Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment
Today I want to thoroughly explain obsessive compulsive disorder, because it is a seriously life altering condition that is frequently misunderstood. We have all heard people refer to friends or family as “OCD” in a joking manner. An example may be if you’re at a party at a friend’s house and the second someone puts their drink on the coffee table, the host runs to grab a coaster and quickly puts it under the drink, prompting a partygoer to say, ‘Oh my gawwwd, Pam, you’re so OCD!” This casual and off-handed way that OCD is referred to in everyday conversation may make it seem that the obsessions and/ or compulsions are just something annoying or amusing that a person can just “get over.” But for people with OCD, it’s not just a simple annoyance, it is a complex, frustrating, and anxiety inducing disorder. OCD is fairly common, affecting roughly 3% of the population. The age of onset is typically during the childhood years, and it is equally distributed between males and females. I have many patients with OCD, and unfortunately, I have diagnosed and treated many children with OCD throughout my career. One of the factors I always think about when assessing and diagnosing children with any disease or disorder is how much they may or may not be able to understand the symptoms they’re having. In cases of OCD, it concerns me even more, because it’s clear that these symptoms are very disturbing to children, especially because they don’t know what the heck’s going on. They don’t know why they get fixated on things or what their ritualistic behaviors are about, like why they have to turn their bedroom light off and on exactly 29 times before they can turn it off for good at night. They don’t understand why they get so upset and angry when they cannot perform their compulsive rituals, or why they constantly get stuck in intrusive, obsessive thoughts. Even adults with OCD don’t understand these things, but they are better equipped to recognize that something isn’t right, and better able to communicate the need to seek help. Obviously, children cannot simply drive themselves to a physician’s office, they rely on parents who may mislable the symptoms as a behavioral problem, not even notice the symptoms, or notice them but not realize there is a problem.
At its root, OCD is an anxiety disorder, marked by the presence of obsessions, compulsions, or a combination of the two. Obsessions are essentially intrusive thoughts that come up for no obvious reason and that just don’t go away. Compulsions are behaviors they feel they must perform, otherwise they become very anxious and very distressed; for some, almost to the point where they are paralyzed if they don’t do them. But, people with OCD do not want to do these compulsive things; they know they aren’t right, know they aren’t normal, and that means that they are not psychotic. A psychotic individual would say they do these things because aliens told them to, or for any reason. The point is that psychotic people believe they have a reason. Contrast that to people with OCD; they have no reason, no explanation. It occurs because a switch in their minds malfunctions. It doesn’t shut off, it doesn’t ever tell them that checking the lock once before bed is enough, that when they see that the lock is engaged, it will stay that way until they unlock it the next morning.
There are four criteria to consider in diagnosing OCD: – The presence of obsessions, compulsions, or a combination of the two. – These obsessions and/ or compulsions cause a significant amount of distress, to the point that they get in the way of a normal life. – The obsessions and/ or compulsions are not the result of taking any pharmaceutical or street drugs.- The obsessions and/ or compulsions cannot be explained by the presence of another illness; for example,being obsessed with body image as a result of body dysmorphic disorder, or being obsessed with food as a result of having anorexia nervosa.
So, what is an obsession? An obsession is an intrusive thought that an individual cannot expel from their conscious thinking, a thought that randomly pops into their head and will not leave. Now, understand that everyone, even people without OCD, will sometimes have some sort of obsessive thoughts; it’s entirely normal, so this is a matter of degrees. For example: if a student has a big important exam the next day, they may check their phone alarm or alarm clock 3 or 4 times the night before. This is not indicative of obsessive or compulsive behavior. But, someone with obsessive compulsive disorder will check the alarm so often, over and over, to the point that they get no sleep. A person basically crosses the bridge from normal, cautious behavior to pathologic obsessive and/ or compulsive behavior when these behaviors interfere with, and prevent them from living full lives.
Obsessive subtypes in OCD sort of loosely fall into five categories, but don’t forget that there’s always something new under the sun.
1. Counting/ math/ calculations/ numbers: they exhibit a ritualization involving numerical calculations in the brain. They have to count something- it may be steps, times turning switches off and on, locking and unlocking a deadbolt, etc. Some have to add or subtract numbers of steps involved in completing a certain action, and they must get the same number each time they perform that action. If they take three steps forward, they must take that many backward. While these things don’t make any rational sense, they actually create order for them. You might think, well, they aren’t hurting anyone, so whatever floats their boat. But they are actually hurting themselves. These people count so much and do and redo so many times that they can’t get to work on time, they can’t live their lives normally. It can have a devastatingly negative impact on every aspect of their lives. Sometimes they literally get stuck somewhere, because ‘the numbers don’t work.’ One of my long time OCD patients, Bruce, does pretty well for the most part, he takes his meds, keeps his appointments, and earnestly works on himself. He’s pretty much a model OCD patient, but every once in a while, the train jumps the tracks, and I get an emergency call from him saying he’s stuck somewhere. The last time was just a few weeks ago; he was inside a bank, and had just realized that there were separate entrance and exit doors, so he knew that the number of steps he had taken to get from his car and into the bank were going to be fewer than the number of steps it would take for him to walk out of the bank and back to his car. I explained that yes, Bruce, it would take more steps to walk out of the bank and back to your car, simply because you parked closer to the entrance door when you drove in. I told him that was normal, and it was to be expected. But he was really stuck, incredibly anxious, evidently pacing back and forth in the bank lobby. He said the tellers and bank manager were seriously eyeing him. They were probably thinking that he had some nefarious scheme in mind and that his constant frantic pacing was his way of plucking up the courage to enact his plan. Thankfully, I was able to talk him down off the ledge that day. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t quick, but eventually I convinced him that the difference in the number of steps was expected, that it had to be that way, so it was okay, and that he would see that I was right, that it was true, as soon as he left the bank and got in his car. I stayed on the phone as he walked out of that bank, certainly with great trepidation, and I could hear him counting steps just under his breath, until he got in his car. When I heard him exhale loudly and close the car door, I knew we were home free. He thanked me profusely, I said it was cool, no prob, and I went back to my patient. That’s Bruce!
2. Catastrophic Fears: aptly named, these are fears of major proportions, absolute worst case scenarios on steroids, and taken to the n’th degree. These are not like, ‘oh, I forgot my presentation was scheduled today.’ These are more like, ‘did I leave something on? Oh my, I just know I left the stove on. Oh no, the house is going to burn down to the ground! It’s going to burn! And we’ll never afford to rebuild! Oh God, what will I do?!’
Or, it can be a fear that you will harm someone, even someone you love. That you’ll suddenly take a hammer and bash someone’s head in, or that you’ll take an assault rifle and gun them down in their backyard. I’ve had lots of OCD patients of both kinds, the doom and gloom Negative Nancy types, and the head-smashing-hammer-weilders and assault-rifle-gunners. When I think of the latter type, I always think of a patient named Hillary. She was just twenty when she first came to see me, and she came with her mother, whose name was Alain or Alaina or something like that. I do recall that she had a very french accent. When I asked Hillary why she had come to see me, she didn’t answer right away, so eventually, her mother said in her thick accent, ‘she’s worried that she wants to kill me, to slit my throat.’ I have to say, I was taken aback. I looked across my desk at this whisp of a girl, not looking at me, but at her hands, which she knotted and unknotted, like she was washing them. I asked her if that was true, and still not looking at me, she nodded. I asked her mother, “So you brought her in because you’re worried that she’s going to kill you?” She looked at me and replied, “No, doctor. I brought her because she is worried that she’s going to kill me. I am not worried about that, only about her. She talks about it incessantly. She says she doesn’t think she wants to do it, but she’s still afraid she’s going to.” I asked Hillary how often she thought about it, about killing her mother, and she simply said, “All the time.” I will never forget how heavy that room was. You could feel the oppression, for lack of a better word. Matricide, the killing of a mother by her child is pretty uncommon, especially at the hands of a daughter. I could see clear OCD tendencies, but her pathology really hinged on her obsessive, catastrophic fear, which was undoubtedly 100% genuine. Without any rhyme or reason, apropos of nothing, the thought of killing her mother would randomly pop into her head. Imagine that for a moment. Imagine the first time it popped into Hillary’s head at age thirteen. Then imagine it constantly popping into her head, all the time. But, you know you love your mother, right? Right? But yet you think you might kill her. At twelve. How confusing would that be? I knew that we had a long road ahead, but I wanted to help Hillary. With OCD, one of the main treatments is exposure therapy. For example, if someone had to touch the faucet 37 times before they could turn it on, the exposure therapy would be to push them into walking into a bathroom and simply turning on the faucet without touching it beforehand. You expose them to the thing they obsess about, the thing they perform their compulsion on. It’s very difficult at first, but it can be very effective. There really was no way to try exposure therapy for Hillary’s particular obsessive thoughts of catastrophic fear…I couldn’t give her a knife to hold at her mother’s throat as I tell her to resist slitting her throat. Captain Obvious says that might be traumatic. Nonetheless, we met at least every two weeks, and more often when she was in a tough spot, which happened a lot. We tried drug therapies and eventually hit on a combination that seemed to work well, and we did some serious psychotherapy over several years. And ever so very slowly, she improved. She wasn’t OCD free, but it was possible that it would never be totally gone. There were still times when her obsessive thoughts were exacerbated for no obvious reason, but those have been fewer and farther between as she’s gotten older. I attribute a lot of that to her mother. She is a strong woman, and she could have chosen to dismiss Hillary’s fears because she didn’t understand them or believe them. You have to admit, it would feel weird to hear your child speak obsessively about slitting your throat. But Hillary’s mother didn’t turn a blind eye or distance herself, she actually did the opposite: she drew her daughter closer and sought help. There isn’t always that kind of family support, so it was very reassuring to all three of us. The depth of Hillary’s beliefs in her obsessive fears was significant, especially for a girl of her age. She was sure that she was going to kill her mother, whether she wanted to or not. But please know that just because someone in the family has OCD, it does not mean they’re out to get you.
3. Fear and Hypermorality: hypermorality is essentially taking manners and consideration for others to an unnatural degree. The fear these people have is that they said the wrong thing, did the wrong thing, made a mistake or misstatement to a friend or family member, or sent an email or text or made a comment on social media that may have hurt someone else’s feelings or made them upset. They will go over and over a previous interaction in their mind, obsessively searching for anything they may have said that could have possibly slighted someone, because they’re sure they did, they just aren’t certain when. For example, if they say hello, they will immediately begin thinking ‘did I say hello in the right way, in the right tone? Did I walk away too quickly after I said hello? And I only said hello, I didn’t ask how they were, should I have asked how they were?’ This is not an exaggeration. Can you imagine what these people go through, when the simple act of saying hello causes tremendous amounts of anxiety and endless rounds of second guessing everything! That’s how this disorder interferes with people’s lives; it gets in the way of their daily operations, and they simply cannot get anything accomplished because they are so consumed with these obsessions.
4. Religion: some people have religious obsessions, where they believe they must say specific prayers in a certain order for a multiple of times, and that each round must be perfect; if not, they must start again. This can take up hours upon hours on end. These prayer rituals are compulsive, and are required in an attempt to quell the obsessive thoughts about how to love God perfectly, or how to be worthy, how to ask His forgiveness or how to live a righteous life…whatever obsessive beliefs they affix themselves to. Commonly involved in religious obsessions and related compulsive behaviors involve acts of supplication, kneeling or bowing before God or whatever religious idol they obsess about, because they must do so. Some religions incorporate other compulsory activities like fasting, so OCD people may believe they must also do that to show their devotion. When religious activities are taken to a level of obsession, they are likely to be much harsher and far more restricting than the original religion actually proscribes. Ritualistic self-mutilation and pain is encouraged by some radical religions to prove one’s worthiness, and people with extreme religion-oriented OCD obsessions feel a compulsive draw to these behaviors. They can see that they are different, that others do not take their beliefs to the same levels, but they cannot stop. Whenever I think of OCD cases involving religious obsessions and associated radical compulsions, I have one patient that comes to mind. I’ve seen him over a span of probaby ten years…a long time. His name is Benigno, and he is originally from Peru, but he’s lived on Palm Beach for a long time, and he’s done well for himself. He first came to see me (reluctantly) at the request of his family. They were concerned that his religious beliefs and activities had become far too radical in recent years. They reported that he was now totally consumed by his religion, and that they believed it was endangering his life. That’s all the background his family gave me. When he sat down for his first appointment, I started by asking Benigno to tell me about his upbringing. He said he was raised in a traditional Catholic home in Peru, but he always saw his beliefs as very different from his siblings, even though they were raised in the same home. He said that even his family noticed that from the very early age of seven, he took his relationship with God to an unusual level for such a young child. Even at that age, he spoke endlessly about God, he would fast for days, he would kneel on rocks in the backyard as he prayed for 15 hours straight, he would deny himself sleep in favor of praying the rosary until his voice was hoarse. As he grew and advanced in school, rather than playing sports or making friends, he spent time in a radical religious group, with people far older than he was. They clearly saw his unusually zealous behavior and encouraged it, telling him that he must do more to demonstrate his worthiness to God. It was really the only time I can recall hearing that anyone actually encouraged another person’s obsessive thoughts and destructive compulsions. It was disturbing, to say the least. Benigno definitely had OCD, but it was a little atypical in it’s origins. I think that when it started in his childhood, the religious belief system he was raised in may have contributed to its genesis. Perhaps a nun at his school said that he should pray more, or ask God’s forgiveness for something or else risk eternal damnation, who knows. He didn’t like the OCD label, and wasn’t always sure that his obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors were preventing him from having a fulfilling life. He always vacillated on that point, but he did concede that his behaviors weren’t normal. Over time, he’s eased up a little on his compulsions, but he’s uncomfortable during those times, because his obsessive thoughts are telling him that he needs to do certain actions to lead a life that pleases God or to be worthy of His love, whatever thought is screaming the loudest in his brain. I just started him on medication recently, because he had refused it until then. I think that will really help him, but we will continue on with psychotherapy. Benigno is a work in progress.
5. Symmetry/ Order: symmetry and ordering obsessions and compulsions are among the most prevalent OCD symptom subtypes. These people are compelled to make everything line up, to make things equal on two sides, and/ or to arrange things into equal groups. Many times, I’ve seen frazzled parents in my office very concerned, because little Johnny must have his toy trucks in a perfect line, grouped by color, and arranged from largest to smallest. They are amazed and more than a little frightened by his precision. If one truck is accidentally moved a fraction of an inch out of place when Fido runs through to bark at the old lady next door as she heads into her garden, little Johnny loses his mind. And even if mommy runs like a cheetah to put it back perfectly in its place a mere millisecond later, it doesn’t assuage his outrage. This is actually a pretty typical presentation in a child of little Johnny’s age. But these obsessive thoughts on order and symmetry will change as he ages. He may need his third grade class to have an exactly equal number of boys and girls, or else he cannot be in that classroom, and he demonstrates that in all sorts of destructive behaviors…screaming, kicking, biting, throwing books, tearing down posters, and generally throwing a monstrous tantrum. Why? Because little Johnny is pissed off. His brain is telling him that everything is wrong in his world right now, because there are four more boys than girls, and that’s unacceptable. So his brain just fizzes, like when you put pop rocks in a pepsi…it overwhelms him. It’s a difficult OCD subtype to manage because it’s so persistent. Little Johnny will need a lot of time in therapy, but ultimately, I think he’ll be okay.
As for compulsions…these can be as numerous and diverse as anything that people’s brains can come up with, which is to say they’re pretty much unlimited. The ones that often spring to mind are like checking to make sure the stove is off, checking to make sure the garage door is shut, checking to make sure the locks are locked, the alarm is on, the gas is off, the fire in the fireplace is dead, the faucet is off, the grill cover is on, the car has gas, the tires have air, the lights are off…and then checking them again. And again. Maybe locking and unlocking and locking the front door, over and over, until they’re satisfied it’s locked, which is almost never. Their brain never says STOP! THE DOOR IS LOCKED. GO TO BED. That box doesn’t get ticked; it does not happen quickly.
They may be obsessed with cleanliness, either of themselves or their possessions: home, car, clothes. So they ritualistically clean them over and over, it must be perfect. I have a fairly new patient named Launa, and she is obsessed with cleanliness, and she ritualistically cleans…very, very thoroughly. She cleans and cleans and cleans again. She will cover the house seven or eight times in a day, or all through the night instead of sleeping, whenever her obsession moves her. And she doesn’t just sweep, wash, and wax her floors. She gets a roll of scotch tape and gets on the floor, placing her head perpendicular to the floor so that she can see the profile of a microscopic bit of sand, or some flotsam, real or imagined, against the flat surface of the floor. Once she has it in her sites, she takes a piece of the scotch tape and sticks it on top of the speck, pulling it off the floor, trapping it on the tape, then putting the bit of tape with the offending speck in her pocket for safe keeping. She does every square inch of her floors that way, on her hands and knees, moving specifically from her back kitchen door, into each of her two guest bedrooms, and finally finishing at the far wall of her bedroom. She goes through a minimum of six rolls of scotch tape at a time, and she will do this every single day. Often, she gets to that far wall of her bedroom and starts over again immediately. Her knees are perpetually black and blue, and her hands are often swollen and painful from overuse, but that’s more tolerable than trying to deny the compulsive behavior that her obsession demands. It’s sad, because this smart, funny, gentle woman has no life, and she knows it, sees it, hates it, but feels powerless to change it. But I am committed to helping her do just that, and I know she’ll get there.
By the time most of my OCD patients get to me, they’re pretty stuck in their compulsions. There’s the engineer that must spend precisely eight minutes in the shower- no more, no less. He sets an alarm in the bathroom for seven minutes and fifty-two seconds, and when it goes off, he has exactly eight seconds to open the door and step out of the shower. If for some reason something delays his exit, like having to pick up a dropped washcloth, he must start another shower. He will do this until he gets it perfect. I would hate to have his water bill. In a similar fashion, he allows himself four minutes to brush and floss his teeth and use mouthwash…which he must do in a certain pattern…swish quickly in left cheek three times, then right cheek three times, then around his front teeth three times, then tilt head back to gargle three seconds, and spit.
There’s the recent suma cum laud college grad that lost her dream job because she was always late. Why? Because she spent anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour each morning when she was to leave her house to go to work, locking and unlocking her front door over and over until she had to leave. But she was never satisfied that it was locked, so she often went home on her lunch hour, spending it standing at her front door, turning the key, unlocking, locking, unlocking, locking…Losing her job was an eye-opener, and that’s what brought her to me.
Another OCD patient, a 13-year-old boy named Andrew, was consumed with a very detailed and very peculiar eating ritual. The food on his plate could not be touching. His mother had to make sure of this. The meat could not touch the rice, which could not touch the broccoli, which could not touch the roll. If a catastrophe happened and any of the food touched, it had to be thrown out and his mother would have to make him a new plate. But that wasn’t all. When his mother set his plate in front of him, she had to arrange it so that the meat was top left, the veg top right, the starch bottom left, and the roll at the bottom right of the plate. Then, before he could begin eating, he had to hold his fork in his left hand and his knife in his right, each positioned tines and blades up just so, and flanking the sides of his plate. Then he would simultaneously raise the utensils and touch them to the table three times, and then put them together above the center of his plate and touch once there, then put them together again below the center of his plate and touch once there. Only then could he eat his food, but just as the food couldn’t touch on the plate, it couldn’t touch in his mouth either. He ate each part separately, always in order. First the meat, then the veg, then the starch, and then the roll. Well, unfortunately, one day Andrew was riding in a friend’s mothers car, and they were in a terrible car accident, and he was paralyzed, so his mother had to do everything for him, including feeding him. His ritualistic compulsions were still so consuming, so powerful, that before he could eat, his mother had to perform his rituals. Every single one of them. And she had to do them over and over and over, until they were perfect…or else he would totally lose it, scream and spit and curse her for being stupid. She told me that in the beginning, she would be sitting at that table for hours and hours, tears streaming down her face, repeating his knife and fork touching rituals, to the point where she would literally be nodding off, only to be snapped awake by his belittling venom. I told him that everyone understood that he couldn’t help it, that he wasn’t in control of his compulsions, but that it was unacceptable to treat his mother the way he did, screaming at her, calling her names, and spitting at her. I told him that she was the only person even willing to try to put up with his behaviors. His father had zero patience for it, and he didn’t dare speak to him with the words he used with his mother. With time, meds, a lot of therapy, and the acceptance of his paralysis, he mellowed out a little and things have improved. But Andrew needs more work, and his mother is completely devoted to helping him. I honestly don’t know how she does it, but for his sake, I’m glad she does.
I had a nine-year-old boy with OCD come into the office. His mother had to wear gloves and a mask to prepare his food, because otherwise she would contaminate it. She had to serve it on a paper plate, and when she set the food in front of him, he would spend 15 minutes scrutinizing it, like he was looking for germs, as though he could see them. He had to eat with disposable plastic utensils and use only paper napkins. Everything was always single use, so as not to take the chance that old food could stay on ceramic plates or steel utensils even after being washed.
Another patient, a 42-year-old man named Gary, was obsessed with perfectly pristine white sneakers. If he got so much as a speck of dirt on them, they were ruined. He would buy a new pair and burn the offending pair.
Another patient, a man originally from Jamaica, had a ritual of tracing a cross on his chest with his finger every time he felt he had said anything contrary to anyone. He dis this so often, to the point that he wore through the skin, literally down to the sternum bone in the middle of his chest.
I had another patient, a physical therapy tech that had an odd compulsion. While driving, if he went over a speed bump, he had to turn the car around to check to make sure he hadn’t run over a person. He knew on some level that it was just a speed bump, that he had even seen the speed bump as he’d driven ober it, but his obsession told him that it might possibly have been a person, so the compulsion was for him to turn around to make sure. Luckily, it hasn’t been a person a single time.
A young woman came in for her first appointment, and she arrived looking totally exhausted. She had dark circles and huge bags under her eyes, her hair was all messy, and she looked like she was waaay out there. I told her that she looked very tired and she agreed. I asked her why, and she said she had been up all night. That begged the question of why once again, and she said that she had recently moved to a new apartment, and she had been trying to hang a picture. To which I raised an eyebrow and said, and?…. She smiled, blushed, and said that she just couldn’t get it level, so it took ‘a while.’ I said, “Are you telling me that you spent all night hanging that one picture?” Embarassed, she quietly answered yes. I suggested wryly that she buy a level at Home Depot. Still embarassed, she said, “I have one. I didn’t trust it.” Despite myself, all I could do is laugh. Then I suggested that she might have OCD. And I swear, with a straight face, she said, “Really? Do you really think so?” Oh boy…seriously?! She was actually surprised…I’m telling you, never a dull moment.
Late one afternoon not long ago, I finished with a patient, the last one of the day, so I said I’d walk out with him, and I went and turned the AC up, shut the lights off, and walked out the door, never breaking stride. As I locked the office door behind us, I saw that he was looking at me, incredulous. Startled, I said “What?” He said, “Oh my God, how did you just do that?!” Totally confused, I was like ‘what?’ and he said, “How can you just close up and walk out of your office like that, that fast? I spend at least an hour a day getting out of my office, checking everything over and over before I can walk out, then at least another 15 minutes locking and unlocking the front door before I can head to the car.” I told him, “Next appointment, you and I are going to discuss that, man.”
And now of course, I have lots of patients freaking out about coronavirus. I have a specific woman who does not ever leave her home, and even though she’s home alone, never exposed to anything or anyone, she cannot touch anything bare handed inside her own home. So, her solution is to wear surgical gloves, 24-7. We had a facetime appointment recently and I commented on the gloves, and she told me she wore them all the time, even to bed, but that the skin on her hands was getting irritated. I talked her into taking the gloves off for a minute so I could see her hands. They were so pruney, reddish purple, and deeply wrinkled all over, like they had been covered in water for a loooong time…which I mentioned to her. But, she said it wasn’t water, it was sweat. I said, “Ewwww!” and she was like, “Yeah, I should probably let them dry off, maybe air them out a little bit.” Ya think?!
All kidding aside, you can imagine how strong these obsessions can be, and how debilitating all the ritualistic checking, rechecking, doing, undoing can be. Many people with OCD have a very strict schedule. They have a routine that they follow religiously, day in and day out, that helps them to be somewhat functional. They get up at the same time everyday, eat the same breakfast, wear the same color shirt, same color tie, same shoes, drive the same route to work, park in the same space, eat the same lunch, drive the same route home, watch the same television shows, eat the same dinner, on and on and on. For these people, every single day of their lives is groundhog day. They have no room in their lives for spontaneity, no opportunities for joy…not without help.
These are anxious people, stressed out to the max. OCD is a distressing illness at best. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Treatment does work for those willing to put in the work, and they can go on to live healthy lives. The commonly accepted treatments involve psychotherapy and exposure response coupled with cognitive behavioral therapy. What does that mean? Basically, the therapist must coach the patient on what to do with the obsessive thoughts. Explain that they must accept that they cannot control the thoughts. That they must not engage with the thoughts, not feed the thoughts, because once they do, the thoughts will get stuck in their head, with no way to get rid of them. So they must let them just float away, do not address them, just let them float away. Let them drift away, and the further they drift, the more they can replace them with healthy thoughts. Explain that if the thoughts do come, it’s okay, but they should respond to the thoughts in a way that does not escalate anxiety, so not focusing on the thoughts, not feeding the thoughts, but redirecting the thoughts to other thoughts that are healthy, this is the best way to deal with them. There are also drug treatments, SSRI medications, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, like Prozac and Paxil. Luvox and Zoloft can also be used to treat OCD. Whenever possible, I like to employ a combination of meds, plenty of psychotherapy, and the exposure response coupled with cognitive behavioral therapy. When an OCD patient is willing to work and sticks to the plan, it’s truly life changing. Need proof? Well, maybe ask soccer star David Beckham, comedian Howie Mandel, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, singer Justin Timberlake, or his ex-girlfriend, actress Cameron Diaz. Or maybe actress and entreprenuer Jessica Alba, Shock Jock Howard Stern, or actor Nicolas Cage. They all seem to have done pretty well for themselves, and I’m pretty sure they’d tell you that treatment works.
If you’re interested in more stories of OCD patients, or other psychiatric diagnoses, you can check out my book, Tales from the Couch, on Amazon.com. It’s a great read, entertaining and informative, and a really awesome way to spend a no- fun quarantine, if I do say so myself.
Be well, everyone.Learn More
Coronavirus, covid-19…the mere mention of these names strikes fear into the hearts of people that have one thing in common: they live on planet earth. It’s pretty sad that it takes a virus to bring us all together, working on a common goal.
It’s that fear that I want to talk about. Fear of the coronavirus is the one thing that spreads more rapidly and is more contagious than the virus itself. That’s really thanks to the media. This is one of the most sensationalized topics I have ever seen in the media. Their choice of verbage and the names of their reports, it’s all to get people’s attention; it’s unnerving and inflammatory. A great deal of the intel that we’re fed is misleading at best. I think the virulence has been overstated, along with the way they calculate the percentage of deaths resulting from the virus.
Consider that 50% of the people infected have no symptoms at all, 30% have mild symptoms. They eat some chicken soup and take some acetominophen and they’re fine. Many don’t seek treatment. Maybe 20% have moderate-to-severe symptoms and require treatment. Very few, most high risk cases, go on to pneumonia and organ failure. Now consider how many people actually get sick with the virus but don’t report it. Why? Because they don’t want to be ostracized, treated like a leper, a modern day Typhoid Mary. They don’t inform anybody. That’s why the death rate is so high right now, because the number of confirmed cases is so low. If everyone that got sick from the virus actually reported and sought treatment, we would be able to accurately assess the death rate and it would be far lower than what is reported. That’s just one example of how some things are up for interpretation and one reason why you can’t allow these statistics to freak you out.
The media should learn to dispense accurate information without being sensational, and it should avoid exploiting people’s fears. For example, they call it a “deadly virus,” but that can be misleading, because for most people, the virus is not deadly at all. Don’t get me wrong, this situation is deserving of our vigilance and attention, and I’m all for being prepared and doing everything you can to help flatten the exposure/ infection curve, but there’s a thin line between being aware and informed and living in a state of constant fear and anxiety.
But understand that constant worry may make people more susceptible to the very thing they fear…as long-term stress is known to weaken the immune system. So ultimately, the more worried we are, the more vulnerable we are to the coronavirus.
Look, it has to be said…there isn’t any real, practical (read: sane) reason to stock up on toilet paper, but it may make people feel a little more in control of a situation that embodies the very definition of the word unknown. The less worried they are because they bought toilet paper, as ridiculous as that seems, the more they’ve reduced their fear, and in turn, minimized the effects on their immune system. So, if buying 8 year’s worth of toilet paper gets you through the night, or the pandemic, then go for it.
The good news is, there is a happy medium between ignoring the biggest story in the world right now and going into a full-on panic. Here are some tips. Think of it like hand-washing and self-isolation, but for your brain.
How not to lose your s÷&t over coronavirus: Do’s and Don’t’s
1. Do pare down your sources of information. There is a ton of information out there, which means you have to decide who to believe and wilfully ignore everyone and everything else. You can control your intel intake with the following steps:
– Do find a few sources you trust and stick with them. Choose one national or international source like the CDC, and one local, non-national source; this way you can know what’s going on in the country or world as well as your community.
Don’t sit in front of your tv for hours on end flicking channels between CNN, FoxNews, CNBC, etc.
– Do limit the frequency of your news updates. Things may be changing rapidly, but they don’t change every 15 minutes. And even if they did, do you really need to know the very minute that 4 new people are infected? No, you don’t. Look at it this way: if there’s a tornado coming toward you, you need info asap and in a hurry. HINT: The coronavirus is not a tornado. Don’t leave the tv on all day as white noise, because some of that crap gets in your brain. Doget the information you need and keep it moving.
– Do hang it up! Get some social media self discipline. Put the phone away. For a lot of my patients, this is their biggest hurdle. It may not be easy to limit time on social media, but commentary from friends and acquaintances on your Facebook feed is worse than actual updates from news organizations. Don’tever count on recirculated, dubiously-sourced posts on Facebook, because all they’ll give you is a panic attack.
2. Do define your fears, it makes them less scary. A ‘pandemic’ is such a nebulous threat. It can be very helpful to sit down and really consider what specific threats worry you. Do you think you will catch the coronavirus and die? That’s where the brain is more likely to go, because the fear of death taps into an evolutionary core fear, but how realistic is that? Do consider your personal risk and think how likely it is that you will actually come in contact with the virus. And, if the worst happens and you or someone you love does contract the virus, plan for what happens next. In all likelihood,hope is not lost. Don’t overestimate the likelihood of the bad thing happening while underestimating your ability to deal with it. Being prepared for your fears will help keep them in check. Do everything you can to prepare; once you’ve done that, you’re done… just take care of yourself.
3. Do seek support, but do so wisely.
Don’t talk to Chicken Little…the sky is not falling! It’s natural to talk to people, even strangers, about something so pervasive as coronavirus. But choose your counsel wisely. If you’re afraid, it’s not the best idea to talk to someone else who’s freaking out, you’d just create an echo chamber. Don’t talk to the doomsday preppers about your coronavirus fears. Do talk to a more glass-half-full type, someone that’s handling it well, they can check your anxiety and pointless fears. Do seek professional help if you can’t get a handle on your thoughts. It doesn’t have to be long term, just situational assistance.
4. Do continue to pay attention to your basic needs. In times of stress, we tend to minimize the importance of the basic practices of our ‘normal’ lives when we really should be paying more attention to them. Don’t get so wrapped up in thinking about the coronavirus that you forget the essential, healthy practices that affect your wellbeing every day. Do make sure you are getting adequate sleep, keeping up with proper nutrition, getting outside as much as possible, and engaging in regular physical activity. Practicing mindfulness, meditation, or yoga can also help center you in routines and awareness, and keep your mind from wandering into the dark and often irrational unknown.
I give the media and the government a hard time, but I think they’re panicking a little, because we’ve never seen a worldwide pandemic, it’s awesome. I don’t mean like awesome yay great, I mean awesome like wow, we’re in awe of this crazy pandemic. We never expected this, there’s no road map, but here we are, our collective pants around our ankles. All we can do now is the best we can. I don’t think the US has seen the worst of it yet, but I still see a bright future. In the next months, our detection, our means to stop the spread of it, and our treatment of this will dramatically improve. They will start using antiviral drugs already on the market, like Kaletra that’s used in AIDS cases, and that will likely stop coronavirus in its tracks. The only people that I think may need to worry are people who are immunocompromised or of advanced age. My projection is by the end of April 2020 this will max out, and by end of May the cases will start declining, and by August this will be a bad memory. It will just be another flu virus; and we will have the vaccine for it within 18 months, it will be under control, just another vanquished virus in the CDC archive. It will not overwhelm our system, will not destroy our economy; it will be resolved. My money’s on that.
Be well, everyone. Wash your hands with soap and hot water. Avoid crowds. Flatten that curve, people!Learn More
THIS JUST IN!
24/7 NEWS CAUSES ANXIETY!
READ ALL ABOUT IT!
I remember when I was a kid, my family used to eat dinner after the news. The news used to be thirty minutes. People tuned in and heard about the church bake sale, the plumbing problem being fixed at the elementary school, road closings, and the weather for the next day, and then they moved on with their lives. In this modern age, we are instead constantly inundated with information. We are bombarded with news, 24/7 – 365. News from CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, FOX, CNBC, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, on and on. Even when you go to your email inbox it’s in your face. And it’s mainly negative. Why is this? Because negative gets a reaction. Positive news does not get a lot of attention, but negative news does. People react to it, so the news organizations push negative news. They sensationalize the negative, make it bigger, more fearful, more imposing. Until it raises the hairs at the backs of our necks. News that offends, insults, and shocks our sensabilities…that’s sensationalism. This kind of news- sensationalism- lures viewers. This sensationalism sells. That equals ratings, which then equals advertisers. It’s a big circle. And you, the watchers, the viewers, you’re the target smack dab at the center of that circle.
Today, when you turn on the news, you hear about more gun violence, another act of terrorism, a missing child, or a scary health epidemic, and it seems as if the world is getting smaller, but growing ever more frightening at the same time. I’m hearing more and more people tell me they’re finding it harder to feel calm in their day-to-day lives. They feel beleaguered by the never-ending cycle of bad news, and this changes them, changes how they feel about life; these changes range from having a constant low level sense of uneasiness all the way to having full-blown anxiety disorders. The persistent sense of worry is joy-robbing at the very least, and debilitating at worst. This news cycle-related anxiety has become particularly obvious in the 21st century, a time that has been packed with global events that live and breathe on the news cycle, the internet, and social media.
There have been studies on who is at risk for negative impacts from the news cycle. These show that women are more at risk, because they are better than men at remembering negative news for longer periods, and they also have more persistent physiological reactions to the stress caused by such news. The news makes many women feel personally devalued, unseen, unheard, and unsafe, resulting in them having a sense of dread and mistrust about the future. Age is also a big factor: millennials are the age group most upset by the news cycle, with 3 in 5 millennials saying that they want to stay informed, but that following the news causes them undue stress. That’s compared with 1 in 3 older adults saying the same. But these older adults are more apt to deal with this issue by avoiding the news, with 2 in 5 adults reporting that they have taken steps over the past year to reduce their news consumption in response to the stress and anxiety caused by it.
Our highly connected culture can exacerbate these feelings of anxiety. The internet and social media add to the illusion that the whole world is right outside your door, ready to get you. It used to be that danger from man-made or natural disasters seemed far away. In some cases, you never heard about it in the first place. Today, we have headlines in the 24-hour news cycle that detail the most horrendous crimes and tragedies, from those that touch a few individuals to those that affect thousands. The saying goes “there’s nothing new under the sun” but in fact, now in the last week of February 2020, there is a new thing under the sun: ‘coronavirus anxiety.’ It’s now a real thing in the psych world. The response to the coronavirus illustrates a point about response to the constant news cycle and the fear it breeds. In the last week of February 2020, the global coronavirus outbreak dominated headlines as it entered the political debate and sent stock markets tumbling. In response, Americans did what they always do when confronted with something new and scary: they hit the internet search bar…and the bar bar, and not necessarily in that order. Aside from “coronavirus,” among the most popular topics searched over the past week was “Lysol,” “dog coronavirus,” and “social isolation.”
Don’t misunderstand me, some anxiety is a good thing. Low levels of it enables awareness and proactive problem-solving. It motivates you to take sensible steps to protect yourself and your loved ones. News serves to inform us about things that are important to us, and at times to warn us about possible health dangers and empower us to avoid them. But too much news and some types of news content, especially when sensationalized, may lead to worry and anxiety. And when anxiety becomes more than a constructive concern, that’s when we need to slow down, when things need to change. So what can you do if what seems like a constant cycle of negative news throughout every media outlet is getting you down and interfering with your well-being? There are some measures you can take to control how much the news negativity affects your everyday routine and outlook. I have ten suggestions below.
1. When the news is first reported- there has been a bombing, there has been a shooting, war has been declared, there is a new coronavirus outbreak- turn it off, blow it off immediately. This may seem counter intuitive, but initial news, the first news to be reported, is notoriously inaccurate. Numbers are over-inflated. So wait until the news is organized, fully formulated, until they have multiple sources and they can accurately assess the situation. You’ll typically find that, no, it was not 500 people killed, it was 50. It was not 50 people shot, it was 15 people wounded. So just take a step back. When you hear breaking news, put it down, wait, and look at it in a few hours or the next morning, when the news organizations have multiple accurate reports.
2. Look for good news. Bad news comes your way free and easy, while you have to look for good news. So look for good news. Dig for it. If you look for positive things, you will find them. The whole world isn’t all bad, there are good things happening, positive things. Look for positive things things that interest you, on social media, on YouTube, on television, on the internet. Literally put ‘positive news’ in the search bar and read what you find.
3. Don’t leave a news channel on all day long, TV or radio, even if it is just for background noise. Some is bound to permeate your brain. Limit the amount of news you watch each day: 20 to 30 minutes a day is enough. You don’t need to be getting news all day long. Be strategic about news exposure. Maybe check the most recent headlines first thing in the morning and then disconnect for the rest of the day. It may be tempting to read every update of a breaking news story throughout the day, but your mind has a way of thinking that the longer a story goes on, the more you are actually involved in the event, even though it may not even directly affect you. And you don’t need to be checking texts, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc multiple times each day either.
4. I recommend not getting your news from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc because what they say doesn’t have to be true, and what you see will often be a raw emotional response to something that they just saw, which may or may not even be accurate. Get your news from newspapers, either online or in actual print format. News in newspapers, the printed word, tends to be more accurate. The information has been digested and scrutinized by multiple people, so it is a little more fair and presents a more well-rounded perspective.
5. Prioritize your sleep. Worry often interrupts sleep, and sleep deprivation increases worry. Short-circuit the vicious cycle by avoiding your television, iPad, laptop, and cell phone for at least an hour before bedtime. That means no more late-night scrolling through Instagram or Facebook, where you might find reminders of heavy topics. Pick a before-bed pastime that doesn’t involve a screen, like reading a book. Get your news dose in the morning or maybe a little bit when you first come home from work. Do not do it before bed, because you will not sleep. Murder, treachery, and deceit make for bad bedtime stories.
6. If you find that social media affects you negatively in any way, delete it. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, you really don’t need it, especially if it causes you stress or anxiety. Contrary to popular belief, you can live without it…likely better than you can with it. So just delete it.
7. Give yourself a minimum of two hours per day where you are cut off from text messaging, emails, posting, TV, and radio. Spend that time doing something body-positive, like exercise. Physical activity reduces stress and anxiety in the moment and long-term. Practice mindfulness while you exercise by tuning in to your breathing and the physical movement your body is experiencing. This way you’ll have a conscious train of thought that doesn’t involve worry. Or distract yourself some other way. You can preoccupy your brain with relaxing activities: take a warm bath, listen to music, or meditate. If these low-key methods don’t block out the anxiety, try something more engaging, like playing a card game, or catching up with a friend. Whatever you choose, the idea is to give your mind a break.
8. Do not catastrophize, meaning thinking that because one thing is wrong, the whole world is falling apart. Just because there is a terrible stabbing of a little girl in another state does not mean that everyone is unsafe. If there is a shooting in a church in Georgia, that does not mean that all churches are unsafe. Just because there is a strike by the NY City subway workers does not mean that all subway systems across the country are falling apart. Just because there is a viral outbreak in one country does not mean that the whole world is unsafe and that we should shut ourselves in our homes.
9. Stop querying fear. When fear first strikes, ask yourself once, “What can I do to solve this problem?” If you have an answer, make a plan and implement that plan as best you can. But if you can’t think of a plan or solution that is logical and realistic, then move on. If you continue to worry and rack your brain, resist those thoughts. Distract yourself. See my #7 above. Eventually, the questions will lose their power, and your mind will stop asking them.
10. Practice eternal optimism. When you start the day in a positive way, the rest of the day will fall in line. And continuing to go about your life with some degree of positivity and optimism is an important cue to your family and friends, reinforcing the message that you- and they- are okay.Learn More
Mental Health Benefits of Pets
The bond between humans and animals is a powerful one, so much so that there have been numerous books written and movies made centering on the relationships between them. Dogs were the first animals domesticated and kept as pets, as much as 45,000 years ago.Regardless of when pet ownership got started, our long attachment to these animals is still going strong. Americans own some 78 million dogs, 85 million cats, 14 million birds, 12 million small mammals, and 9 million reptiles, according to pet industry statistics.
Studies have scientifically explored the benefits of the human-animal bond, and a positive correlation between pets and mental health is undeniable. According to a recent poll, 95% of pet owners consider their pet a member of the family. Children, adolescents, adults, and seniors all find joy in their pets, so it follows that pets and mental health go hand in hand.
Pets provide companionship, ease loneliness, bring us joy, and give us unconditional love. They also help decrease depression, anxiety, and stress. While the word “pet” usually conjers up thoughts of dogs and cats, a pet doesn’t necessarily have to be a dog or a cat. Even watching fish in an aquarium has been shown to reduce muscle tension and lower pulse rate. A pet can be a horse, parrot, turtle, rabbit, skunk, lizard, chicken, snake…whatever you love and take care of.
Pets have evolved to become acutely attuned to humans. Dogs, for example, are about as intelligent as a two-year-old human child. Some more doggie fun facts: They are able to understand about 150 human words and most are even capable of following a count of five. They understand spatial relationships and are able to use them to navigate obstacles quickly. Although they can’t see the same color spectrum we can, they can see black, white, blue, and yellow; they can’t see red and green- those just look gray to them. A dog’s smell is like 10 million times better than yours. Dogs can sense if you’re going to have a seizure, they know if your blood sugar is low, and some say they can even sniff out cancer. While they understand many of our words, dogs are even better at interpreting our tone of voice, body language, and gestures. And like any good human friend, a loyal dog will look into your eyes to gauge your emotional state and try to understand what you’re thinking and feeling (and to use their special psychic powers to get you to give them treats and throw their ball, of course). I think dogs have psychic powers. My dog Beluga used to use her psychic powers to get me to do stuff all the time.
Pets, especially dogs and cats, can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and playfulness, and even improve cardiovascular health. Caring for an animal can help children grow up feeling more secure and being more active. Pets also provide good companionship for older adults. Perhaps most importantly, a pet can add real joy and unconditional love to your life.
Early researchers had discovered physical evidence of the mental health benefits of having pets. They found that pets could fulfill the human need for touch, so when hugging or stroking a pet, the human subject’s blood pressure went down, their heart rate slowed, their breathing became more regular, and their muscle tension relaxed. All of these physical changes are signs of reduced stress, which is indicative of a positive psychological impact.
Since then, scientists have learned much more about the connection between pets and mental health. As a result, animal-assisted therapy programs have become an important part of mental health treatment. But, by owning a pet, you can experience pet therapy benefits every day in your own home. Below are several ways in which pets support good mental health and how pets are beneficial to people with mental health issues.
Interacting with Pets Lowers Stress and Decreases Anxiety:
Just the sensory act of stroking a pet lowers blood pressure, which reduces stress. Petting and playing with animals also reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol while stimulating endorphin production and release of the happy hormones serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax the nervous system. It also increases the production of oxytocin, another chemical that naturally reduces stress. Having the companionship of an animal can offer comfort, help ease anxiety, and build self-confidence for people anxious about going out into the world.
Pets Make Us Feel Needed:
The act of caretaking has mental health benefits. Caring for another living thing gives us a sense of purpose and meaning, so people feel more needed and wanted when they have a pet to care for. This is true even when the pets don’t interact very much with their caregivers. In a very interesting 2016 study about pets and mental health, elderly people were given five crickets in a cage to care for. Researchers monitored their mood over eight weeks and compared them to a control group that was not caring for crickets or other pets. They found that participants that were given the crickets became less depressed after eight weeks than those in the control group, so researchers concluded that caring for living creatures produced the mental health benefits they saw. Simply put, doing things for the good of others reduces depression and loneliness.
Pets Increase Well-Being:
Pet owners lives are enriched and generally better in several areas. They have better self-esteem, they are more physically fit, they are less lonely, they are more conscientious and less preoccupied, they are more extroverted, and they are less fearful. Put simply, pet owners are happier, healthier, and better adjusted than non-owners.
Pets Provide Companionship:
Companionship can help prevent illness and even add years to your life, while isolation and loneliness can trigger symptoms of depression. Caring for a live animal can help you shift your focus away from your problems, especially if you live alone. Most dog and cat owners talk to their pets, and some even use them as a sounding board to work through their troubles. And nothing beats loneliness like coming home to a wagging tail or a purring cat.
Cats and Dogs Are Great Examples: Because pets live in the moment- not worrying about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow- they can help you appreciate life’s simple joys and help you to be more mindful. Mindfulness is a psychological technique, the process of bringing one’s attention to the present moment. This can help distract you from what might be bothering you and help remind you to try to be more carefree and playful. In people diagnosed with mental illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, pets can be among the most supportive connections they have. They provide a unique form of validation through unconditional support, which they may not have in other relationships. Patients report that pets help them manage their illness, navigate everyday life, and give them a strong sense of identity, self-worth, and meaning. Caring for a pet gave owners a feeling of being in control as well as a sense of security and routine. Most said that their pets helped them manage their emotions and distract them from their symptoms like hearing voices, habitual rumination, and even suicidal thoughts, because they felt needed by their pet.
Pets Help Us Build Healthy Habits:
Pets need to be taken care of every day, and as a result, they help us build healthy habits and routines and add structure to the day. Many pets, especially dogs, require a regular feeding and exercise schedule. Having a consistent routine keeps an animal balanced and calm, and it’s good for people too. No matter your mood, one plaintive look from your pet and you’ll have to get out of bed to care for them. Caring for a pet can help you adopt healthy lifestyle changes, which play an important role in easing symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. Some examples of these healthy lifestyle changes include:
Physical activity: Dog owners need to take their pets for walks, runs, and/ or hikes regularly, and owners receive the benefits of that exercise. Studies show that dog owners are more likely to meet recommended daily exercise requirements.
Time in nature: Walking a dog or riding a horse gets us outside, so we experience the many mental health benefits of being outdoors.
Getting up in the morning: Dogs and cats need to be fed on a regular schedule. As a result, pet owners need to get up and take care of them, no matter what mood they are in. So in this way, pets give people a reason to get up and start the day.
Pet care leads to self-care: Caring for a dog, horse, or cat reminds us that we must take care of ourselves as well.
Pets Support Social Connection: Pets can be a great social lubricant for their owners, helping to start and maintain new friendships. Pets are able to counteract social isolation and promote social connection by relieving social anxiety, because they provide a common topic to talk about. For example, walking a dog or playing in a dog park often leads to conversations with other dog owners. As a result, dog owners tend to be more socially connected and less isolated. This improves the owners’ mental health, because people who have more social relationships and friendships tend to be mentally healthier. The benefits of having social connections include better self-esteem, lower rates of anxiety and depression, a happier, more optimistic outlook, stronger emotional regulation skills, improved cognitive functioning, and having more empathy and feelings of trust toward others.
Pets Give Us Unconditional Love:
This one is best of all! Dogs and cats and pets of all kinds love their owners no matter what. That’s unconditional love. Pets don’t care how your presentation went, how you did on a test, or if you sold a house. Pets don’t judge you based on what you look like, if you are popular, or if you’re super athletic. They’re simply happy to see you, and they want to spend time with you, no matter what! This kind of unconditional love is good for mental health. It stimulates the brain to release dopamine, the chemical involved in sensing pleasure.
To summarize, the link between pets and mental health is clear. So if you don’t have a pet, think about getting one. For a dog or cat, go to a shelter or humane society and adopt somebody, take them home and make them a member of the family. Or maybe talk to a doctor about finding an emotional support animal. Either way, it’ll do you good and you’ll feel good for it.
Electronics are awesome! Right?
Home computers became available in the early to mid-80’s, but didn’t gain major popularity until about 1990. Home computers were mainly for word processing and games until the advent of the world wide web. Originally unleashed in 1989, the www was developed chiefly to facilitate the exchange of information among professionals on medical and scientific studies, technical blah blah blah and protocols for building nerdy thingamabobbers. All super tres importante stuff. It wasn’t long before the www came into its own, evolving to revolutionize life as
we knew it in the dawn of the 90’s. And it hasn’t stopped evolving, it literally grows exponentially every minute of every day, 24/7-365. The obvious potential of the www sparked a sort of resurgence of the electronic age. Suddenly everyone wanted, no, needed a computer at home….desktop at first, then laptop once they got them to weigh less than 20 pounds and cost less than $9k. For a little while, the laptop was the most portable window to the www, but then around the mid-2000’s the first smart phones hit the market, followed by the first iPad in 2010, and now we even have watches to wear the www around our wrists.
So roughly 30 years ago, our world changed, solidifying our entry into a realm where electronics rule. That means that people who are currently age 30 and under were raised in this electronic world. They had nearly limitless access to computers, video games, smart phones, iPads, on and on. When he was 13 years old, my son had an innate knowledge for all things electronic. If I didn’t know how to unlock this code or clear those cookies, I could hand the device to my kid and he would fix it with zero hesitation. I know I’m not the only one that’s experienced this slightly annoying/disturbing phenomena. The other day, my patient EmLea told me she hired her 15-year-old neighbor to hook up her new TV/DVR/Blu-Ray setup she had given herself for Christmas. He didn’t even look at a single word in any of the manuals. And to top that off, he knew what every button on the various remote controls meant and how to switch to the different components, etc. It took him way longer to teach EmLea that stuff than it took for him to unpack and set the TV and all the components up. Our children of the “www era” entertained themselves with computers, games, text messaging, emails, computer card games, social media like Instagram and Facebook, then YouTube and WhatsApp, on and on. They grew up on electronics and have zero fear that they might break something or permanently damage it if they pressed the wrong button the way that many of us “old folks” do. I can’t talk about the advent of the www and social media without mentioning dating apps. Talk about limitless! There are dating sites for every sexual proclivity, hookup sites like Tinder and Grindr, and social sites of all sorts. People spend unbelievable amounts of time on dating apps. They tell me about it and it blows me away. And kids have access to these sites, because parents don’t bother to block them. Then again, maybe they don’t know how to or even know it’s possible to do so. The kids have the upper hand here- they’re far more savvy than their parents, so they get quite the education from those dating and social sites, believe me.
Speaking of education, the www really allowed people to start educating themselves independently. For someone of my, ahem, maturity level, it was incredible! I mean, when I was in college and I needed to research a topic for a paper, I went to something called a library, where there were infinite rows of shelves with books of all sorts. Technology of the day was microfiche! I can practically hear the millennials asking google or Alexa what that is at this moment. A little help: it’s pronounced micro-feesh. And once I gathered all the information I needed, I had to type my papers. Not type on a computer and print, but type on a typewriter or maybe a word processor, which back then didn’t refer to software- a word processor then was basically a high tech typewriter. Again the millennials are like, “huh?” I have to compare that to my son’s situation again- during his high school years, he was required to use a laptop in all of his classes. Every kid was, and everything had to be done on the school’s network- every project and assignment. A far cry from my day.
But I have to say, the information available and the ease and speed of access on the www was and is almost incomprehensible. Unless it’s novel, something that a PhD candidate has studied for two years can be learned in very short order, minutes even. The www also allowed us to start finding old friends and then making new ones. It allows us to live in an alternate reality of our own creation, a place where we tune in and get likes and collect friends and build reputations and online brands. And if we come across something we don’t like, we just go someplace else, another screen, another site. Just consider this: a boy, born in 1990, growing up, all he knew was to come home from school, play videogames, hit up social media, surf the internet, kill some brain cells on YouTube, watch Netflix, shop Amazon Prime, install different apps, upload videos… why go out? Why interact with actual people when you can watch them? Same diff, right?
Today, the socialization, the entertainment, and the information all come to you. Everything is immediate gratification. Everything is online. There is no frustration. The minute you don’t like something, you move, you uninstall, you block, you end notifications, you unfollow, you flip an electronic switch and whatever you don’t like goes away. So naturally, what happens is that you only follow what you like. That’s human nature. The world is your oyster. You create a world where online, everything is just what you like. You never have to deal with people, people who have different opinions, people who you don’t like, people who have negative things to say. You create your own world…the world according to you. That’s all you see. Everything else fades to black, ceases to exist.
It sounds great, right? You have this world where all the information you could ever need is at your fingertips. You can talk to anyone you want in the whole wide world. You can buy anything that’s for sale…and even some things that aren’t. You can collect friends that are of like mind.You can get dates when you want to. When you think about it, it’s awesome, in the strictest definition of the word, deserving of awe. The www is arguably mankind’s greatest feat to date, maybe even greater than the dawn of civilization. It’s changed us in many ways, and for the better. Huge advances in medicine, technology, science, you name it are owed to the www and what it facilitates. It has brought people together and allowed the exchange of ideas and information to and from everywhere on the planet, and it has advanced our society.
What could ever be wrong with this? It sounds great, right? Well, as with many things, if you scratch the surface, if you look harder, go deeper, there are problems created by the www, human problems. First, it’s not real. The electronic world on the www is not reality. I’m sure some of you are like ‘duh Dr. Agresti’ but I see people in my office every day who forget that. Sane people for whom the line between real reality and the electronic world they created has blurred. When you talk to someone online, you’re not talking to someone who is sitting in front of you. It is not a human interaction- it is an electronic one, a string of 1’s and 0’s. You can’t trust it. For all you know, it could be a bot or some form of artificial intelligence. This will be the issue of the not-distant future. As it is, we humans have to prove our human condition to a computer so it will allow us to log on to secure sites these days, typing in those crazy sideways upside down wierd scrawled letter/number codes. So who’s controlling who?
Depending on the communication medium, there is some element of reality in that it could be another person, but you don’t know who that person really is. Catfishing runs rampant online, a 22-year-old woman is often an 80-year-old man. Without meeting in person, you can’t know who you’re “talking” to, so you can’t trust. And if you can’t trust, you have to have walls up, and you can’t have a true connection through those walls. On social media you can have a thousand friends, but when life goes sideways, when you need someone, you’ll likely find there’s no one you can really talk to. And meeting real people in real life during a lifetime mostly spent in an electronic world and zoning out to your own alternate reality can be problematic. You lack the social skills, you lack the speech skills, you lack the emotional skills, and you lack the ability to tolerate frustration because these aren’t necessary in the electronic world. When you do manage to meet new people, you lack the social creativity to know how to interact, how to hold your body, how to use voice inflection, and how to read body language- these skills are missing. And in the real world, as you come across random people, you are bound to find opinions that differ from yours. This will cause anxiety, frustration, and even anger, because all of a sudden, you can’t log off, uninstall, block or unfriend…it’s in your face and you have to deal with it. I call this the “frustration phenomenon,” and this occurs frequently and consistently when people who choose to live in an electronic world of their own creation are forced to dip their toes in the deep end of the real world.
Because I mostly treat people under age 30, when I’m out and about, I find that I pay attention to what people of this age group are up to. When I notice something interesting, sometimes I’ll even approach them, introduce myself, and ask them about it. I was recently at lunch with some of my office staff and we were chatting about this and that. Next to us was a table of four mid-twenty-somethings. Even though they were less than five feet away for the best part of an hour, I couldn’t have picked a single one of them out of a lineup. Why? Because their faces were all buried in their phones. The table was silent, save for the light clickity click sound of typing. Aside from placing their orders, they didn’t speak at all. I had to know more. With my staff rolling their eyes, I cleared my throat, introduced myself as a psychiatrist and asked them why they didn’t speak to each other. They all kind of looked at each other and back at me and gingerly set their phones down, as if asked to do so by a parent. Obligatory. Some mumblings of ‘I don’t know’s’ and shrugged shoulders followed. One brave one said they just always took lunchtime to catch up on social and check comments and see what friends were up to. I went around the table and asked each how long they spent doing anything online in a given 24 hour period. Their answers shocked me: 14, 13, 11 and 12. But even more on weekends. They laughed when I commented about it being a full time job. But I wasn’t kidding.
Another offshoot of the frustration phenomenon occurs in these age-30-and-unders. Because they surround themselves only with music, things, and opinions they like, they have little to no tolerance for anything else. I call it the “other annoyance.” I noticed this while talking to a patient named Stu. He always wore earbuds, even in appointments. When I asked him about it, he said that he had to have them because when he had to be out in public, his music helped him drown everything out. He said he found other music, other people and their voices, and even random everyday noise to be annoying, so he avoided it all whenever possible. Stu was so immersed in a virtual world he created and filled only with things he liked that he had no tolerance for anything outside of that. Anything ‘other than’ was annoyance, and I presume that my presence and voice was included. Another issue with the generation raised on an electronics diet is that they never learned how to entertain themselves. Every time that there’s nothing to do, whenever boredom rears its head, they look to the electronic devices to entertain rather than trying a new activity or trying to meet new people. So social skills suffer further, and the disconnect from the real world becomes wider. There is detachment from the real world. Everything is the same in the electronic world, no matter where in the world you might be. The scenery remains unchanged.
Because this is a new problem, we have to learn to view and solve it in a novel way. As I see it so often, I have some suggestions for parents. When raising a child, the majority of their day must be totally electronic device free. This time should be spent interacting and talking with parents, siblings, and friends. Some time should also be spent doing something independently but device free- coloring, reading, playing with pets, etc. There must be strict limits on how much time is spent on electronics, whether that’s TV, iPad, phone, or games. We’re now realizing the true impact of electronics and how critical this issue is during a child’s developmental years. I’m convinced that the human brain will not develop appropriately if we don’t have significant ‘off time.’ And I’m concerned that we humans are beginning to evolve around electronics rather than the other way around. Even adults must have large blocks of time off electronics. Addiction is a real problem. This is illustrated by the fact that we now even have detox protocols and treatment centers for electronic addiction.
Don’t quote me on it, but I think we’re headed towards a society where we actually have electronic implants in our brain. Think about it. They could put an electronic device in your brain, some circuitry or device where you could access the www by utilizing the chip in your brain. I think it’s coming. And I think there will come a day in the future where we may have to wonder if we’re dealing with or “talking” to a robotic device or a real person. Ultimately, I think we’ll use the power and the resources of the electronic world to our best advantage, but we just can’t be caught off guard. Through the wonder of the www, the electronic world has evolved so quickly and has become such a dominant part of our lives, but now we’re learning that we need to exercise some restraint with it. The moral of the story? We can’t be dependent on the electronic world if we also want to control it.Learn More
Your Brain on the Holidays
Your brain is always busy, but it feels busier during the holidays, and rightly so. There’s a lot for it to think about during the holiday season: what to buy, for whom, and how much to spend, how to make time to visit family as well as friends, how to dodge certain co-workers at the office Christmas party, and hopefully how to squeeze in holiday naps in between eating some good home cooking. Because holiday time tends to pile on the stress, researchers are fascinated with the subject of what is happening in our brains while we’re trading time wrapping presents and plastering on a smile to spread genuine holiday cheer.
Researchers believe that not only does the brain actually change over the holidays, but that they even know what culprit is: nostalgia. Essentially, nostalgia is that bittersweet feeling of love for what is gone, and the longing we feel to return to the past. The holidays lead to a special feeling of nostalgia that is unlike any other. Reminiscing with family, watching old holiday movies, eating favorite dishes, smelling the familiar smell of your grandparent’s house, and maybe even sleeping in your childhood bed….the holidays are a heady mix that induce nostalgia on steroids. But even more than this, therapists actually say that we should basically “expect to regress” during the holiday season. Who doesn’t want to be a kid again, to look forward to going home for the holidays? While “home” means different things to different people, I think even Ebenezer Scrooge can relate to the notion that when we celebrate the holidays with loved ones, something in us changes; it feels different. There is a child-like nostalgia, a forward-looking feeling of anticipation. Research suggests that’s because there are some serious changes in our brains during the holidays. Here are some examples of things that you might experience as a result of nostalgia:
1. You Want to Eat All of the Food
That’s pretty much what happens when you’re back in your mom’s or grandma’s kitchen, eating a meal with your siblings, is it not? You’re not just eating a meal, you’re living a memory, so you want it all! Eating a lot during the holidays is totally a real thing, and science says it’s largely because aromas trigger vivid memories, just like the smell of your grandparent’s house takes you right back to being seven years old. And socially, the same thing happens. Just because you and your siblings or cousins are grown-ups doesn’t mean you’ll act that way. Remember, if you’re regressing over the holidays, so are they. But just remember to be an adult and use your manners around the dinner table.
2. You Want to Drink All the Alcohol
There are many reasons that people drink more during the holidays. Studies have shown that the average American sees a 100% increase in their alcoholic drinking habits between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Along with the holly jolly holidays comes an increase in social functions, holiday parties and dinners out, which inevitably leads to more alcohol consumption for most adults. Many of us look forward to celebrations during the holidays, but it’s amatuer hour when it comes to drinking… a time when some people who don’t normally drink actually drink far beyond their limits. Some of these people will suffer adverse consequences that range from fights and falls to traffic crashes and deaths. Sadly, people often put themselves and others at great risk just for an evening of celebratory drinking. So please, get a clue and get an uber. There is no reason to drive after drinking…remember: more than two means an uber for you!
3. You Want to Buy All of the Things
Holiday shopping, for most of us, feels pretty miserable. The music is loud, the mall is crowded, and you’re half way to the checkout before you realize you don’t actually know your uncle’s shirt size and you didn’t double check if your office Secret Santa recipient has any allergies. What’s worse? Apparently, shopping during the holiday season changes our brain, and even the most self-controlled shoppers can fall victim to marketing masters. That cheerful holiday music? Those festive colors? Those free samples around every corner? The bright cheery lights? Marketing. Allllll marketing. And, all pretty much intended to get you to relax, have a good time…and loosen that hold on your wallet and kiss that money goodbye. And not even any misteltoe!
4. Maybe You Don’t Want to Get Out of Bed
Not everyone enjoys the holidays. For some people, it can trigger serious battles with mental health, depression and anxiety. Between 4 and 20 percent of people experience a form of Seasonal Affective Disorder, otherwise known as SAD, which is a depression that generally sets in during early winter and fades by spring or early summer. Even people who are not diagnosed specifically with SAD may still experience depression and anxiety over the holidays. Why? Well, we postulate that people’s desire for perfection can become crippling during holiday time. People see more of each other and have more than the usual amount of time to compare themselves to others during the holiday season, in terms of what they can or cannot afford to spend on gifts or where they may travel for vacation. People often try to do too much and end up over-extending themselves.
The holidays are meaningful to people for many different reasons. For some it is a religious holiday, for others a time to spend with family and friends, and even a time of sadness and loneliness for some. Whatever the holidays mean to you, you really need to make it a point to take good care of yourself during this busy season…it’s the best gift you can give yourself.Learn More
Well, it’s another Saturday. My avid blog readers might know what that means…I’m at the carwash again for my Inside-Out Wash and Hand Wax. And yes, I know I’m pretty particular about the state of my car, thank you very much, but in my professional opinion there’s no pathology there whatsoever. Anyway, I’m stuck for a minimum two hour sentence at this joint. It’s always the longest two hours of my life, and if I don’t find something to occupy my mind I might just lose it. I usuallly sit inside for the A/C, but the weather was beautiful, so I sat outside on what barely passed as a patio: two of those round concrete table jobbies with the rough curved benches encircling them, surrounded by tall but sparse hedges on three sides. I wasn’t the only one with the bright idea to sit outside- Floridians get very excited in November when the temperature dips below 75 for a second and the cooler breezes make it onshore- we flock to outdoor spaces like Aztecs worshipping the sun. I spied a concrete bench that was empty and sat down with my coffee from my fave place on US-1. There was a dude at my table on the bench across from me, and he didn’t so much as acknowledge my presence when I sat, so engrossed in his phone was he. Fine by me. As I surveyed my company, what struck me was that there were literally zero words being exchanged among the other waiters, even those that were clearly there together. It was like a freaking monestary- if the monestary was right next to a carwash with its particular “music” of Inside-Out Washes and Hand Waxes in the background. I don’t know why I still find the lack of communication, especially in the very most basic sense, to be so alarming, almost disturbing even. I know I’ve gotten into this in so many different blogs and videos, and of course in my book, but it seems like no one talks to anyone anymore. People talk more to Alexa and Siri these days than other people. Anyway, what were my fellow waiters doing while they weren’t talking? They were of course on their phones, just like everyone always is, always on freaking cell phones. I wasn’t the least bit shocked to see what looked like a ten-year-old girl buried in a phone. These days, young kids, I’m talking like age three and up, have phones to play games on, because moms can’t bear to give up their phones to allow the kids to play on them, and if the kids don’t have phones to play on, they’ll drive their moms crazy and make it impossible for the moms to be on their phones. So the obvious solution, nay, the only solution, is to get your four-year-old a phone. I wonder what Dr. Spock or Mr. Rogers or Bert and Ernie would say about the Romper Room set having phones, or even worse, needing phones.
Anyway, as I sat on the hard and scratchy concrete bench on the “patio” surrounded by the sparse hedges, a woman entered the scene. She walked up and asked if anyone was sitting next to me, to which I said no. The way these benches are curved and situated, it makes it a little awkward to sit at one with a stranger, but she smiled and took a seat next to me. She looked about 40 or so, medium height and weight, with jet black hair. I guessed she had more than a little Latin blood in her. She was not dressed Saturday casual like the rest of us waiters: she wore a nice black skirt suit with a bright pink blouse, and I assumed she was on her way to work. At where or doing what I had no clue, but realtor was at the top of my guess list. I noticed she wore no wedding ring, though that doesn’t really mean anything these days. She looked like a woman of means, and she was fairly attractive, but something was off. She looked kind of shocked for lack of a better term, like psyche shocked, and she nearly visibly vibrated, like she was plugged into a light socket. She was clearly very unsettled by something, or maybe several somethings, and it or they were simmering just below the surface. I could see she was accustomed to the valiant effort to keep them there, but they were clear as the day to me. Your average person on the street wouldn’t see any of this in her, but I’ve made my living watching and listening to people as they lay bare their pain and fear, and this woman had plenty of both.
She said her name was Pilar, and that and her slight accent confirmed my previous guess that she was of Latin descent. I knew damn well that something was wrong with Pilar, something that I might be of help with, but also that I might not. My mental machinations continued. She could be in denial, and she could be offended if I offered an opinion. I mean, how many people want to be analyzed by a shrink they just met while waiting at the carwash? I decided that I would not open Pandora’s box. Not going there. I’m just going to sit here in the sun and be polite, but be surface. Mind my own business. Polite, surface. After a moment sitting at the little concrete table, she asked me how long the carwash takes. I dutifully explained that the Inside-Out Wash and Hand Wax took a bare minimum of two hours, especially on a Saturday morning, but that it was well worth the wait. At this, she blew her bangs out on a long resigned sigh. Then motioning to my cup, she asked where she could get good coffee. I gave her directions to my fave spot, which was just up the street on US-1 and told her to ask for “Bailey the Barista, the best barista in the Easta” I had given this name to a barista named Bailey at my fave place because she really is the best barista ever in the vast history of baristas. (ADD side note: what the hell did we call the people who made our coffee prior to the advent of Starbucks?) Pilar laughed and said she’d be back; right after she left, even the guy across from me stood up and said that with my glowing recommendation, he just had to go for a cup as well. How to win friends and influence people…with coffee…who knew, I mused. Maybe the next book? I filed that under ‘Later’ in the grey matter.
I took Pilar’s absence as an opportunity to remind myself not to get involved, to not play the curious shrink role. No matter how bored to tears, how desperately in need of a distraction I became, I would be strong. I would not go there. Be polite, be surface. You may be wondering why I don’t just announce my profession and delve into stuff with people at every opportunity. First, that would mean I’d have to be ‘on’ and wearing my Dr. hat a lot when I’m at social events and such, when I’d really prefer to be chill. But it goes beyond that. Here’s the thing. Unless someone asks me straight up what I do, I don’t usually tell random people I’m a psychiatrist, because invariably I end up spending a lot of time listening to a story about someone’s Aunt Edna from Des Moines who has 53 cats and hasn’t left her home in 12 years because she’s purposely hoarded it with old newspapers, jars full of pee, and her old fossilized poopy diapers, all as an excuse to never leave, and do I think that maybe she’s depressed and can I give her a prescription for Prozac? There’s a lot of that kind of thing. Another issue that can happen is someone tells me their story, and in my opinion they may actually need help, but when I tell them they should seek that help, they get all pissed off at me. Plus, when I talk to people when I’m out and about, they don’t know that they should have no expectation of privacy because they aren’t patients and we aren’t in my office, and they may tell me some deeply private things, and it just gets messy for me that way. So, for those reasons, and a lot more, I don’t generally just announce that I’m a psychiatrist. But there is a flip side. It’s no secret that I hate to do nothing. I hate waiting for my car to have its Inside-Out Wash and Hand Wax because I have nothing to do while I wait. And remember: I hate doing nothing. So sometimes, like during my interminable wait for my car, when I’m bored out of my skull and climbing the walls, I might be less averse to telling people I’m a psychiatrist, because 100% of the time, it starts what might be an interesting conversation, one that might help pass the time until my car is ready. All I have to do is introduce myself and my profession, “Hi, I’m Dr. Mark Agresti, I’m a psychiatrist. What’s up?” and we’re off to the races. People spill their guts. Other times, I don’t use my last name or announce my profession, but I still engage in the conversation. So it’s kind of like the little cartoon with the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other and do I dive in or mind my own business? It’s an internal tug-of-war I’m familiar with. Earlier, I had simply introduced myself to Pilar as Mark. In this case, I knew that Pilar was genuinely troubled, but if I told her that I was a psychiatrist, I wasn’t sure how she would take it; she seemed fragile to me. All the more reason for me to be polite but be surface. But on that flip side, I did have time to kill, and Pilar seemed very nice, and maybe I could help her just as another human rather than as a physician. So much for polite and surface. Maybe she wouldn’t even want to open up to me. But maybe she would. I had the feeling it could get deep on this carwash patio. Guess I’d find out.
With time to kill, I decided to be like everyone else and get on my phone to check my Facebook, or Fakebook as I like to call it. They recently refused to boost one of my posted blogs. Interestingly, it was called “Carwash Psychiatrist” and was all about a different Saturday morning conversation with a steroid-raging mountain-sized man. Fakebook refused to boost it citing inappropriate content. I call total bs on that. I thought it was really informative and interesting, if I do say so myself. It’s on my website if anybody wants to read it and decide for themselves. I re-read it again as I sat there, and still I didn’t think it was inappropriate. I wished I could figure a way to get around Fakebook to boost it. As I considered that, Pilar returned and sat down next to me with her cup of coffee. Her expression was more open than it had been. I think she was more comfortable with me because now we had this coffee connection. Somehow, sitting next to each other drinking coffee together set a mood to talk, a vibe like we were old friends catching up. Glancing at my watch, I saw that I still had an hour until my car would be ready. More than enough time for a conversation, if one arose. I had given up the mental jujitsu match and decided to be polite and open. I could feel Pilar’s dis-ease, referring to her uneasiness, not illness, though she always kept it hidden…or tried to. She looked at her watch and sort of tisked the time, saying that she hoped her car would be done soon because she had to get to work. When I asked her what she did and if she usually worked weekends, she said that she designed and sold high end kitchen cabinetry, and that no, she didn’t normally work weekends, but she was behind because she’d missed a lot of days recently because she’d been sick. This was it. This was the turning point. I could be in or out. Polite and surface or open. I know something’s going on with her, maybe there’s something I can do to help her, so I go there, unable to resist the psychiatrist in me, but at this point still unwilling to tell her there was one. So I went there, I asked her the obvious question that her answer had begged: what was wrong?
She answered, “I thought I was dying.” Okay, I’m looking directly at this woman, and while she looks troubled, she is definitely not dying. I’ve seen dying. I know dying. I decided to take the light-side approach and gave a little non-committal laugh as I said she’d have to narrow that down with some details. She began, “A month ago, I had to go to the emergency room.” I expressed surprise and asked what happened to land her in the ER. She replied, “I woke up one morning and I had this tightness in my chest. I couldn’t breathe, and my heart was racing. I was sweating buckets, and I was so uneasy, like something awful was happening. I thought for sure I was having a heart attack. I had this sensation of pins and needles in my fingers. I didn’t know if I was losing my mind or really actually dying, because I felt like I didn’t know who I was or where I was…I felt like it wasn’t real. Crazy, right?” Before she had even finished her second sentence, I knew that Pilar was describing anxiety, maybe a panic attack, so I said, “Let me take a wild guess, when you went to the ER, they took your vitals, started an IV, drew blood for labs, did a chest x-ray and an EKG and when the results came in, they told you everything was normal, that you just had anxiety.” Surprised, she said yes. When I asked if she’d had other similar episodes, she said, “You know, I have been getting these attacks in the middle of the night when I’m sleeping. When it happens, I wake up and I’m sweating, I can’t breathe, my heart’s hammering, and I feel like I’m honestly losing my mind, because I can’t calm down. I really feel like I’m dying, like I’m having a heart attack, and I’m sure I’m going to die.” When she followed up with her family doctor, he repeated the same tests that the emergency room doctor did and came up with the same conclusion of anxiety, so he gave her 2mg Xanax and told her to break them in half and take a half twice a day. She said it helped a lot, but that she had been living on them for the past 3 weeks, and she was very worried about becoming addicted, because she had read that they are very addictive. She was definitely right on that count. Xanax is very effective at treating anxiety and panic disorders, but it’s a dual edged sword at best and not good as a long term solution. Then she told me that about two weeks ago, she had another attack, and she wanted to try to avoid going to the ER if possible, but she wanted to be close in case she needed them. So she decided to drive to the ER but not go in. She parked and sat in the lot for about 90 minutes, waiting for the attack to subside, but she didn’t go in. She did that same thing twice. Then, she said that she had plans to go out with her friends about a week ago, and she had an attack in her house. She was just about to get in her car to meet them, and she had an another attack. She said that this one was the same deal: shortness of breath, sweating like crazy, feeling like she isn’t real, like she is losing her mind, like she’s having a heart attack and that she’s going to die. It seemed that this had been going on for about a month. Then she said that she was living in a constant state of fear, always scared that she was going to have an attack. And that was why she was working this weekend, because she had called out of work so many times in the past 4 weeks that she was really behind on some projects. I asked her how things stood now, and she said she had stopped all social engagements. She was pretty much confined to her house, only leaving for necessities like going to her office, grocery store, and gas station. It seemed like that was pretty much it, and she needed a Xanax just to do those few things. She was living in constant fear of having the attacks, but now that fear had expanded; now she had fear of getting in her car, fear of driving, fear of being out in public, and even fear of meeting up with her friends. She’s pretty much stuck in her home, only leaving if she absolutely must. So a month into her anxiety and panic attacks, that’s where she stood. It wasn’t good. She’d have to get help to get it under control.
Keep in mind, Pilar doesn’t know what I do, but I kind of needed to push the envelope a little. I asked what her family practice doc’s diagnosis was, and she said he had told her that it was just plain old anxiety. That didn’t jive for me; this wasn’t garden variety anxiety. When I told her that I didn’t think it was just anxiety, she kind of freaked out, eyes wide, asking if she could die from it, if she would be like this for the rest of her life, and if there was a cure for it. And only then did she finally think to ask what it was. I told her with a smile, “I think you’re going to live. I’m pretty sure you have something called panic disorder. I’ve read about it. You should see a psychiatrist, because there are ways to treat it without using addictive drugs like Xanax.” She looked relieved as she asked what panic disorder was. I explained that it’s not a physical illness, it’s a psychiatric illness with attacks exactly like she was describing, and that Xanax works, but that there were other medications for it, and that’s why she should see a psychiatrist. When she asked how I knew about all this, I told her that I had read up on it a lot because I had a sister who was diagnosed with panic disorder. I went on to say that her doctor gave her Zoloft, and that seemed to work really well for her. After two weeks on it, her attacks had basically stopped, and it wasn’t addicting at all like Xanax. When she asked if I knew what caused the attacks, I told her that I’d read that the panic attacks were the result of a false alarm going off in the brain, a suffocation alarm. You think you’re suffocating, you think you’re about to die, but you’re really not. She said she never imagined that something in her brain could cause her to feel like she was really dying, but that she was glad that it was treatable. I told her that when she got on the right medicine, the attacks should go away, just like they had for my sister. She thanked me profusely and assured me that she would see a psychiatrist. Then she lifted her coffee cup, took a big sip, and said she was so relieved. I told her that by the way, caffeine wasn’t the best idea, that my sister had to give it up because it encouraged more attacks. She said she understood, but that between waking up with attacks and taking the Xanax, she was exhausted and needed the boost, but that she would make the effort to stop the caffeine. I reiterated that she should get off the Xanax asap, that it was just a very temporary fix, and she smiled and gave me a funny salute and an “Aye aye, Captain!”
We continued to talk, and she said that she was glad she had sat down next to me. I kind of felt badly about my little white lies, not telling Pilar that I was a psychiatrist while telling her that I knew about anxiety and panic disorder because I’d read up on it when my sister had been diagnosed with it. The next thing I knew, I heard two last names called, mine being one. The other actually turned out to be Pilar’s. We stood up simultaneously, laughed, and then shook hands as she thanked me again. I told her no problem and to be well. And that’s how it was left. As I got into my freshly Inside-Out Washed and Hand Waxed car, I assuaged the bit of guilt I felt by reminding myself that there is risk in telling people you’re a psychiatrist these days. I didn’t tell Pilar. Maybe I should have, I don’t know. I think I helped her despite holding back the truth, and I felt good about that. I was sure that she would see a psychiatrist and make the effort to stop the Xanax. How weird would it be if she actually came to me, to my office to see me? It could happen. If it did, she might be angry. I’d have to cross that bridge when and if I came to it.
Pilar’s panic disorder is not at all uncommon, unfortunately. By some estimates, approximately two million adults in the United States suffer with panic disorder each year. There are two types of panic disorder: with agoraphobic features and without. Agoraphobia is defined as an extreme or irrational fear of entering open or crowded places, of leaving one’s own home, or of being in places from which escape is difficult. Most people with panic disorder start off without agoraphobia, but if the condition persists without adequate treatment, it can progress to include agoraphobia, where people find it almost impossible to leave their homes. It can be very debilitating, but it doesn’t have to be. Emma Stone, Amanda Seyfried, Sarah Silverman, Oprah Winfrey, John Mayer, Kristen Bell, and Caitlyn Jenner… What do these people have in common? They’re just a few of the many notable people that have panic disorder. That just goes to show that having a psychiatric illness like panic disorder isn’t the end of the world, and it doesn’t have to hold you back. You just need to make the choice to seek appropriate treatment if you suspect that you have it or have been told that you have it. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring it with the hope that it’ll just go away, because it won’t…it’ll only progress.
For more “psych stories,” check out my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com.Learn More
Why are people going crazy?
Why do I ask? Well, sadly, because these days, some people like to pick up a weapon or cache of weapons and commit mass murder. The images of the aftermath on CNN have become all too familiar. If you asked the average person on the street to use one word to describe the type of person that commits these mass murders, what word would the majority use? Crazy. Or a smile thereof, like insane or nuts. So, let’s take a look at what the word ‘crazy’ means. The accepted definition is ‘Mentally deranged, especially in a wild or aggressive way.’ It is not a technical term. As a psychiatrist for more than half of my life, I have never diagnosed a single person as crazy. Crazy is not a term for mental illness. Mental illnesses are things like psychosis, bipolar, depression, obsessive compulsive disorders, panic disorders, anxiety disorders and personality disorders, to name a few. These are the illnesses I know and deal with on the daily; they do not generally create an individual who wants to go out and fire upon a random group of people with no intent but to maim and kill. Because doing that, randomly wiping people from the face of the earth, is not in and of itself mental illness. No. Killing a group of people is crazy. So, what is it about our society that creates members that go crazy?
First, let’s specify who I mean when I say “members of our society.” I have researched this topic, looked at every mass shooting/ killing in the United States, and I’ve come up with some commonalities here. Basically, the shooters are male, they are white, and they are young, under 35 years of age. Oh, and they are absolutely, unequivocally, totally crazy/ insane/ nuts/ cuckoo/ Looney Tunes/ whacko; you get the idea. What else? They spend a lot of time on the internet, typically a minimum of 4 hours a day. Some are on the internet constantly, either playing video games, watching videos or surfing chat rooms, literally every waking moment. A mind boggling 28% of the under 35 crowd spend every waking moment on the internet, and another 45% are on and off it maybe 4 to 5 hours a day. What does that mean? Keep in mind, being on the internet is not like watching TV or watching Netflix…with TV and movies, there are producers and directors that, to some extent, have decided what content will be shown in the program or movie. On the internet, content cannot be controlled in the same way. A fairly simple search can take you to very specific, very isolated sites that talk about anger, white resentment, white nationalism, and hate groups of every kind. On these sites, you find others of like mind, who agree with you on these distorted views, and as a result, there is a phenomenon of mutual brainwashing. Imagine for a minimum of 16 hours a day, being constantly bombarded by hate, negative thoughts, resentment and feelings of oppression. You fall into groups that encourage the need to lash out, groups where you seek out a singular message and you get back a singular message. The more you seek it out, the more it comes to you, the more you read about it, the more you think about it. The more you talk to people about it, the more people who want to talk to you about it. It just snowballs as it brainwashes, and people become obsessional about hate and killing, perverse topics of all sorts. These negative messages are constantly being broadcast on the internet, and the more someone does, the more they want to do. So, excessive time on the internet, seeking out hate and perversity, that’s the first factor associated with these young white men who go crazy and shoot people.
Another factor is that these people are constantly getting messages from the media: television, radio, blogs, podcasts, talk shows, that white men are responsible for many of society’s problems. They are responsible for all sorts of racism, oppression, slavery, income inequality, starvation in the third world, climate change… young white men are responsible for everything that is wrong in our society. That is the current message broadcast from the media; the cause, if you will. The effect? Well, the creation of some really pissed off, young white guys that feel like you keep putting them down, keep stepping on them, keep telling them that they’re bad. You rarely hear a good message about white men. It is generally stereotypically negative, negative, negative. If you were to do that in any other group, it would be called racism; but if it’s focused on the white privileged, it passes. Their feelings of oppression have abnormal repercussions, and I think that’s why we get white men lashing out in crazy bizarre ways. So these repercussions from negative messages and perceptions are the second factor associated with these young white men who go crazy and shoot people.
A third factor contributing to the mass shooting phenomenon is the availability of guns, drugs and alcohol. So these guys have the means to kill in all manner of ways, and they are impaired by drugs and alcohol. Gun ownership is up. And have you seen some of the guns that people are legally allowed to own? AK’s, 50 cals, grenade launchers…the type of firepower legally possessable is mind blowing. These weapons are made to kill people, plain and simple. And of course, drug use is also up. Last I checked, there are 30 million Americans abusing drugs, and most are not in the work force. The availability of guns and prolific drug use make up the third factor associated with why these young white men go crazy and shoot people.
Another factor is that these people spend an inordinate amount of time alone. Most do not have jobs and are loners for various reasons, so there are no checks and balances for them, they are not expected to be anywhere. Also, there is no one to positively influence them, to tell them do this, do not do that, that is not appropriate, etc. They are alone. They are alone with nothing but negative thoughts, on the internet all the time, satisfying perverse needs, being brainwashed, and getting negative messages about white men. Combine that with the availability of drugs and alcohol and weapons, and you have a fire just waiting for a match. These make up the fourth factor associated with why these young white men go crazy and shoot people.
While those are four factors that these young white men are doing that contribute to the mass shooting phenomenon, there are some things that they are not doing that also contributes to it. They are not making friends, entering relationships or having sex, which would probably tone things down. Also, they are not involved in religious organizations, which would teach ideas of forgiveness, the sanctity of life, to be good to your fellow man, and how to help others. Religion would offer a positive group consciousness. There is not that religious component to our lives like there used to be, or to the extent it used to be. The lack of the positive motivator that religion brings plays a role in the mass shooting phenomenon. Another thing they are not doing is participating in team sports. Why do parents put kids in pee wee football, soccer, or softball? Team sports are where we teach moralities, sportsmanship, working as a team, caring for others, and helping others. As we grow up, team sports reinforce these ideals. Because these guys don’t participate in these things, they are not learning group behavior, team building behavior. What’s more, they are not feeling part of a community. What they have is the internet and its vague, nebulous, untethered existence. They may play video games with people all over the globe, but there is no sense of community and no checks and balances that community brings. No care of presence or absence. On a more national level, there is less sense of true patriotism. We are not one people. To these young white men, patriotism is twisted at best, and it feels to them like they are not part of America anymore. They are marginalized and spout anti-patriotism. Even at the school level, they are ‘apart from’, they have no school pride, no sense of belonging to a group. Their lives are just a random series of interactions with electronic entities that they do not even know. They don’t know who or what these people really are that they may find on the internet, that they may blindly follow. They have no relationships to positive groups or organizations that help stabilize people and steer them to do appropriate things. These things are not happening. This is what I call the collective consciousness of our society. It has broken down, fragmented, partially by us. So now the common good or the common morality has alluded us. It has been diluted, been made to be a smaller component in our lives. Instead we are fed a diet of negativity. So some people are not being socialized by positive groups. Instead they go to the internet, video and social media. There they find material that appeals to their deepest, darkest negative thoughts; places where those thoughts are promoted and nurtured. I think that these are the reasons why people go crazy, the factors that contribute to the making of mass murderers. I get more into true mental illness in my book, Tales from the Couch, by Dr. Mark Agresti, available on Amazon.com. Please check it out.Learn More
Through the years I’ve had lots of patients ask me how to interact with people and how to be social, the mechanics of it, so I want to give some rules of the road, social skills 101 if you will. First, let’s talk about why social skills are important. Social skills are the foundation for positive relationships with other people: friends, partners, co-workers, bosses, neighbors, on and on. Social skills allow you to connect with other people on a level that is important in life, a level that allows you to have more in-depth relationships with others rather than meaningless surface relationships that have no benefit to anyone. Once you understand the value of having good social skills, you need to want them for yourself and commit to working on them, because that may mean doing new things that may be uncomfortable at first. So, how would you start to improve social skills? Well, socialization is an interaction, so you need at least one other person to socialize with. So the first step is to put yourself among other people. Basically, you have to suit up and show up to socialize. You might feel wierd or shy at first, but don’t let anxiety stop you. If you’re not around other people to socialize with, you’re obviously not going to improve your social skills. So take a breath and dive in.
Step number two, put down the electronics. If you’ve put yourself in a social situation, you may be tempted to fiddle with your phone to avoid the awkwardness of just standing there, but when you’re around people, turn the phone off. You shouldn’t be disrupted, you can’t be distracted, and you can’t be checking email, messages, notifications, etc. Those things will get you to exactly nowhere. When you’re distracted, you won’t pay proper attention to the social setting you’re in, and since that’s kind of the whole point, put it away and keep it there.
So you’re in a room with plenty of folks to socialize with, your phone is tucked away, so what’s next? Well, if you want to interact with people, socialize with people, you have to look like it. You can’t put yourself in a corner with your arms crossed and a disinterested look on your face. Step three is to demonstrate an open, friendly posture. You need to be inviting to others who may want to talk to you. Put on a friendly face – you’ll be surprised at how many people approach you when you look approachable.
As they say, the eyes are the entries to the mind. Step four is to always maintain good eye contact. This is hugely important when conversing, but fleeting eye contact also comes in handy when you’re just circulating in a room or looking for someone to strike up a conversation with. Eyes can entirely change a facial expression and easily convey mood and interest. Without eye contact, there is limited communication, and social skills are compromised without appropriate eye contact. Eye contact is so integral to communication that some people say they can tell if someone they’re talking to is being honest or lying by their eye contact, or the lack thereof.
To communicate well, you must pay attention to your equipment…your speech. So step five is remember your speech: the tone, the pitch, the volume, the tempo, the accent. Right or wrong, people will judge and label you by your voice. A man’s voice that’s too loud is a turnoff, he comes off as a blowhard. A woman’s voice that’s too soft is annoying because people have to try too hard to hear her, and people may say she’s a sexpot, a la Marilyn Monroe. If she speaks at too high a pitch, she’s a bimbo. To some, a southern accent means you’re dumb and a northern accent means you’re a hustler. Speaking too slowly or too fast is annoying, too monotone and you’ll put people to sleep. On the flip side, a singer or actor with perfect pitch or an especially unusual or dulcet tone can build a legacy based just on their voice, a voice that will be instantly recognized for all time. When it comes to the way you speak, be aware and make alterations to be distinct and easily understood. Remember voice inflection, because monotone is a tune-out and turnoff. Speech should be like a story, with highs and lows, ups and downs to hold people’s interest.
After reading step five above, you might think that developing good social skills hinges on everything you say, but that leaves out a key factor…listening. Step six on the path to developing good social skills is to be a good listener. Just listen. Eazy peazy lemon squeazy. Now, if you’ve ever in your entire life enjoyed speaking to someone who clearly wasn’t listening to anything you said, raise your hand. Any takers? Anyone? I thought not. It is annoying AF when it’s so obvious that someone’s not listening to you speak. And you don’t want to be annoying AF, do you? I thought not. Social skills aren’t just about what comes out of a person’s mouth, so listen.
A great way to deal with nerves that may accompany you when you put yourself in a social situation and talk to people is to find commonality, so this is step seven. When you first meet someone, a sense of commonality is a great way to establish a quick rapport with them. Commonality is something you share. It could be something as simple as going to the same school, a shared interest in sports, same places where you’ve lived or hobbies in common. Step seven is to find commonality with someone; something simple to break the ice and establish a conversation.
Once you’ve begun a conversation with someone and you want to further it, you need to go beyond just commonalities. You need to relate to the person on a deeper level. How do you do that? Through step eight, empathy. Empathy is the ability to relate to someone by putting yourself in their position in order to understand them better. If someone has a dying parent, has just lost their job, if someone is lonely, has ended a relationship, didn’t get a promotion, or experiences anything that elicits an emotional response, being empathetic is the ultimate understanding of their pain, their sorrow, or their disappointment. Step eight in improving social skills is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes in order to have genuine empathy for that person. A key word here is genuine. As a general rule, good social skills are genuine. Lip service is not part of good social skills.
Step nine is a pretty simple concept, though not so much in practice. Respect. In order to learn good social skills (and have anyone to practice them on) you must respect what other people say. I did not say agree. You can completely disagree with their opinion, but step nine is that you must respect their right to have it and include it in the conversation.
While in theory you have the right to say anything you want in your social circle, you should watch what you say. Step ten is to consider the content of your conversation. There are certain things that shouldn’t be brought up in some situations. As they say, religion and politics are big no no’s for sure. Gossiping is also on the no list, because it’s really toxic to a conversation and leaves people scratching their heads. If you’re talking about Mary to Connie, Connie’s bound to wonder what you say about her when you’re speaking to Shelly. So it’s best to just not talk about people. But I think it was First Lady Dolly Madison who said “If you don’t have anything nice to say, sit next to me” Some people do like gossip, the jucier the better. But you have to be prepared to pay the piper. A conversation can be like a minefield, with certain subjects as the mines. You have to navigate through the whole conversation without blowing yourself to smithereens.
In order to have appropriate social skills, you must consider the non-conversational parts of social interaction. If you’re so drunk that you can’t speak or no one can understand what you’re saying, obviously you can’t use good social skills. Same goes for drugs. If you take a Xanax to calm your nerves before the company mixer, you will not have appropriate social skills. You may not think people can tell, but you’d be wrong. Step eleven is about intoxicants like alcohol, marijuana, benzodiazepines, and Adderall… they all make you act weird and affect your social interactions, and people pick it up right away. They may not know what drug you’re on, but they’ll know you’re on something for sure, because your social interactions will be inappropriate. Rule eleven: you cannot interact appropriately when using drugs or alcohol, so cut both out if you want to have good social skills.
If you follow these steps, you’ll definitely learn better social skills. And a breath mint wouldn’t hurt. Like with anything else, practice makes perfect when it comes to social graces. Be positive, open, honest, empathetic, clear, respectful and sober, and you’ll never be at a loss for people to talk to. You’ll navigate the waters of conversation deftly with give and take, and all included will come out feeling positive about the interaction.Learn More
Time to Log Off?
Technology addiction, electronic addiction, digital addiction, social media addiction, internet addiction, mobile phone addiction…. No matter the name, the common thread in these addictions is that they’re all impulse control disorders that involve the obsessive use of mobile phones, internet, and/or video games, despite the negative consequences to the user of the technology. For simplicity, I’ll combine all of the above names together and refer to the phenomena as a digital addiction.
*** A new special called “Digital Addiction” will air on the A&E Network (Comcast HD ch 410 / SD ch 54) on Tuesday, September 17th at 9pm. There will be stories of people addicted to video games and social media and discussion on how people are trying to recover from digital addiction. It should be very interesting, so check it out.
Do you play video games in excess? Are you compulsively shopping or gambling online? Do you spend hours taking the perfect picture to post or ‘Gram or tweet? Do you feel a need to constantly monitor all of your social media outlets to look for likes and loves and to track people to see what they’re up to? Is your excessive use of all of these things interfering with your daily life- family, relationships, work, school? If you answered yes to any of these questions above, you may be suffering from a digital addiction disorder. These disorders have been rapidly gaining ground as they are more recognized as truly debilitating, and as a result, they are recently receiving serious attention from many researchers, mental health counselors and doctors. The prevalence statistics vary wildly, with some reports stating that the addiction disorder affects up to 8.2% of the general population, but others state it affects up to a whopping 38%. In my opinion, it affects far more than 8.2%, but not quite 38%, so my educated guess is about 20%. That’s one-fifth of the population… a staggering number of people. And we have the explosion of the digital age to thank. Advancing technology is the ultimate double-edged sword. One of the most troubling things about this disorder is that we are endlessly surrounded by technology. Most of what we do is done through the internet. And we’re enticed to do things online. Take Papa John’s as an example- if you place your order online, you get an extra discount or a free small pizza. Lots of company sites offer similar discounts. And if you do buy online, most companies then include you in their email blasts with info on sales and discounts. Even if you’re just doing research on something online, not shopping, you’ll get little photo pop-ups from online stores you’ve ordered from before. Gamers make up a huge subset of the digitally addicted. Ask any mother of a male child aged 10 and up if she and her son argue about his spending too much time playing games, and chances are she’ll tell you that it happens all the time. Of course, to the developers of these games, that’s a total eargasm! These game developers have a strategy to keep people, especially kids, glued to their seats with eyes on the screen. Many games, especially the huge multiplayer roleplaying games like World of Warcraft and Everquest, may lead to a gaming addiction because as players play together, they spur each other on. In addition, these games have limitless levels, so in effect, they never end.
Just because you use the internet a lot, watch a lot of YouTube videos, shop online frequently, or like to check social media often does not mean you suffer from a digital addiction disorder. It only crosses over into the trouble zone when these digital activities start to interfere with, or even negate, your daily life activities. Every tweet, every phone alert DING! is an interruption in your thoughts, your psyche, and your day. I have a handful of patients that struggle with just turning their phones off during a session with me. They literally get anxious being without it, being unable to check it. They have to hold it, have it in their hands. I have one patient that couldn’t turn it off but agreed to put it in her purse. That stupid thing dinged and blipped and bleated every freaking 5 – 10 minutes, I swear. And every time, I could see her leave the appointment….it interrupted her train of thought with every stupid, annoying noise it made. I told her that next time, and for every time thereafter, the phone would be off and in my drawer. She grudgingly agreed, but she regularly panicked without it, so I had to begin every session by talking her off the edge.
Like many disorders, it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact cause of digital addiction disorder, but there have been some risk factors identified. These include physical impairments, social impairments, functional impairments, emotional impairments, impulsive internet use, and dependence on the internet. The digital world can be an escape for people with various impairments, so they are at higher risk.
Digital addiction disorder has multiple contributing factors. Some evidence suggests that if you have it, your brain makeup may be similar to those of people that have a chemical dependency, such as drugs or alcohol. Some studies even report a potential link between digital addiction disorder and brain structure- that the disorder may physically change the amount of gray and white matter in a region of the brain associated with attention, remembering details, and planning and prioritizing tasks. As a result, the affected person is rendered unable to prioritize their life, so the digital technology takes precedence over necessary life tasks.
Digital addiction disorder, as in other dependency disorders, affects the pleasure center of the brain. The addictive behavior triggers a release of dopamine, which is the happy, feel good chemical. Note the name dopamine. Drugs of all sorts are often referred to as dope, and this is not happenstance; they are called dope because drugs elicit the release of dopamine as well, causing the pleasurable high. So chemically speaking, the high that gamers or internet surfers or Facebook hyper-checkers get from indulging their addiction is exactly the same as when a drug addict takes drugs. Win a game or get a like or love on Fakebook, get a dopamine hit. And, just like with drugs, people develop a tolerance over time, so more and more of the activity is needed to induce the same pleasurable response that they had in the beginning. Ultimately, this creates a dependency.
There are also some biological predispositions to digital addiction disorder. If you have this disorder, your levels of dopamine and serotonin may be naturally deficient as compared to the general population. This chemical deficiency may require you to engage in more behaviors to receive the same pleasurable response that individuals without the addiction have naturally.
Another predisposition to digital addiction disorder is anxiety and/or depression. If you already have anxiety or depression, you may turn to the internet or social media to fill a void or find relief, maybe in the form of online retail therapy for example. In the same way, people who are very shy or socially awkward may turn to the internet to make electronic friends because it doesn’t require actual personal interaction.
The signs and symptoms of digital addiction disorder can present themselves in both physical and emotional manifestations.
Emotional symptoms may include:
Feelings of guilt
Feelings of euphoria when indulging
Inability to prioritize tasks
Problems with keeping schedules
No sense of time
Avoidance of work
Boredom with routine tasks
Physical symptoms may include:
Carpal tunnel syndrome
Poor nutrition: not eating or junk food
Poor or zero personal hygiene
Dry eyes and other vision problems
Weight gain or loss
Digital addiction disorder impacts life in many ways. It affects personal relationships, work life, finances, and school life. Individuals with it often hide themselves away from others and spend a long time in this self-imposed social isolation, and this negatively impacts all personal relationships. Trust issues may also come up due to the addicts trying to hide, or lying to deny, the amount of time they spend online. Sometimes, these individuals may create alternate personas online in an attempt to mask their online behaviors. Serious financial troubles may also result from the avoidance of work, as well as bankruptcy due to continued online shopping, online gaming, or online gambling. They may also have trouble developing new relationships, and they often withdraw socially, because they feel more at ease in an online environment than an actual physical one.
One of the overarching problems with the internet is that there is often no accountability and no limits. You are hidden behind a screen, so you may say or do some things online that you would never consider doing in person. To some, that can be a very attractive proposition. One iissue that happens in digital addiction is that people who may be shy or awkward or lonely may create a new identity for themselves. They find that on the internet, they can be the person that they can’t be in real life. They develop this perfect fantasy world where everything goes their way. The problem is that the more they get into that fantasy wotld, the more distant they become from the real world. The results can be a disaster emotionally when they’re forced into the real world; they find they can’t function there and desperately need help. There’s a flip side to a created persona, where it’s done to intentionally hurt others. By now, I’m sure most people are familiar with “catfishing” from the eponymous movie and television program. For those who are not familiar, catfishing is the purposeful act of luring someone into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona. Catfish steal pictures of an attractive person, usually from that person’s social media, and they create a fictional persona and post it online with the stolen pictures to see who bites. If they get an attractive bite, they message that target to begin a relationship for their own devious purposes, which is usually just to get their rocks off, to hurt someone because they hurt, to get nude pictures, or to weasel people out of money. Catfish often do this with multiple people, leading them on, and are usually pretty proud of themselves for it. I think they’re lowlife cowards. My point is that the internet is full of people that feel brave online but who cower in real life. Online and social media digital addicts are more likely to be targeted, simply because they spend so much time on their devices, on the internet, or monitoring their social media.
As for diagnosis, because it was only very recently added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a disorder that needs more research, a standardized diagnosis of digital addiction disorder has not been developed. This is likely due to the variability of the different digital applications that people may become addicted to, as well as the fact that digital addicts can have anxiety and/or depression as well, and therefore would have difficulty, or may be averse to, seeking help.
As to treatment options for digital addiction disorder, the first step in treatment is the recognition that a problem exists. If you don’t believe you have a problem, you’re not likely to seek treatment.
Developing a compulsive need to use digital devices, to the extent that it interferes with your life and stops you from doing things you need to do, is the hallmark of an addiction. If you think you or a loved one may have a digital addiction, you should definitely see a psychiatrist, because there may be an underlying issue like anxiety and/or depression that is treatable with talk therapy and/or medication. I specialize in addiction, and I work with many patients with digital addiction with a great deal of success. There is a right way to utilize technology without it running and ruining your life, so please seek help.
Digital addiction disorder has become such a common theme in my practice that I cover this topic in several stories in my book, so check out Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com if you’d like to read patient stories and get more information on the digital addiction phenomenon.Learn More
In this blog, I want to talk about sleep. One of the most common complaints I hear from patients in my practice is that they can’t sleep, and they ask what they can do to sleep better at night. It’s brought up so often that I’ve created a list of rules to follow to get better sleep at night. But first, some facts about sleep… and the lack thereof.
While sleep requirements vary slightly from person to person, most healthy adults need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to function at their best. Children and teens need even more. And despite the notion that our sleep needs decrease with age, most older people still need at least 7 hours of sleep per night for optimal functioning.
We all know that good sleep is important. But why? I mean, if we don’t get enough sleep, we’ll be tired, but other than that, it really doesn’t matter, right? Wrong. In terms of importance, getting good sleep, and enough of it, is actually right up there with eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Poor or not enough sleep is known to have negative consequences on hormone levels and brain function, and can cause weight gain and increase the risk of obesity and diseases like diabetes and heart disease. On the flip side, adequate or good sleep can keep you healthier, help you maintain physical fitness, and think more clearly and concisely. Unfortunately, sleep quality and quantity have both decreased in recent years, and millions of people battle chronic insomnia for their entire lifetimes. Because it plays such a key role in your health, getting good sleep should be a priority in your life. Toward that end, below are my fourteen rules for good sleep.
Rule 1: Get bright light during the day. Natural sunlight is preferable, but artificial light works too. Your body’s natural clock is called your circadian rhythm; it links your body, brain and hormones, keeping you awake during the day when appropriate and telling you when it’s time to sleep at night. Daytime light exposure keeps your rhythm happy and in sync, improving daytime energy and alertness as well as nighttime sleep quality and duration.
Rule 2: Avoid blue light in evenings and at night. What is blue light? Blue light is what is emitted from your computer, laptop, iPad and smartphone. While daytime light exposure is beneficial, nighttime light exposure is not. This is because of its impact on your circadian rhythm; it tricks your brain into thinking that it’s daytime, and this reduces natural hormones like melatonin, hindering sleep. The more blue light you expose yourself to, the more disruption you’ll have in your sleep. There is a solution for this; there’s an app for your smartphone that filters out the blue light. There’s also something called “F.Lux” that you can put on your computer or iPad which will block out the blue light in those devices as well. So remember, blue light is a serious factor. If you are on your iPad or your computer at night, you’re not going to sleep well.
Rule 3: Avoid caffeine, Captain Obvious. 90% of the US population consumes caffeine on a daily basis, mostly in coffee and energy drinks/ shots. Here are some approximate caffeine counts: an 8 ounce cup of coffee has 95mg of caffeine, a 5-hour energy shot has 75mg and a Red Bull drink has 120mg of caffeine. While caffeine can enhance energy and focus, it can also wreck your sleep. Caffeine stimulates the nervous system, and this can prevent the mind and body from relaxing and falling into a deep sleep. Caffeine can remain elevated in the blood for 6 – 8 hours after ingestion, so consuming caffeine after 2pm is not the best idea, especially if you’re sensitive to it or already have trouble sleeping. In addition, regardless of when you consume it, you should limit caffeine intake to 200mg per day or risk losing sleep over it.
Rule 4: Watch naps during the day. While short power naps can be beneficial for some, taking long naps during the day can negatively impact your sleep. How? That wiley circadian rhythm again! Napping during the day confuses your internal clock, disrupting your sleep-wake cycle and potentially leaving you with problems falling asleep at night.
Rule 5: Try Melatonin. Melatonin is a naturally produced sleep hormone that tells your brain when it’s time to relax and head to bed. Melatonin supplements are an extremely popular over-the-counter sleep aid, helping people to fall asleep more quickly. I usually recommend between 2 and 4mg of melatonin at (or shortly before) bedtime. I find that some patients get daytime hangover from it, so be aware of that and possibly decrease the dose to see if that minimizes the hangover.
Rule 6: Regulate your sleep-wake cycle. How? By getting up at the same time every day and going to bed at the same time every day…. even on weekends. I know, that last bit is a bummer. Our old friend circadian rhythm is at work again here. The circadian rhythm is basically a loop, and irregular sleep patterns disrupt it and alter the melatonin levels that tell your body to sleep. The result? Not sleeping. I recommend that you go to bed at the same time every night and that you set an alarm to get up at the same time every day, no matter how tired you may be. After some time, you will probably find that you wake up on your own without the alarm and that the consistency of your schedule will give you better sleep quality.
7. Try additional supplements for sleep. There are a few dietary supplements that have been found to induce relaxation and help you sleep.
Glycine: This is a naturally produced amino acid shown to improve sleep quality. I recommend 3 grams at night.
Magnesium: This is an important mineral found in the body; it is responsible for over 600 biochemical reactions within the body, and it can improve relaxation and enhance sleep quality. I recommend 100-350mg daily; start at the lower dose and increase gradually if necessary.
L-theanine: Another amino acid, L-theanine can induce relaxation and sleep. I recommend 100–200mg before bed.
Lavender: A powerful herb with many health benefits, lavender can induce a calming effect on anxiety and help induce sleep. I recommend 160mg at night.
Rule 8: No alcohol. I’m sure we’ve all heard people say that a nightcap “helps them sleep better.” Don’t ever believe it…it’s total crap. Downing even one drink at night can negatively alter hormone levels like melatonin, disrupting the circadian rhythm and therefore sleep. In addition, alcohol is known to increase, or even cause, the symptoms of sleep apnea such as snoring, which also disrupts sleep patterns and causes poor sleep quality.
Rule 9: Create a cool, dark and quiet bedroom environment. Minimize external noise and light with heavy blackout curtains and remove devices that emanate artificial light like digital alarm clocks. Make sure your bedroom is a relaxing, clean, calm and enjoyable place. Keep the temperature very cool, I usually recommend 70 – 72 degrees, because the weight of blankets is very comforting. You can even buy weighted blankets for adults and children; I’ve heard many patients say they really relax the body which in turn helps them fall asleep.
Rule 10: No eating late at night. Late-night eating may negatively impact the natural release of HGH (human growth hormone) and melatonin, which leads to difficulty falling asleep. Also, I think that most of the time, people eat bad things late at night, things with a lot of sugar and things high in fat, like chips, candies, and cereal. These all interfere with sleep. Generally, when the body goes into a digestive mood, as it does after eating, it doesn’t want to sleep.
Rule 11: Relax and clear your mind. Many people have a pre-sleep routine that helps them relax to prepare for sleep. Commonly suggested for people with insomnia, pre-sleep relaxation techniques have been shown to improve sleep quality. Strategies can include listening to relaxing music, reading a book, taking a hot bath, meditating, deep breathing and visualization. Stress is a common reason for trouble falling asleep and poor sleep quality and quantity. If your problems are keeping you up at night, you have to come to some resolution on how you’re going to handle those issues in your life so that you can put them to rest, go to bed, and get some sleep.
Rule 12: Spend money on a good quality, comfortable mattress, good pillows and good linens. You’re going to spend a third of your life in your bed…don’t cheap out when it comes to the matress and bedding; spend the money. Make sure your mattress is large enough, comfortable and high quality. Studies have shown that quality mattresses significantly reduce back and shoulder pain. And buy good quality, high thread count (800 thread count minimum, but higher if you can) cotton sheets…they’ll get softer with every wash. Find pillows that feel most comfortable and supportive for you. You may have to try multiple pillows before finding the perfect one, but the search and cost are necessary, and your neck will thank you for it. A quality mattress and pillows and great linens can be an investment, but well worth it. You’ll have them for some time and you’ll be happier for it when you get in bed at night and go “Aaaaahhhh.”
Rule 13: No exercising at night. While daily exercise is key for a good night’s sleep, doing it too late in the day may cause sleep problems. This is because exercise acts like a stimulant, increasing hormones like epinephrine and adrenaline, which increase alertness. Alertness is the antithesis of the relaxation you need to fall asleep. Basically, exercise hypes you up, making it difficult or impossible to fall asleep.
Rule 14: No fluids before bed. While hydration is an absolute necessity for health, it’s best to restrict fluids for one to two hours before bed. You should also use the bathroom right before going to bed, as this may decrease your chances of waking in the night. The reason for this rule is fairly obvious: a full or partially full bladder will wake you up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and that’s a total drag for you and likely for whomever shares your bed.
So those are my 14 rules for better sleep. And now I’ll say goodnight, sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite!Learn More
Element 3: Better for Batteries or Brains…or Beverages???
Think back to chemistry class, when you studied the periodic table of the elements. You may remember it as being just a confusing jumble of letters and numbers. But our daily lives would be very different without element number 3. It’s a key component in the batteries that power our smartphones, laptops, and even fancy-schmancy Teslas. But that same element also happens to be one of the most effective treatments ever discovered for bipolar disorder and mania, as well as other mental illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, and eating disorders. It is especially effective for treating suicidal ideation. Through the years it’s also been used to treat anemia, headaches, alcoholism, epilepsy, and diabetes. But it’s very scary, because it has some serious and potentially lethal short and long term side effects, and there is a very narrow window between the dose where it’s effective and the dose where it’s deadly. It’s so scary that I literally have only one patient out of my entire practice on it. The element I’m talking about is lithium. Let’s consider the good, the bad, and the ugly of lithium.
The good: it’s effective as all get out. I would call it one of the most effective drugs in the treatment of mania. It treats the high of the manic episode, the irritability, the agitation, disorganization, hallucinations, delusions, rapid speech, insomnia, racing thoughts, grandiosity, and impulsivity of mania. It prevents the mood cycling of bipolar, and it also treats the suicidality associated with mania and depression.
The bad: it has a nasty side effect profile. It causes a host of issues. Sedation is a big one. It makes people tired and causes obvious mental slowing. I say obvious because it becomes obvious to everyone. The person appears dull and medicated. It slows the mind down. Thoughts don’t process at normal speed, and speech and reactions are slow. It also affects kidney function, causing frequent urination, as well as nausea and diarrhea. It also can be very disabling because lithium commonly causes fine tremor. When all of the side effects are looked at together, they can easily be mistaken for alcoholism or drug abuse, so it can affect people’s opinions at work and have other huge social and personal consequences. It can cause a great deal of weight gain, as well as disfiguring acne on the face and back, as well as psoriasis, red scaly patches of skin on the body. On top of all of that, it can also affect the heart, potentially causing sick sinus syndrome, which is an arrhythmia where the heart’s natrual pacemeker, the sinus node, doesn’t work properly.
As for the ugly; let’s just say that lithium wouldn’t be winning any molecular beauty pageants… it is uuuu-uuu-gly! Lithium can cause nephrogenic diabetes insipidus and interstitial nephritis. Those are big words that simply mean it shuts the kidneys down. Like dunzo down. Patients on long term lithium therapy regularly have chronic renal failure. One of my patients that used to be on lithium is currently on a kidney transplant list. Another ugly component of lithium is that it shuts down the thyroid. You kind of need your thyroid to maintain metabolic processes in your body. It’s pretty important…without it, you become ill with all sorts of terrible issues and you must take another drug to kick it back into gear.
There are other issues with taking lithium. There are some commonly used medications that don’t play well with it. You cannot take diuretics, and you can’t take NSAIDs ibuprofen or naproxen for pain, because these can cause dangerously high levels. Lithium is unusual in that it has that small window of operation I mentioned. You have to have levels checked to make sure they’re between 0.6 and 1.2 mEq/L. If you get toxic by taking thiazide diuretics or NSAIDs or by getting dehydrated, lithium can cause permanent brain damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and death. So, it is extremely problematic in that it has that narrow window between efficacy and death. In addition, certain drugs lower lithium levels. A big one is caffeine; people have to be very careful with caffeine intake. Even drinking too much water can lower lithium levels, because you can literally dilute it in your system.
All things considered, I say lithium is a last line drug. Yes, it works, but it’s like using a sledgehammer to nail a one penny nail into the wall…there’s going to be collateral damage to the structure of the wall. As good as the good is, the bad is too bad and the ugly too ugly. There are so many other drugs now to try first. Lamotrigine, oxcarbazepine, valproic acid, lurasidone, aripiprazole, and quetiapine to name some. Some psychiatrists would argue with me because these other choices may not be as effective, but they won’t cause the mental slowing, acne, tremor, frquent urination, kidney failure, and hypothyroidism. I treat a patient as a whole, I don’t treat just the mental illness. If my treatment of the mental illness damages or destroys other parts of a patient’s life, is that proper treatment? I say no, but some physicians say yes. It’s a philosophical issue, a quality of life issue, that won’t be solved until somebody develops a drug that works as well but without the terrible side effects. As I mentioned above, I have only one patient in my entire practice on lithium, and I’m currently trying to get him off of it. Why? Well, he’s experiencing sedation, cognitive slowing, frequent urination, tremor, nausea, acne, and weight gain; surprise, surprise…it is making his life miserable. So we’ll continue to try other drugs and hopefully find some success elsewhere.
We’ve talked about the use of lithium in batteries and in brains, but in beverages? Believe it or not, it’s true.
Lithium was once a key ingredient in 7 Up soda. This is a 7 Up ad in a 1948 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal magazine. Look how happy everybody is, and notice all the open bottles of liquid lithium everywhere. The father is like “These crazy kids, drinking all this 7 Up. They’re going to drive me to the poor house!” And the son is like “It’s okay, dad! Have another sip of your 7 Up!” And the daughter is like “Wheeee! I LOVE 7 Up!” And the mom is like “I hope I have enough 7 Up to keep me from murdering my entire family.” And the tagline just kills me… “You like it- it likes you!”
7 Up debuted in 1929, and before 7 Up became it’s name, it was called “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda,” (really catchy name) and its original ingredients included a “healthy dose” of lithium citrate. Apparently there were more than 500 lemon-lime soft drinks on the market at the time, which is yet another fact that blows my mind. Anyway, to make their product stand out, Cadbury Beverages North America touted in their ads the “positive health effects” of the lithium in the soda, which interestingly was released just a few months before the 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression….things that make you go hmmm….Apparently the recipe had some appeal, because in the 1940s, 7 Up was the third best-selling soft drink in the world. But alas, somebody got wise, and lithium was removed from the recipe in 1950. Just a little fun fact: there is a precedent for the addition of “pharmacologically active” ingredients in soft drinks. Coca Cola added a lot of coca leaves (from which cocaine is derived) to it’s original 1886 formulation, giving it it’s name. Another fun fact: the guy that formulated it was an alcoholic and opium addict who was looking for a cure for his affliction. Evidently it contained a great deal of the cocaine molecule, a fact that undoubtedly led to it’s popularity in those olden days. I’m sure lots of folks were bummed out when it was removed from the formulation in 1903. Didn’t matter to the formulator/owner, because he’d been found dead long before on his office floor with an opium stick in his hand.
For more interesting stories on psychiatric conditions and the medications that treat them, check out my book, Tales from the Couch, available in my office or on Amazon.Learn More
Comedian Dan Aykroyd, children’s author Hans Christian Andersen, movie director Tim Burton, naturalist Charles Darwin, poet Emily Dickinson, scientist and mathematician Albert Einstein, chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, actress Daryl Hannah, late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, painter Michelangelo, music composer/ pianist Amadeus Mozart, and artist and cultural influencer Andy Warhol, just to name a few…
What do all of the above people have in common? Given their fame and success, I bet you’ll never guess. They all have islands of extreme expertise, but all also have social limitations in terms of their abilites to interact with others and their ability to communicate. What does that sound like? What diagnosis do they share? Autism.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition related to brain development that affects how a person relates to and socializes with others, and which also causes problems in communication and social interactions. Replacing just the single word autism, the term “spectrum” in autism spectrum disorder refers to the wide range of symptoms and potential severity of the disorder of autism.
Autism spectrum disorder is said to be a “developmental disorder” because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life. The disorder extends into adulthood, causing problems with functioning in society, in school, and at work. Children often show symptoms of autism within the first year of life, though signs may be subtle at first. Sometimes children appear to develop normally in their first year, but then exhibit regression between 18 and 24 months of age as they develop autistic symptoms.
Symptoms of ASD
Children can show signs of autism spectrum disorder in early infancy. These include reduced eye contact, lack of response to their name and/or indifference to caregivers. Some children may develop normally for the first few months or years of life, but then suddenly become withdrawn or aggressive or lose the language skills they’ve already acquired. Fairly definitive signs of ASD are usually seen by age two.
Each child with ASD will have difficulty with social interactions and will exhibit unique patterns of behavior and levels of severity, from low functioning to high functioning.
Some children with autism spectrum disorder may have difficulty learning, and some have signs of lower than average intelligence. Other children may have normal to high intelligence and learn quickly, but have difficulty communicating and applying what they know. Because of the unique mixture of signs and symptoms exhibited in each child, the severity of ASD can sometimes be difficult to determine. It’s generally based on the level of impairment and how that impairment impacts the ability to function.
A child or adult with ASD may have problems with social interactions and communication skills, including any of these signs:
Failure to respond to his/her name or appearing to not hear you at times
Resists cuddling and holding as child
Lacks facial expression
Prefers playing alone, retreats into his/her own world
Exhibits poor eye contact
Doesn’t speak/ has delayed speech/ loses previous speech ability
Can’t initiate or further conversation
Speaks with abnormal tone or rhythm; may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech
Repeats words or phrases verbatim, but doesn’t understand meaning
Doesn’t appear to understand simple questions or directions
Doesn’t express own emotions/ feelings and is unaware of others’ feelings
Inappropriate aggression or disruption to social interactions of others
Difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues, interpreting other people’s facial expressions, body postures, or tones of voice
A child or adult with ASD may exhibit limited and repetitive patterns of behavior, including any of these signs:
Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand flapping
Develops specific routines or rituals, becomes disturbed at the slightest change
Performs self-harming activities, including biting or head-banging
Is unusually sensitive to light, sound, and/or touch, yet can be indifferent to pain or temperature
Has problems with coordination or exhibits odd movement patterns, such as clumsiness, walking on toes, and odd, stiff, or exaggerated body language
Is fascinated by small details of an object without understanding the overall purpose or function of the object. Ex: spinning wheels of a toy car
Doesn’t engage in imaginative or make-believe play
Fixates on an object or activity with abnormal intensity or focus
Has very specific food preferences: eats very few foods/ refuses certain textures
A child or adult with ASD may exhibit other signs and symptoms, such as:
Unusual Touch and Sound Sensitivities: They may recoil when touched, and/or may be extremely hypersensitive to certain sounds
Seizures: Approximately four out of ten people with ASD suffer from seizures; most commonly occurs in childhood or entering teenage years and in those with more severe cognitive impairment.
Bowel Disorders: People with ASD tend to have more gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea than peers
Placing Inedible Objects in the Mouth: While it is common for babies and toddlers to put toys or other inedible objects in their mouths, older kids with autism may continue to do this even as they age. Some children have been known to put items like soil, chalk, and paints into their mouths, which means supervision is a must to prevent them from eating something toxic or choking on an object.
Sleeping Issues: Getting a child to sleep at an assigned time can be hard, but children with ASD often have different sleep patterns. ASD interferes with the “working clock” that regulates sleep patterns. Many children with ASD with sleep problems will have the problem in adulthood as well.
As they mature, some children with autism spectrum disorder become more engaged with others and show fewer behavioral disturbances, but some, usually those with the least severe problems, may end up leading normal or near-normal lives. But others continue to have difficulty with language or social skills, and for them, the teen years can bring even worse behavioral and emotional problems.
When to see a doctor
Babies develop at their own pace…they don’t necessarily follow the developmental timelines that Dr. Spock or other parenting book authors lay out. But children with autism spectrum disorder usually show some signs of delayed development before they are two years old. If you’re concerned about your child’s development or suspect that your child may have ASD, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician, as some ASD symptoms can look like other developmental disorders.
Your pediatrician may recommend developmental tests to identify if your child has delays in cognitive, language and social skills, or if your child doesn’t meet certain timelines:
Doesn’t respond with a smile or happy expression by 6 months
Doesn’t mimic sounds or facial expressions by 9 months
Doesn’t babble or coo by 12 months
Doesn’t gesture, point or wave by 14 months
Doesn’t say single words by 16 months
Doesn’t play “make-believe” or pretend by 18 months
Doesn’t say two-word phrases by 24 months
Loses language skills or social skills at any age
Causes of ASD
Autism spectrum disorder has no single known cause. Given the disorder’s complexity and the fact that symptoms and severity vary, there are probably many causes, with genetics and environment likely playing larger roles.
Genetics: Several different genes appear to be involved in ASD. For some children, ASD can be associated with another genetic disorder, such as Rett syndrome or fragile X syndrome. For other children, genetic mutations may increase the risk of autism spectrum disorder. Other genes may affect brain development or the way that brain cells communicate. Some genetic mutations are inherited, but others occur spontaneously.
Environmental factors: Researchers are currently exploring whether factors like viral infections, medications, complications during pregnancy, or air pollutants play a role in triggering autism spectrum disorder.
Not from childhood vaccines: One of the biggest controversies in autism spectrum disorder centers on whether childhood vaccines can cause ASD. Despite extensive research, no reliable study has shown a link between autism spectrum disorder and any vaccines. In fact, the original study that ignited the debate years ago has been retracted due to poor design and questionable research methods. Not only do vaccines not cause ASD, but
avoiding childhood vaccinations can place your child and others in danger of catching and spreading serious diseases, including whooping cough (pertussis), mumps, and/or measles. So don’t let the fear of ASD keep you from allowing your child to have their vaccines.
Risk factors for ASD
The number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder is rising. It’s not clear whether this is due to better detection and reporting or a real increase in the number of cases, or a combination of the two.
Autism spectrum disorder affects children of all races and nationalities, but certain factors increase a child’s risk. These risk factors may include:
Your child’s sex: Boys are about four times more likely to develop autism spectrum disorder than girls are.
Family history: Families who have one child with autism spectrum disorder have an increased risk of having another child with the disorder. It’s also fairly common for parents or relatives of a child with autism spectrum disorder to have minor problems with social or communication skills themselves or to engage in certain behaviors typical of the disorder.
Other disorders: Children with certain medical conditions have a higher than normal risk of autism spectrum disorder or autism-like symptoms. Some examples include fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, and Rett synsyndrome.
Extremely preterm babies: Babies born before 26 weeks of gestation may have a greater risk of autism spectrum disorder.
Parental ages: Children born to older parents may be more likely to develop ASD, but more research is necessary to fully establish this link.
Complications of living with ASD
The problems that come with ASD in terms of social interactions, communication, and behavior can lead to issues in life, including:
Problems in school and successful learning
Inability to live independently
Stress within the family
Victimization and being bullied
Prevention of ASD
There is no way to prevent autism spectrum disorder, but there are some treatment options. Intervention is helpful at any age, but early diagnosis and intervention is the most helpful to improve behavior, skills and language development. While children don’t usually outgrow autism spectrum disorder symptoms, with work, they may learn to function well within their environment.
Diagnosis of ASD
Your child’s doctor will look for signs of developmental delays at regular checkups. If your child shows any symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, you’ll likely be referred for an evaluation to a specialist who treats children with autism spectrum disorder, such as a child psychiatrist/ psychologist, pediatric neurologist or developmental pediatrician.
Because autism spectrum disorder varies widely in symptoms and severity, making a diagnosis may be difficult. There isn’t a specific medical test to definitively diagnose the disorder. Instead, a specialist will make observations. These may include:
Observing your child’s development, social interactions, communication skills and behavior; done over time to determine if there have been changes.
Give your child tests which will cover hearing, speech, language, developmental level, and social and behavioral issues.
Score your child’s social and communication interactions.
Include other specialists in order to definitively determine a diagnosis.
Recommend genetic testing to determine if your child also has a genetic disorder such as Rett syndrome or fragile X syndrome.
Treatment for ASD
While there is no cure for autism spectrum disorder, early and intensive treatment can make a big difference in the lives of most children with ASD. The goal of treatment is to maximize your child’s ability to function by reducing ASD symptoms while also supporting development and learning. Early intervention during the preschool years can help your child learn critical social, communication, functional, and behavioral skills that will make a huge impact on their adult lives.
The range of ASD “therapies” you’ll find on an internet search can be very overwhelming. If your child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, talk to experts about creating a treatment strategy and build a team of professionals to meet your child’s needs.
Some ASD treatment options may include:
Behavioral and communication therapies: Many programs address the range of social, language, and behavioral difficulties associated with ASD. Some programs focus on reducing problem behaviors and teaching new skills. Other programs focus on teaching children how to act in social situations or how to communicate better with others. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) can help children learn new skills and apply these skills through a reward-based motivation system.
Educational therapies: Children with ASD often respond well to very structured educational programs. Successful programs typically include a team of specialists and a variety of activities to improve social skills, communication and behavior. Earlier intervention is better, and preschool children who receive intensive one on one behavioral intervention show more progress.
Family therapies: Parents and other family members can learn how to play and interact with their children in ways that promote social skills, manage problem behaviors, and teach communication and other daily living skills.
Other therapies: Depending on your child’s needs, they can have speech therapy to improve communication skills, occupational therapy to teach activities of daily living, and physical therapy to improve movement and balance. Any and all of these may be beneficial. Adding a psychologist to address problem behavior is also beneficial.
Medications: There are no specific medications to improve the core signs of autism spectrum disorder, but some medications can help control specific symptoms, including hyperactivity, behavioral issues, and anxiety. Always keep all health care providers updated on all medications or supplements your child is taking, as some can interact and cause dangerous side effects.
Some ASD takeaways
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder that causes problems with communication and social interactions. There are no specific tests for autism spectrum disorder, the diagnosis is made by observation and process of elimination. There are no one-size-fits-all therapies for autism spectrum disorder. Early detection and intervention are of utmost importance and make a greal deal of difference in determining the person’s likely functional level in adulthood. If your child exhibits some of the characteristics defined above, it is best to see your pediatrician for an evaluation.
For information on other psychiatric diagnoses and patient stories and experiences, please check out my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com.Learn More
Ambien, generic name zolpidem, is the most commonly prescribed sleep aid, accounting for 85% of prescribed sleeping pills. It also ranks in the top 15 on the list of most frequently prescribed drugs in the country. Its popularity is clearly due to its efficacy. Zolpidem works as a hypnotic drug, meaning that it induces a state of unconsciousness, similar to what occurs during natural sleep. How does it do that? Zolpidem affects chemical messengers in the brain called neurotransmitters, specifically a neurotransmitter called GABA. By affecting GABA, it calms the activity of specific parts of the brain. One of the areas in the brain that is affected is the hippocampus. Along with other regions of the brain, the hippocampus is important in the formation of memory. Because of this hippocampal involvement,
zolpidem can cause memory loss, especially at higher doses, an effect colloquially referred to as “Ambien Amnesia.” If you take it and do not go to bed immediately as recommended, this is more likely to occur. When you get right in bed after taking it, a loss of memory is inconsequential…it doesn’t matter if you can’t remember lying awake for a few minutes before falling asleep. But there are many reports of people taking it and remaining awake and out of bed, and they commonly experience an inability to recall subsequent events shortly after taking it. Because of its effects on memory, there is some concern that zolpidem could affect long-term memory and contribute to the development of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, though there has been no research to prove or disprove these possible associations. Zolpidem comes with a host of known side effects that range from weird and wacky to illegal and downright dangerous behaviors. Included are hallucinations, decreased awareness, disinhibition, and changes in behavior. Very serious problems may occur when someone who has taken zolpidem gets up during the night. They may exhibit very complex sleep-related behaviors while under the influence of zolpidem. These might include relatively innocuous sleeptalking, sleepwalking, sleep cleaning and sleep eating, to more disturbing behaviors like sleep cooking and sleep sex, to potentially deadly sleep driving. While in a confused state, a person on zolpidem may act in a way that is different from their normal waking behavior. This can lead to legal consequences, such as driving under the influence (DUI) or potentially even sexual assault charges stemming from disinhibited sexually charged behavior.
I have a long time patient named Deanna that takes zolpidem and regularly sleepwalks, also known as somnambulation for the Scrabble set. It happens that she has been a sleepwalker ever since she had the ability to walk, so being on the zolpidem now makes her nocturnal activities and behaviors really way out there. Just flipping back through her chart, I see she mentions: taking apart electronics and trying to put them back together with no success. Dumping all of her shoes out of their boxes onto her closet floor. Taking all of her clothes off their hangers and throwing them over her dining room chairs. Gathering all sorts of disparate items together, evidently whatever catches her eye at the time, and putting them in her oven. She said she learned that particular lesson the hard way. This one is whacked. She started “painting” a wall in her house….with a purple sharpie. She showed me a picture of that. She once found several pages of her stationery scrawled in words she knew she didn’t consciously write in a letter to someone, she didn’t know who. She brought that in. She said she would evidently clean in her sleep; she put shower gel all over the tile in her shower and “put things away” in odd places they didn’t belong in. She also sleep eats. Cereal, bread, ice cream, whatever she sees that looks good I guess. She regularly wakes up to a mess in the kitchen and destruction in the house. It used to really freak her out to see the evidence of activities she didn’t remember, but now she just feels unsettled as she surveys the damage from her night time escapades. But since it hasn’t ever been anything dangerous and because zolpidem works well for her, she doesn’t want to change it.
How is it that a person on zolpidem can achieve these complex behaviors while unconscious and asleep? It’s because the parts of the brain that control movement still function, but inhibition, consciousness, and the ability to create memory is turned off. Because of this, the person is disinhibited, and that can lead to unintentional actions and behaviors as discussed above.
Beyond zolpidem’s effects on memory, awareness, and behavior, there may be additional issues associated with its use. Some other common side effects include:
– “Hangover” or carry-over sedation, especially in women
– Loss of appetite
– Impaired vision
– Slow breathing rates
– Muscle cramps
– Allergic reactions
– Memory loss
– Inability to concentrate
– Emotional blunting
– Depression and/or suicidal thoughts
– Back pain
– Diarrhea or constipation
– Sinusitis (sinus infection)
– Pharyngitis (sore throat)
– Dry mouth
– Flu-like symptoms
– Breathing difficulties
– Palpitations (irregular heartbeat)
– Rebound insomnia
Any of these side effects could be bothersome and may interfere with the continued use of the medication. Sometimes the benefits of zolpidem outweigh the risks and/or side effects. If a symptom is particularly bothersome, discuss this with your prescribing doctor to see if an alternative treatment may be a better option for you.
If you take zolpidem, use it exactly as prescribed and get in bed immediately after taking it. It’s best to allow yourself at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep to help ensure avoidance of morning hangover effects. Keeping a regular sleep-wake schedule will also help. Taking zolpidem with other drugs that depress the central nervous system such as alcohol, opioid pain medications, or tranquilizers intensifies the sedative effects of zolpidem and increases the risk of overdose as a result of respiratory depression. Zolpidem is an abusable drug. Individuals who take it for non-medical reasons or at more than prescribed doses are at risk of experiencing intensification of adverse side effects, including the following:
– Excessive sedation
– Confusion and disorientation
– Lack of motor coordination
– Slow response times
– Delayed reflex reactions
– Impaired judgment
Men and women don’t metabolize zolpidem in the same way. Women metabolize it much more slowly, so they often wake up with a zolpidem hang over and feel cloudy in the morning. So an important note for women taking zolpidem is to be extra cautious about allowing at least 8 hours of sleep after taking it and to take lower doses of it due to the potential effects on morning function, especially driving.
Actor Roseanne Barr had probably taken a little too much when she “Ambien tweeted” a racist statement comparing an Obama aid to an ape. She admitted that she had taken zolpidem shortly before the 2am tweet that caused her eponymous show to be cancelled. Elon Musk, Mr. Tesla, can feel her pain. He shocked investors when he tweeted he was considering taking Tesla private at $420 a share and that funding was secured. He said he sometimes takes zolpidem because it’s either that or no sleep. Good thing he has people to protect him from himself when he’s in a zolpidem daze.
Zolpidem can be a safe and effective medication to treat insomnia, but if it affects your memory or causes sleep behaviors or other adverse side effects, you should probably consider alternative treatments for your insomnia. Hello Roseanne and Elon…that means you!!
I talk more about drugs for sleep like zolpidem and a host of other psychoactive drugs in my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com.Learn More
A woman named Marianne messaged me wanting to know how to get off of Klonopin, which is a benzodiazepine, or benzo for short. She has been taking them regularly for more than twenty years, which is a very long time to be on a benzo. That will certainly complicate things. Before I go into how to stop taking benzos, I want to tell you what they are and what they do.
What are they?
Benzos are medications designed to treat anxiety, panic disorders, seizures, muscle tension, and insomnia. Some of the most commonly prescribed benzos include: Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam),Valium (diazepam), Restoril (temazepam),
Librium (chlordiazepoxide), and Ativan (lorazepam). A 2013 survey found that Xanax and its generic form alprazolam is one of the most prescribed psychiatric drugs in the United States, with approximately 50 million prescriptions written that year. Unfortunately, this class of drug is also highly abused. Another 2013 survey found that 1.7 million Americans aged 12 and older were considered current abusers of tranquilizer medications like benzos. When abused, benzos produce a high in addition to the calm and relaxed sensations individuals feel when they take them.
How do they work?
Benzos increase the levels of a chemical in the brain called GABA. Meaningless trivia: GABA stands for gamma amino-butyric acid. GABA works as a kind of naturally occurring tranquilizer, and it calms down the nerve firings related to stress and the stress reaction. Benzos also work to enhance levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the feel good chemical, the chemical messenger involved in reward and pleasure in the brain. In simple terms, benzos slow down nerve activity in the brain and central nervous system, which decreases stress and its physical and emotional side effects.
Why can using them be problematic?
Benzos have multiple side effects that are both physical and psychological in nature, and these can cause harm with both short-term and extended usage. Some potential short-term side effects of benzos include, but are not limited to: drowsiness, mental confusion, trouble concentrating, short-term memory loss, blurred vision, slurred speech, lack of motor control, slow breathing, and muscle weakness. Long-term use of benzos also causes all of the above, but can also cause changes to the brain as well as mental health symptoms like mood swings, hallucinations, and depression. Fortunately, some of the changes made by benzos to the different regions of the brain after prolonged use may be reversible after being free from benzos for an extended period of time. On the scarier flip side of that coin, benzos may in fact predispose you to memory and cognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s. They’re many studies currently focusing on these predispositions. A recent study published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found a definitive link between benzo usage and Alzheimer’s disease. People taking benzos for more than six months had an 84% higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s dementia, versus those who didn’t take benzos. Long-acting benzos like Valium were more likely to increase these risks than shorter-acting benzos like Ativan or Xanax. Further, they found that these changes may not be reversible, and that the risk increased with age. Speaking of age, there are increased concerns in the elderly population when it comes to benzo usage. Benzos are increasingly being prescribed to the elderly population, many of which are used long-term, which increases the potential for cognitive and memory deficits. As people age, metabolism slows down. Since benzos are stored in fat cells, they remain active in an older person’s body for longer than in a younger person’s body, which increases the drug effects and risks due to the higher drug concentrations, like falls and car accidents. For all of these reasons, benzos should be used with caution in the elderly population.
A big problem with taking benzos for an extended period is tolerance and dependency. Benzos are widely considered to be highly addictive. Remember that benzos work by increasing GABA and dopamine in the central nervous system, calming and pleasing the brain, giving it the feel goods. After even just a few weeks of taking benzos regularly, the brain may learn to expect the regular dose of benzos and stop working to produce these feel good chemicals on its own without them. Your brain figures, “why do the work if it’s done for me?” You really can’t blame the brain for that! It has become dependent on the benzo. But as you continue to use benzos, you develop higher and higher tolerance, meaning that it takes more and more of the drug to produce the regular desired effect. This tolerance and dependence stuff really ticks off your brain. It’s screaming “why aren’t these pills working anymore?!” The answer is that it has become dependent and tolerant, so it needs more. Just to prove its point, it makes you feel anxious, restless, and irritable as it screams “gimme gimme more more more!!!” The problem is that the body is metabolizing the benzo more quickly, essentially causing withdrawl symptoms, and a higher dose is needed. The longer you’re on a benzo, the more you’ll need. It’s a vicious cycle and it’s sometimes tough to manage clinically.
The most severe form of physical harm caused by benzos is overdose. This occurs when a person takes too much of the drug at once and overloads the brain and body. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites drug overdose as the number one cause of injury death in the United States. A 2013 survey reported that nearly 7,000 people died from a benzo overdose in that year. Since benzos are tranquilizers and sedatives, they depress the central nervous system, lowering heart rate, core body temperature, blood pressure, and respiration. Generally, in the case of an overdose, these vital life functions simply get too low.
When combining other drugs with benzos, obviously the risk of overdose or other negative outcome increases exponentially. But mixing benzos with alcohol is a special case, deserving of a strong warning as it is life-threatening. BENZOS + ALCOHOL = DEAD. One of the most common and successful unintentional and intentional suicide acts in my patient population is mixing benzos with alcohol. The combo is lethal, plain and simple. The body actually forgets to breathe. People pass out and just never wake up. If you’re reading this and you take benzos with alcohol and you’re thinking that you don’t know what the big deal is, you do it all the time and have never had a problem, then my response to you is that you’re living on borrowed time, and I strongly suggest you stop one of the two, the booze or the benzos, take your pick.
What about withdrawl from benzos?
Benzo withdrawal can be notoriously difficult. It is actually about the hardest group of drugs to get off of. The level of difficulty is based on what benzo you’ve been taking, how much you’ve been taking, and how long you’ve been taking it. Obviously, if you’ve been on benzos for 25 years, it’s not going to be a walk in the park. To be honest, it’s going to be a rough road. Sorry Marianne. But it can be done. The first and most important thing is that you should never just stop benzos on your own, as it can be very dangerous and can include long or multiple grand mal seizures. Withdrawal from benzos should be done slowly through medical detox with a professional. It is best done with an addiction specialist like myself, because a specialist has the most current knowledge and experience. This is the safest way to purge the drugs from the brain and body while decreasing and managing withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings. As for the symptoms of withdrawl, these can include mood swings, short-term memory loss, seizure, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, depression, suppressed appetite, hallucinations, and cognitive difficulties. Stopping benzos after dependency may also lead to a rebound effect. This is a sort of overexcitement of the nerves that have been suppressed for so long by the benzos, and symptoms can include an elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. There may also be a return of the issues that lead you to take the benzos in the first place, insomnia, anxiety, and panic symptoms, and they can possibly be even worse than before.
I’m sure that just about everyone currently taking benzos is thinking “I’m NEVER stopping!” right about now. It is not easy to do, but there is a way to manage all of this, to come off of the benzo and deal with all of the physical and cognitive aspects of withdrawl. I do it everyday. I set up a tapering schedule to lessen the specific benzo dosage over time, sometimes over a period of months. I will also often add or switch to a long acting benzo, which can be very helpful. I use several drugs to deal with the withdrawl symptoms: clonidine for tremor and high blood pressure, neurontin for pain and to help prevent seizures, anti-psychotic like seroquel for sleep, and an anti-depressant for depression, thank you Captain Obvious. The drug regimen varies from patient to patient. I also utilize psychotherapy to help work out the psychological kinks associated with withdrawl and rebound effect symptoms. Another trick I strongly recommend to many of my patients, not just those withdrawing from alcohol or any drugs, is transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS. This is a non-invasive procedure done in the office that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, and I’ve found that it seems to calm the nerves and offer relief to some people in withdrawl. Electrodes are placed on the forehead and behind the ears and painless stimuli are passed into certain regions of the brain for 40 minutes in each daily session for about a month. Many patients say it’s the best 40 minutes of their day.
I’d like to wish Marianne good luck. Please feel free to call me at the office at 561-842-9950 if you have any questions.
To everyone else: If you can avoid ever having to take benzos, I strongly suggest that you do. If you’re currently taking them, give some serious thought to finding an alternative medication. I can help with that. For more information and stories about benzos, other drugs, and the process of medical detox, check out my book Tales from the Couch on Amazon.com.Learn More
Attention Deficit Disorder
ADD, Attention Defecit Disorder is a chronic condition marked by issues with attention. It is most often seen in childhood, but can persist into adulthood, and there are 3 million US cases per year. Due to it’s high prevalence, I want to take the opportunity to discuss the diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment of ADD.
ADD has a sister disorder called ADHD, Attention Defecit Hyperactivity Disorder. What’s the difference between them? It’s pretty simple. ADHD includes the symptom of physical hyperactivity or excessive restlessness. That’s what the “H” is for. In ADD, the symptom of hyperactivity is absent.
What are the hallmarks of this disorder? Basically, it is a disorder of concentration, marked by problems concentrating and the inability to stay on task. These individuals are easily distracted and readily bored. They move from project to project without finishing and start projects without all of the appropriate tools needed to complete them. This all leaves them very anxious. In cases of ADHD, they are also impulsive, intrusive, disruptive, and hyperactive, often constantly fidgeting.
What percent on the population are we dealing with here? Roughly 20% of boys and 11% of girls have some type of attention deficit disorder.
What are the causes of attention deficit disorder? While we don’t know exactly, there are several suspects. Maternal use of alcohol or cocaine while in utero is an extremely common finding. Brain infections when pregnant or during early childhood, head trauma, and any birth defects that affect child development are also suspected. Exposure to enviromental toxins and pesticides are suspect. Excessive video games alter brain chemistry, as does a diet of processed foods and sugar, and these are also suspected causes for attention deficit disorder. I would say the number one cause of ADD is most likely genetic, inherited from mother or father.
What is the result of having attention deficit disorder? How does it affect one’s life? It results in having problems fitting into the academic world or the job world. People with attention deficit disorder don’t fit into a regimented or organized educational or work environment. They can be very intelligent and productive people, but they don’t fit into what we would consider the stereotypical or standard type of academic setting or work setting. Also, due to their impulsivity and their disorderly conduct, they can wind up getting in trouble in school and in trouble with the law. They can be unsuccessful at work, not because they aren’t smart enough, but because they cannot stay focused. In terms of lifestyle, they also have a much higher rate of obesity. This is likely due to lack of impulse control, causing them to overeat. They have problems in relationships, and their divorce rates are much higher. Their propensity toward domestic violence may also be higher. They may also be more prone to Alzheimer’s disease. Because of all of these failures and shortcomings in the stereotypical organized worlds of education and career, they have much lower self-esteem. There are studies that report that up to 52% of people with attention deficit disorder have drug or alcohol problems.
So how can we help these people? How do we treat these illnesses? The number one treatment is behavioral training with a mental health professional. The gist of that is educating them to focus on one thing at a time. They are not able to handle instructions with multiple levels at once, but they can focus on one thing at a time and have success with that. Pharmacologically, ADD and ADHD are generally treated with amphetamine stimulants. Some antidepressantants may also benefit people with attention deficit disorder. Essentially, a combination of behavioral therapies, special education programs and medications show the most promise in the treatment of attention deficit disorder. But a diagnosis of ADD or ADHD isn’t all future doom and gloom. Eventually, people find their niche in the world and can become successful. The actor Ryan Gosling takes medication for his ADD and says that it may take him longer to read his scrips than other actors, but he manages to get the job done. Uber successful comedian Howie Mandel has successfully done just about all there is to do in Hollywood. I have met a lot of CEO’s with ADD, and they function well because they have people around them to take care of all the boring mundane tasks, giving them the chance to think freely and create business opportunities. They are creative and capable people. They are another example of why you can’t judge a book by it’s cover…you can’t assume that someone with a psych diagnosis will never make it in the world. Ask Richard Branson. I think he’s done pretty well for himself in the corporate world despite his ADD. Justin Bieber has ADHD and has managed to record a few hit songs. Olympian Michael Phelps has ADD, depression and anxiety, and that hasn’t stopped him.These are some examples of people that have adapted and overcome their diagnoses rather than be labeled by them. If you have ADD or any psych diagnosis, I’d suggest you follow their lead.
For more patient stories, check out my book Tales from the Couch, on Amazon.com.Learn More
Rather than just introducing you to today’s topic, I want to play a little game of ‘Who am I?’ I’ll give you ten clues and let’s see if you can guess who I am. And no looking down below and cheating!
1. Everyone has me, either intermittently or constantly.
2. I am an unwelcome guest.
3. Some people deal with me better than others do.
4. I keep lots of people up at night.
5. I make some people physically ill.
6. I can shrink your brain.
7. Some people take drugs to deal with me.
8. I can make some people binge, purge, or starve themselves.
9. I can cause a whole host of medical problems.
10. I have a good side, but nobody ever gives me credit for it!
I am defined as “a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension.”
So who am I?
I am STRESS!
I see so many stressed out people every day that I thought I’d do a little educational primer on stress.
Stress is a normal psychological and physical reaction to life’s everyday demands. A small amount of stress can be good. Positive stress is officially called eustress, and it can motivate you to perform well. But multiple challenges throughout the day such as sitting in traffic, meeting deadlines, managing children, and paying bills can push you beyond your ability to cope.
What’s going on in your brain when you feel stress? Your brain comes hard-wired with an alarm system for your protection. When your brain perceives a threat or a stressor, it signals your body to release a burst of hormones, especially cortisol, that increase your heart rate and raise your blood pressure. This is part of the fight or flight mechanism. But once the threat or stressor is gone, your body is meant to return to a normal, relaxed state. Unfortunately,some people’s alarm systems rarely shut off, causing chronic stress. When chronic stress is experienced, the body makes more cortisol than it has a chance to release. This has been shown to kill brain cells and even reduce the size of the brain. Chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. So it’s very important to find effective ways to deal with stress. Stress management gives you a range of tools to reset your brain’s alarm system. Without managing stress, your body might always be on high alert, and over time, this can lead to serious health problems and contribute to mental disorders such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. So don’t wait until stress damages your health, relationships, or quality of life…start practicing some stress management techniques.
To help combat the negative effects of stress and anxiety, here are five tips to help manage stress in your daily life…
1. Follow a Regular Sleep Routine
It may seem like simple advice, but often the simplest advice is the best advice. Following a regular sleep routine can help you decompress, recharge, and rejuvenate your body and mind after a stressful day. Try going to bed at the same time every night and aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep. Resist the urge to stay up late watching TV. In fact, avoid screen time altogether before bed, including tablets and smart phones. Studies have proven that reading on a backlit device before bed interrupts the body’s natural process of falling asleep. These devices also impact how sleepy and alert you are the following day.
2. Use Exercise to Combat Stress
Exercising regularly can have an enormous impact on how your body deals with stress, and it is one of the most recommended ways doctors instruct patients to reduce stress. The endorphins released while exercising can help improve your overall health, reduce stress levels, regulate sleep pattern, and improve mood. The key to exercising is to choose something that you truly enjoy. Whether it’s going for a walk, taking an exercise class at the gym, going for a swim, or lifting weights, exercise keeps us healthy. Make sure to mix up your exercise routine to prevent boredom and stay motivated.
3. Learn How to Meditate
One of the simplest ways to help alleviate stress is to practice deep breathing and meditation. There’s no secret to this, and you don’t have to chant and burn incense or any of that. It’s just about finding a quiet space without distractions. It only takes a few minutes every day, either before bed or first thing in the morning. Breathe in through your nose, letting your abdomen expand. Hold your breath for a count of three, then breathe out slowly through your mouth. Repeat this three times. Focus on your breathing and your heart beat to prevent thinking about everything that you need to do. If doing it in the morning allows stressful thoughts of the upcoming day to intrude, try it at night. Deep breathing is especially important when your stress levels are high. Aim for meditating for at least 15 to 20 minutes, but if you’re feeling pressured during the day, a quick 5-minute meditation session can help you chill out.
4. Take Care of Your Skin
It may not seem like skin care and stress prevention are linked, but they are. Have you ever noticed that your skin is more prone to break out when you’re stressed out? How many times have you gotten up for work all stressed out about a presentation and looked in the mirror only to see a big zit on your nose? For crying out loud…why the heck is that?!!? How does your skin know you have a big presentation? Well, stress causes a chemical response that makes your skin more sensitive. And as we discussed, your body produces more cortisol when stressed, which causes your sebaceous glands to produce more oil. More oil means oily skin that is prone to acne. So it’s important not to neglect your skin care routine, especially when you’re stressed out. This goes for both guys and girls. You may be exhausted at night and want to go straight to bed, but taking an extra few minutes to wash your face and remove daily dirt and any facial products or makeup you’ve worn during the day will make a world of difference. And if you’re prone to oily or dry skin, always choose skin care products that are specifically designed for your skin type. Your skin will thank you for it by surprising you with big red zits less often.
5. Ask For Help When You Need it
Asking for help may not always be easy, but when you need a shoulder to cry on or someone to listen, it can help put things into perspective. Seeking support from family and friends or a professional isn’t a sign of weakness. In fact, it takes courage to admit you need help. Many patients that I see for the first time have been needlessly suffering for so long. I feel terrible for them. There is no reason not to seek help for any ailment affecting your health, especially your mental health. Patients who wait until they start to develop multiple physical and psychiatric issues before seeking help have a much harder time recovering than those who seek help sooner. Remember that friends and family are great support, but if you develop any signs of anxiety or depression or other mental health issues, get help from a licensed mental health professional immediately. In my experience, some patients may need medication, but some do not, they find relief through simple talk therapy with me. It’s very much an individualized assessment. While not a replacement for professional help, you can also look for online support groups for stress management. You’re not the only person who’s ever dealt with a specific stressful situation, so why not discover how other people managed their stress and overcame a potentially frustrating situation.
Hopefully after reading this you have a better understanding of what stress is, how it can impact your physical and mental health, and what you can do to start dealing with it effectively to minimize its role in your life. If you feel you need help, call my office for an appointment. I can help you. For more mental health topics and stories, check out my book Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com or for purchase in my Palm Beach office.Learn More
Slumber, shuteye, repose, siesta, snooze…Sometimes we have a love-hate relationship with it…we love it when it’s good and curse it when it’s bad, but we all need it. Whatever you call it, one complaint I hear from patients day in and day out is that they have difficulty sleeping. It’s so prevalent that I want to discuss how to get better sleep. In my 30 years of practice, I’ve compiled a list of 14 things in no specific order that you can do that should have you snoozing at night night in no time.
Rule 1: Bright light during the day. Your body has to have bright light during the day; sunshine is best, but even sitting in a bright room, like by a window, is helpful. Bright light tells your brain that it is day time, time to be awake. Darkness or the absence of bright light tells the brain it is night time, time to sleep. If you’re in a dark room all day, you probably won’t sleep well at night. So remember, in the day time, bright light is right.
Rule 2: Limit blue light. What is blue light? Blue light is what is emitted from your computer, laptop, and smartphone. The more blue light you are exposed to, especially at night, the more disruption you’ll have in sleep, as it disrupts circadian rhythm. Lots of people climb into bed with their cell phone or iPad, and that’s the worst thing to do. You should avoid looking at bright screens beginning two to three hours before bed. There are apps you can install on your phone that filter out the blue light. There’s also something called “F. Lux” that you can put on your computer or iPad which will block out the blue light. You never hear about it, but blue light exposure, especially at night, is a major factor in hindering sleep.
Rule 3: Captain Obvious here with a newsflash. Caffeine will keep you up at night. Don’t think you’re going to have coffee or tea after dinner or before bed and expect to sleep. And if you’re drinking sodas, coffee, or iced tea all day, it’ll still disrupt your sleep. I tell patients to limit caffeine consumption to under 250 – 300mg a day. As a guide, an 8oz cup of coffee has about 100mg caffeine, the same amount of tea has 24mg, a 12oz can of soda has 34mg, and those gnarly energy shots have 200mg of caffeine! I strongly advise against consuming caffeine after lunch if you plan on a bedtime between 10pm and midnight.
Rule 4: No naps! Boo! Hiss! Why is it that as kids, just the word nap sent us into a tizzy tantrum, but as adults we love naps? If anyone has an answer, please let me know. Anyway, as satisfying as it is, napping disrupts your sleep-wake cycle, temporarily resetting it to where you’re not likely to be able to go to bed between 10pm and midnight. Bummer.
Rule 5: Melatonin. I recommend 2 to 4mg of melatonin at bedtime; it really seems to help a lot of my patients. I do find that some patients get daytime hangover from it though, so you’ll have to see where you fall on that one. But it’s definitely worth a shot if you’re suffering from insomnia.
Rule 6: Get up at the same time every day, and go to bed at the same time every day. Yeah, it’s kind of a drag not sleeping in on weekends, but a sleep routine can make a big difference in your relationship with Mr. Sandman. You can’t regulate when you’ll fall asleep, but you can regulate when you wake up. So set your alarm and get up at the same time every day, no matter how tired you are. Don’t nap and go to sleep between 10pm and midnight, and you should fall asleep. If sleep still eludes you, stick to the same plan, and you should surely sleep the second night. You can’t decide when you’ll fall asleep at night, but you can regulate your sleep-wake cycle by deciding when you wake up. Stick to setting your alarm for the same time every day, and hopefully your brain will get the idea.
Rule 7: I recommend taking a glycine or magnesium supplement at night as well as L-theanine and lavender. They don’t make lavender teas, pillow sprays, lotions, and sachets for nothing. I have heard from people that swear by lavender as part of their wind down routine before bed. You can find these supplements on Amazon.com. Shameless plug: handily enough, you can also find my book, Tales from the Couch for sale there too. Check it out.
Rule 8: This is the Mac Daddy, numero uno, absolute, not-to-be-broken rule. Alcohol. If you consume alcohol before sleep, you will not sleep. Why? As the body metabolizes the alcohol, it goes into a withdrawl-like reaction and disrupts sleep. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that a little nightcap helps you sleep. Wrong. Some people will tell you differently, but trust me…alcohol and sleep do not play well together.
Rule 9: A comfortable bedroom. Your bedroom should be an oasis of calm serenity. There should be no office or desk in the bedroom. It should be uncluttered. Anything not conducive to sleep should be out. Make sure it’s dark and quiet at bedtime. The weight of multiple blankets can help sleep. You can even purchase weighted blankets expressly for this purpose. The weight is comforting and relaxing to the body.
Rule 10: This sort of goes hand in hand with #9 above. Try a low temperature in the bedroom. I personally make sure my bedroom is at 70 degrees. The blankets from rule number 9 come into play here too. There’s something very comforting about burrowing under fluffy blankets to go to sleep. I mean, they’re called comforters for a good reason.
Rule 10: No eating late at night. People seem to mostly make terrible food choices at night, all in the name of snacks…chips, candies, baked goods. Sugary foods are especially bad. When you eat, the body goes into digestive mode, not sleep mode; it is very interfering to sleep. Sugars especially are no bueno. Evening or night snacking is one of the worst things you can do If you want to sleep.
Rule 11: Relax and clear your mind. There’s an older pop song that has a lyric, Free your mind and the rest will follow. It’s true. We all have problems and stresses throughout the day, and they seem to pop up when your head hits the pillow. You have to come to some resolution on how you’re going to handle the problems in your life and put them to bed so that you can put the rest of you to bed.
Rule 12: Spend money on a comfortable quality mattress. You’re going to spend a third of your life in your bed. Just suck it up and spend the money on the mattress. Don’t cheap out. Another place to spend money is on good linens. Few things are as inviting as a comfortable mattress covered in minimum 1,000 thread count all-cotton sheets. If you’ve never had nice linens, try them.You can pick them up on a white sale or online. You can thank me later.
Rule 13: No exercising late at night. When you exercise late at night, you raise blood pressure and heart rate, which will hype up the body, which is the antithesis of what you want when it’s time to sleep.
Rule 14: No liquids prior to sleeping. No rocket science here. If you put liquids in, you’re going to need to get liquids out. In other words, you’re going to have to get up in the middle of the night to pee. And you’re probably going to stub your toe. Not good.
This is my handy dandy guide on the do’s and don’ts when it comes to sleep. Anything is better than counting sheep. I don’t know who came up with that, but I would like to inform them that I have never in 30 years heard of it working. I’ve never before wanted people to fall asleep as a result of reading something I wrote, so this is a first! I hope you’ve learned some things here that will put you out like a light.Learn More
As a psychiatrist practicing in Palm Beach Florida, I come across a lot of bipolar patients. What are the warning signs of bipolar disorder? How can you recognize if someone you love or even yourself has bipolar disorder? You can’t get through an hour television program without at least 2 commercials for bipolar medications, so I thought it would be a good idea to talk about it.
First, what is bipolar? Bipolar disorder is a mental health disorder more commonly found in women that can cause dramatic changes in mood and energy levels. The term bipolar refers to the two poles of the disorder, the extremes of mood. Those two extremes of mood are mania and depression. The symptoms of bipolar can affect a person’s daily life severely as their mood can range from feelings of elation and high energy to depression. There are two types of bipolar, type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is more serious and disruptive than type 2, which can also be called hypomania.
Bipolar is sort of the Jekyl and Hyde of psychiatric disorders, with cycling of mania and depression. Manic episodes and depressive episodes have very specific signs and symptoms associated with them.
When someone is manic, they do not just feel very happy. They feel euphoric. Key features of mania include, but are not limited to:
– having a lot of energy
– feeling able to achieve anything
– having difficulty sleeping
– using rapid speech that jumps between topics.
– inability to follow through with ideas or tasks
– feeling agitated, jumpy, or wired
– engaging in risky behaviors, such as reckless sex, spending a lot of money, dangerous driving, or unwise consumption of alcohol and other substances
– believing that they are more important than others or have important connections
– exhibiting anger, aggression, or violence if others challenge their views or behavior
– in severe cases, mania can involve psychosis, with hallucinations that can cause them to see, hear, or feel things that are not there.
People in a manic state may also have delusions and distorted thinking that cause them to believe that certain things are true when they are not. While I have many patients that get delusions of grandeur, I have one patient that comes to mind. Her name is Felicia. Felicia is a 32-year-old receptionist. She was diagnosed with bipolar type 1 when she was 25, which happens to be the typical age of diagnosis. Felicia is on two medications for her bipolar with mixed results. She still cycles occasionally to a manic state. Sometimes that’s a clue that she may not be compliant with her meds. Like many bipolar people, Felicia loves loves loves her manic state. When Felicia is manic, she is on top of the world. Her house is pristinely clean, the meals she makes for her family are total gourmet, and her appearance is perfect. Sounds great, right? You may be thinking ‘Where’s the downside, Dr. A?’ Well, in this manic state, Felicia absolutely positively believes that she is descended from “the true” royalty. She believes that the father of the current Queen of England, the previous King George VI, actually stole the monarchy and the crown from her father. As a result, she believes that she should be the rightful current monarch. In reality, her father is a semi-retired urban planner living just outside of Topeka Kansas. Regardless, when Felicia is super manic, she will relay this story with a voice full of indignation and a perfectly straight face. She will tell anyone this story, so people think she’s totally nuts.
A person in a manic state may not realize that their behavior is unusual, but others may notice a change in behavior. Some people may see the person’s outlook as eccentric or sociable and fun-loving, while others may find it unusual or bizarre. The individual may not realize that they are acting inappropriately or be aware of the potential consequences of their behavior. In some cases, they may need help in staying safe when they are completely out of touch with reality. Bipolar type 1 patients can be some of the most dangerous patients in my practice, as they can be violent, prone to rage and acting out on that rage. They are chaotic. If you have an untreated or ineffectively treated bipolar 1 person in the household, you will know. One big problem is that patients enjoy the manic state of their disorder. They feel such increased energy and euphoria that they are prone to stop taking their meds. Once that happens, all hell breaks loose.
But eventually, that mania will cycle into deep depression with all of the symptoms that go with it, and may end with suicidal thoughts or acts. Key features of depressive episodes may include, but are not limited to:
– feeling down or sad
– having very little energy
– having trouble sleeping or sleeping a lot more than usual
– thinking of death or suicide
– forgetting things
– feeling tired
– losing enjoyment in daily activities
– having a flatness of emotion that may show in the person’s facial expression
– In very severe cases, a person may experience psychosis or a catatonic depression, in which they are unable to move, talk, or take any action.
Bipolar type 2, also called hypomania, is a disorder which is sort of like type 1-light. It features episodes of depression and hypomania. Symptoms of hypomania are similar to those of mania, but the behaviors are less extreme, and people can often function well in their daily life. But if a person does not address the signs of hypomania, it can progress into the more severe form of the condition at a later time. I see type 2 patients more often in my practice, and I see them as generally being much calmer than type 1 patients. They do not get as violent, do not hear voices, do not have hallucinations, and are not disorganized in their speech or behavior. However, they are usually irritable. They talk quickly. They have trouble sleeping. They have trouble concentrating. They have trouble getting things done. They have relationship issues. They have trouble sleeping. These periods of hypomania can last anywhere between minutes to days to weeks.
So what can be done for a patient suffering from bipolar disorder, whether type 1 or 2? There are multiple drugs which can be used to balance the patient. I find my go-to drug would be lamotrigine, as it is minimal in its side effect profile, is mood stabilizing, does not put on weight, does not make you drowsy, and does not have many drug interactions. There are other drugs which can be used, oxcarbazepine and divalproex, which are antiseizure mood stabilizers. These have some effectiveness and have various side effect profiles. In some cases, antipsychotic drugs like lurasidone are useful. Many times I put patients on at least two drugs, one to treat mania and one to treat depression. I can prescribe all the drugs in the world, but they won’t do any good if patients are non-compliant in taking them. So the biggest and most important key feature in treating bipolar is having a relationship with the patient and making sure they are compliant with medicine, because the manic state is so enjoyable to them that they may choose non-compliance. That’s really the biggest barrier to treatment. I always explain to my manic patients that while they may like the mania, they will have to pay the piper, because guess what? Next they’ll be hopelessly depressed and unable to get out of bed.
In my practice, I see many female patients with mood disorders. The way I approach treatment is to find the best tolerated drug. This may not be the best drug on the market, but may be the best drug for that patient because it is better tolerated and has a better side effect profile for that patient. If the drugs cause weight gain, make them drowsy, or cause sexual dysfunction, they won’t take them. And who would blame them? So I work very hard to explore all available pharmaceutical treatment options for each patient as an individual. The goal is to have a drug regimen which is the least invasive in that person’s life and to combine that with psychotherapy. Because bipolar disorder is a lifelong disease, treatment should also be lifelong. If you suspect that you have bipolar or a loved one has bipolar, contact a physician for referral to a mental health professional like myself. For more information, check out my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com.Learn More
For many people, sleep is an important part of their life. When interrupted by tension or anxiety, the loss of sleep can bring about depression. Anxiety sleep disorder treatment is typically no effort to find, specifically if the loss of sleep is occasional, as opposed to chronic.
In some cases, the person may have to consult their physician for a more particular depression anxiety sleep disorder therapy such as prescription medicine. Most of the time, sleep issues are a sign of other problems, and until the underlying problem is resolved, the sleep disorder will continue.
Among the most common sleep problems is tension, as individuals are unable to ease their mind enough to sleep. Often times after they do get to sleep, they awaken in the middle of the night thinking about what is causing their stress. For most, an effective depression anxiety sleep disorder treatment may be a sleep aid to help clear their mind so they can fall asleep quickly. For others, a time release formula might be needed to help them stay asleep throughout the night.
Some nonprescription sleep aids might help at first, but, their effectiveness is iffy as a depression anxiety sleep disorder solution. Finding ways to take care of depression or stress will be more effective in the long term. Many sleep aids affect the nervous system to put an individual to sleep. Those dealing with depression anxiety sleep disorder, treatment may consist of drugs that work as an antidepressant, as well as calm their stress and anxiety.
Many of these have unwanted results such as building an addiction; requiring continued use to help them get to sleep. The good news is that many antidepressants prescribed by their physicians can end the depression and help them sleep without extra sleep aids.
For periodic problems with sleeping, over the counter medicine can help them sleep. For depression anxiety sleep disorder treatment, a physician can help identify the causes of depression and anxiety, and remove them. If it is a temporary circumstance, such as a major life-changing event, short-term aid can eliminate any long-lasting effects.
For a few, depression anxiety sleep disorder treatment could continue for many years without any obvious environmental cause of the depression or stress. As soon as the causes have been recognized and removed, the physician can then prescribe a continuing depression anxiety sleep disorder treatment to assist the patient with their sleep disorder.Learn More