persons get out of their inner world in which they may be dwelling on negative thoughts. Obsessive preoccupations are common in anxiety disorders and also for some persons with depression. These internal experiences often become disconnected from external reality. Mindfulness exercises can help re-connect the anxious or depressed person with the greater context of the world around them.

People who play sports or engage in artistic activities often practice mindfulness without realizing it. Perhaps that's why those activities are referred to as "recreation" (re-creation).

Too often we mindlessly engage in our daily activities. Eating mindlessly not only leads to weight gain but also denies oneself the pleasure of flavor, aroma and other sensory experiences of food. Many people walk through parks without fully appreciating the natural world around them.

On a vacation last year in Vermont I spent an hour in the afternoon doing nothing except sitting in a grassy area by the woods. I focused on the touch of the grass, the dark mystery of the woods, the blue sky, some unidentified plants and an occasional butterfly. I sat alone, which allowed me to experience the natural world without the distraction of conversation. I had the sensation of being in a timeless place in existence apart from daily life. In hypnotherapy, we often teach people to mentally escape to a "safe place" in their minds. But I believe real-life experiences may be necessary for many people to be able to imagine a safe place.

Anyone can benefit from mindfulness exercises and perhaps we all need them as an antidote to our frantic, distracted contemporary lifestyles.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Winter Blues

Some people get depressed in the winter, and in the 1980s this was identified as an illness called Seasonal Affective Disorder. Today SAD isn't used as a diagnosis per se, but is described as an aspect of a mood disorder for some people. It's been theorized that reduced exposure to light in wintertime triggers depression for some people (perhaps by increasing sleep?).  But could there be other reasons  why people get depressed during wintertime?

Another possible reason for winter blues could be wintertime respiratory infections. Being sick isn't fun, and also, the body's immune response involves inflammation, and inflammation has been linked to depression (see my post "Can Vitamin D Improve Your Mood" from June 29, 2013).

Many people don't pay attention to infection control, and in a city like New York, this can be dangerous. It's important to wash your hands after taking public transportation--or, wear gloves. 

The most recent issue of Eating Well magazine suggests a few dietary tricks to reduce wintertime colds: Cinnamon has a property that inactivates viruses according to one study.  Try putting it in coffee instead of sugar, and mix it with unsweetened applesauce. The article also recommends Shiitake mushrooms, which have been found to improve immune cells (possibly because they contain selenium and other minerals and vitamins). If you don't like mushrooms, you could take supplements.  Probiotics may also be helpful, so regular yogurt is a good idea.

Perhaps another reason for wintertime blues is that people spend more time indoors during cold weather. Exposure to nature has been found to be beneficial to mental health. The Japanese sometimes practice a therapy they call "Forest Bathing"--which just means spending time in the woods (a wooded park is probably just as good). It's been found to reduce stress. This makes sense, because for millions of years before modern humans evolved, our ancestors found safety in trees. In addition, trees may give off organic compounds that promote health.

The way we live in New York City isn't  natural. Dark apartments, fluorescent lighting, overcrowded public transportation and lack of contact with nature all promote ill health. But infection control measures, good dietary habits, and perhaps taking a winter vacation to someplace like a national park in a warmer state or a Caribbean or Latin American rainforest could help.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Forgiveness v. Moving On

Often I come across statements from members of the clergy, politicians, and ordinary people quoted in the media, linking "forgiveness" with "healing." Forgiveness isn't a concept from mental health treatment. It's a concept from religion, and in particular, from Christianity. A religious concept has utility for religious persons. For those seeking mental health, a better concept is "moving on."

The purpose of forgiveness in the monotheistic religions is to become more godly or pious.  As a psychotherapist, my goal is to help people feel and function better. No psychotherapist should suggest to a patient that he or she forgive those who have hurt them, because such a statement implies that the patient adopt the therapist's religious views. In addition, such a statement could be heard as minimizing the patient's trauma and emotions.

"Forgiveness" implies a change in attitude from the victim toward the offender, and is a statement that the victim no longer seeks retribution. "Moving on" simply means that the victim no longer obsesses or dwells on the offense and seeks to live a normal life unencumbered by emotions generated by the trauma. It is possible to move on without "forgiving" the offender. It is even possible to move on while still seeking retribution in the form of criminal justice or civil law, depending on the amount of time and energy required to pursue justice.

Obsessing over past hurts contributes to depression and PTSD symptoms. The obsession may cause the offender to loom large in the victim's mind and this can contribute to feelings of disempowerment. A saying I heard often when I was a substance abuse counselor--from one recovering patient to another--was "You're letting him rent space in your head!" Actually this is a generous interpretation, because the perpetrator isn't paying any rent to live in the victim's head.

"Moving on" means practicing the old adage "Living well is the best revenge." Psychotherapy for trauma can involve many different techniques, but the ultimate goal should be a better life for the victim. This involves empowering the patient and helping him or her put the past in the past. Many different techniques can help traumatized persons accomplish this. They include various forms of cognitive and behavioral therapy, EMDR, insight-oriented therapy to help the person gain self-understanding and supportive therapy to help the person focus on current goals.

If it's important for you to forgive because of your religious beliefs, then by all means do so. But forgiveness is not a requirement for healing and mental health.






Sunday, June 19, 2016

Psychopaths Among Us

As the number of mass shootings seems to be on the increase, many have wondered what types of people commit these acts. As I noted in my June 20, 2015 post,  some of those who are racially motivated may have Delusional Disorder. I noted in my May 31, 2014 post, some may have Narcissistic Personality Disorder and/or Bipolar Disorder perhaps exacerbated by the wrong type of medication. But the diagnosis most often correlated with violent behavior is Antisocial Personality Disorder, which is better known by its earlier terms, sociopathy and psychopathy. All three terms refer to the same condition.

It used to be believed that psychopathy (I'll use that term for this blog post) was a rare condition. It isn't a rare condition. Studies referenced in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) indicate the rate of Antisocial Personality Disorder, or psychopathy, is somewhere between .2 and 3.3 percent of the population.

It is commonly and inaccurately believed--including by some members of my profession--that psychopaths are found mostly in the criminal justice population. I used to work with people paroled from state prison, in the 1990s, and I have seen a rate of psychopathy in my private practice that is about the same as what I saw in my job with the parolees. Most of the parolees weren't arrested for crimes committed to gain psychopathic thrills; most were arrested for selling drugs or committing burglaries or robberies in order to support heroin addiction or crack cocaine addiction. Our prisons aren't overcrowded with psychopaths.

Psychopaths have come to my private practice for a variety of reasons including having been arrested, having committed a serious crime that did not result in arrest but resulted in interpersonal problems, and because of job problems, educational problems, addiction, and depression.

It is commonly believed that psychopathy is untreatable or barely treatable. Some therapists like to say that "the only reason psychopaths come to therapy is to learn how to be better psychopaths." Is this true?  The psychopathic persons who came to see me who were struggling with depression or early recovery from addiction definitely wanted help for those problems. I do believe that I helped them, but the underlying personality disorder remained more or less intact. The persons who came to treatment due to outside pressure were less treatable, but I do believe we were able to work on some issues when the patient was being honest with me. I only recall one psychopathic patient who I became convinced was simply making up stories, perhaps in order to get a thrill out of manipulating someone.

Psychopathy, or Anti-Social Personality Disorder, is usually characterized by difficulty following rules and social norms, deceitfulness, lack of empathy, impulsivity and aggression. It is thought to be more common among men, but I question that statistic, because half the psychopaths who have come to my private practice have been women. But perhaps female psychopaths are more likely to seek treatment.

The best treatment, as it is in many disorders, is prevention. The DSM-V notes "Adoption studies indicate that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to the risk of developing antisocial personality disorder." Past studies have correlated psychopathic behavior with childhood abuse and neglect and with inconsistent parenting (parents who disagree over rules or a parent whose discipline seems arbitrary). Ideologies that provide a rationale for violence help psychopaths commit violent acts. Societal alienation may exacerbate the characterological lack of empathy. Anyone who sees him or herself as having little to lose is more likely to commit a violent act that ends in his or her own death or arrest. This last factor indicates that depression may exacerbate psychopathic behavior, although I am unaware of any scientific research on this subject.

The DSM specifies that for antisocial personality disorder to be diagnosed, the person must have had some symptoms starting before age 15. Perhaps if we did better screening, referral and treatment of children and teens exhibiting psychopathic behaviors we would not see so many acts of mass violence. Treatment should include treatment for parents or other significant family members as well as parent training to teach appropriate discipline. In some cases, removal of the child from the home may be necessary, but because such removals are usually done long after the damage is done, and because foster and adoptive homes are also often not optimal, this may not result in prevention of violent acts.

Many factors contribute to psychopathic behavior. To prevent acts of mass violence, reasonable gun control laws should be combined with early intervention for children exhibiting serious conduct problems and lack of empathy for others.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Obesity and Depression

Are there links between obesity and depression?

People used to think that the link between obesity and depression was that fat people were depressed because they didn't like how they looked.  Later it was theorized that some people overeat because they're depressed--although depression often makes people lose their appetite.  I believe there may be a biological link between obesity and depression: Depression has been linked to inflammation (see my June 29, 2013 post on Vitamin D and mood) and obesity can increase inflammation. Therefore, it is possible that obesity can biologically contribute to depression by increasing inflammation.

There are other negative psychological effects from obesity. It can make people give up (or never try) activities that might make them feel better, such as exercise. It can make people self-conscious, which can lead to social withdrawal. 

It's possible, although not easy, to lose weight. Unfortunately, I come across misinformation about weight loss in the media: Recently I read a news article that implied losing weight is next to impossible. It was based on the experiences of contestants in "The Biggest Loser" who gained most or all of their weight back. The reason was that their metabolism slowed to a crawl after they lost weight. I don't think "The Biggest Loser" is a model for weight loss, because the weight loss program it advocates, extreme exercise, probably isn't feasible for many people and may not even be healthy. The show also uses public humiliation as a tool, and that doesn't help people.

It is possible to lose weight and keep it off.  I've worked with several persons who lost large amounts of weight that they managed to keep off--and none went to a weight loss camp. The most important elements in weight loss may be motivation and the taking of personal responsibility (which could be undermined by reliance on a trainer). 

Several persons who came to see me had already begun or completed their weight loss program before coming to therapy--perhaps change in one area motivates change in another. Here are some of the various methods with which they lost weight:

1. Weight Watchers--50 lb weight loss (I also knew someone in school who lost 100 lbs through Weight Watchers). Weight Watchers teaches portion control and healthy eating while providing social support.

2. Nutritional Counseling--60 lb weight loss. The nutritionist provided education as well as support.

3. Daily gym workouts (no trainer involved!) combined with eating only a Greek salad for dinner--100 lb weight loss. Exercise not only burns calories but also relieves stress. Exercising while listening to music may be especially effective and may provide a "safe space" where one escapes the stresses of daily life.(The person's main exercise was the elliptical machine, which avoids excess stress on the feet)


Therapy can help. I helped someone lose weight  by having her write in a journal everything she ate, along with when she ate it and other relevant information. We would discuss what she wrote, in our sessions. This method allows for the analysis of emotions and thought patterns that trigger overeating. Hypnotherapy may also be helpful for some people. 

I believe overeating is an addictive behavior no different in its psychological basis than addiction to alcohol or cocaine. Obese persons who aren't interested in losing weight can be observed to use the same sorts of denial and minimizing statements that one hears from active alcoholics and drug addicts. Behaviors such as secret use/bingeing, arranging social activities around the substance  and avoidance of others or activities that interfere with use, can be seen in both chronic drug users/alcoholics and the obese. Both drug addicts and morbidly obese persons have higher than average rates of childhood trauma according to some studies and many grew up in households in which addictive behaviors were common. After giving up drugs or alcohol, some people turn to food, and there's been some evidence that people who have had weight loss surgery are at increased risk for  problem drinking.

Given the similarities between overeating and alcohol/drug addiction, can a 12-step group help? I've heard mixed reports of Overeaters Anonymous, the 12-step program for food addicts. The 12-step  model was originally based on abstinence, and abstinence from food isn't possible. However, some may benefit from the support in OA.

Obesity isn't a problem because of how it makes you look. It is a serious health condition that not only raises one's risk for fatal conditions including diabetes, heart attack and stroke, but also can increase depression through increasing inflammation and reducing recreational and social activities.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Preventing Suicide

In the past year or so, the news media have reported on a couple of disturbing research studies that showed rising suicide rates. The latest study reported that suicide has been increasing in every age group except the elderly. What is prompting this increase and what can be done about it?

Many have speculated that economic hard times are behind increasing suicides. This could certainly be a possibility for the increasing rates of suicide in middle-aged people, many of whom lost retirement savings and jobs, or lost homes, during and after the crash of 2008.

Increased suicides among girls age 10-14 is more of a puzzle. One theory is that increased social media bullying is the cause. If this is true, an easy way to decrease these suicides is to not give your daughter a smartphone until she is old enough to tolerate or stand up against bullying. That kind of personal strength is unusual in people under age 15. Facebook supposedly doesn't allow accounts for people under age 13, but I don't know if this is enforced at all. It's really up to parents to protect their children. Likewise, it's important to ask your child about bullying and take steps to address it if it occurs, including speaking with the school principal, switching schools and/or taking legal action. Harassment and stalking are against the law regardless if the perpetrator is a teen, and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act forbids sex discrimination in education, which could make sexually-related bullying a federal violation if it is tolerated by the school.

Teen girls are now subjected to more degradation than ever before. Besides social media harassment, they also now have male peers who view internet pornography, and who may as a result view girls and women as subservient or degraded sex objects. Some girls may be pressured into sex acts as a result, and viewing of some types of pornography is a trauma for a young person. Pop music stars such as Beyonce and Miley Cyrus perform burlesque acts that may confuse 11 and 12 year old girls, who are told that these sexually objectifying performances are acts of empowerment, while at the same time they are derided as "sluts" if they dress the wrong way or date boys. Overweight girls are teased, but thin girls are also derided in popular culture--take a look at Meaghan Trainor's hit video "All About That Bass," a profane, vicious, bullying rant that is promoted as "happy" music on Amazon. Trainor's songs are marketed to young teen girls.

The more I think about it, are we really surprised that suicide is on the rise? Perhaps the reason the suicide rate of the elderly is not rising (despite the fact it historically has been higher than for other age groups) is because elderly people are more likely to have assets that weren't as affected by the 2008 crash, Social Security incomes, and a lack of involvement in degrading aspects of popular culture.

In terms of specific risk factors and prevention, something that we know about suicide is that it is often an impulsive act and often based on cognitive distortions. Even when times are bad, most people are able to recognize that things can get better. People commit suicide because they don't see a way out. They develop a narrow way of thinking that blocks out options. They also often don't believe that others can or will help them. They don't "reach out" for help. These thought patterns and behaviors are referred to as "hopelessness and helplessness," and mental health professions screen for suicide risk not just through asking patients how depressed they feel and whether they have had thoughts about suicide, but also by assessing whether the patient has any plans for the future and whether the patient has a social support network. People can be very depressed and feel like they don't want to live, but if they feel connected to others they are less likely to commit suicide. Someone who does not have anyone in whom to confide is far more likely to commit suicide than a depressed person who reaches out for help. This brings up another possible reason why suicide is on the increase--some studies have found that more people are reporting few or no close friends, in comparison to previous decades.

If we want to live in a society with a low rate of suicide, we need to have a stable economy that provides some security for everyone, we need to encourage friendship and mutual trusting  relationships,  and we need to protect vulnerable persons such as young girls from degradation via the internet.