The majority of my practice is made up of fairly young people, so I’m very well aware of what makes them tick. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a definite trend of increasing unhappiness, a dissatisfaction with life. It’s enough to where I’ve begun unofficially gathering data on the phenomenon and formulating some conclusions based on hundreds of hours listening to them, and I’ve come up with a set of circumstances and reasons why I believe they aren’t happy. I’m going to share them with you so that you might better understand them. Why is it important? Why should you care? Well, aside from the fact that they may be your sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, or the friends of same, these are the future leaders of our country, the people who are going to be running things when people of my age are sitting in rocking chairs on porches or rotting away in some old folks home. Sad but true. So, why are young Americans so unhappy? In my opinion, the overarching theme is that the institutions and/ or systems that are meant to guide and give direction are essentially failing to do so, and that leaves this group adrift and rudderless. Below is a listing of these institutions and systems, along with an explanation of the issue(s).
Social media: I have discussed the “evils” of social media many times in other blogs and videos, but there is a definite correlation between the amount of time that the average young American spends on social media and depression and anxiety. Believe it or not, that number is six hours per day. That’s the average amount of time spent on social media daily. Studies have shown that anything north of two hours a day is linked to depression and anxiety. As it pertains to this blog, I think the real issue with social media is that it causes loneliness. When you are only electronically connected with someone, you are not actually with that person…you are actually alone. Loneliness is also a by-product of gaming, web surfing, video watching, video sharing, texting, e-mailing, etc. These are solitary pursuits, often leaving users feeling empty.
Patriotism: We now find ourselves in a position where our confidence in our government and its leaders is in serious decline. We have little to no faith in the powers that be, the officials running our country. As a result, the level of patriotism in our country is nowhere near what it was one generation ago. There is little belief in the “American way” and the power of the “red, white, and blue,” not just in the eyes of many Americans, but even worse, in the eyes of people around the globe. One generation ago, the US used to be respected, even feared, as a superpower. These days, the US is a veritable laughing stock, not respected nor feared. For young Americans, this engenders a sense of chaos, a distinct lack of confidence, and mistrust. The government is not fulfilling its role to help guide us, give us meaning, direction, and purpose; or a sense of belonging to something bigger.
Religion: Today, people are much less involved in organized religion as they used to be. The church used to be a pillar in the community, the place where you saw your neighbors and friends every Sunday morning. Today, churches are often a hotbed of controversy and even scandal. They are no longer sacred places of reverence, no longerinstitutions that establish guiding principles and give people direction. Organized religions and churches are now sources of mistrust and outdated principles in the eyes of many young Americans, a far cry from even the previous generation. Today’s young people have an ingrained sense of mistrust of authority, especially when that authority attempts to dictate the way they “should” live their lives. Many are not willing to “confess” to a stranger that has not proved themselves, or turn their lives over to someone or something they cannot see or challenge. The church used to be a tether of sorts, creating a sense of community. That sense is absent in young Americans, so whether realized or not, they are more adrift than previous generations.
Family: Today, young people are marrying less often. Many don’t even subscribe to the ideology of monogamy for life, it is an archaic notion to them. The previous generation had their sexual revolution, but today’s young Americans are in the midst of a far different sexual revolution, one in which you may not even be the gender you were born into. Having children or being part of a family is no longer predicated on marriage for them; they don’t live their lives for a piece of paper, they live them for themselves and the people they love. Marriages are also happening much later in life, after personal goals like education or travel have been fulfilled. Today, the definition of family has changed drastically from that of the previous generations, and it is a fluid definition, not set in stone as masculine father married to feminine mother that are parents to 2.5 biological offspring. The value of having a family is less than the value of having a fulfilled and accomplished life, whatever that may mean or look like to the individual. Today’s young Americans make their own definitions. Previous generations had faith in the institutions of marriage and family, and that faith grounded them. Many young Americans express to me that they don’t feel anchored or rooted in their personal lives, and I believe it’s because of their negative thoughts about marriage and family. Life is often a team sport, so free agents may be left out in the cold.
Employment security: Individuals from previous generations expected to establish a secure career path, and invest themselves in a company where the boss knows their name. They would start in one position and expect to work hard to move up through the ranks for forty years, and then get the gold watch and retire with a pension. That is decidedly not the case for young Americans today. For them, it’s all about taking jobs that make money now, not jobs that will make money five, ten, or fifteen years from now. They expect they will likely take a series of jobs; they are willing to follow the money. There is no career path or job security. Why? Technology. It’s a double edged sword. It advances our society, but it also dictates career obsolescence. Young people don’t know who will be able to stay in what kind of particular career for any length of time. So they do what works here and now, and they don’t count on having a future doing that same thing. They know that technology or corporate governance will probably erase that job, so they don’t invest themselves in it. They expect it will be outdated,outsourced, taken away by an algorithm or artificial intelligence, a robot, or novel software or methodology. Young Americans know they must make hay while the sun shines. They have no job security, no employer-employee loyalty, and they definitely don’t expect a gold watch. When I talk to young Americans, it’s almost an automatic ‘I‘m screwed attitude’ that I hear from them. It’s pretty clear that the lack of basic job security can lead to undue anxiety and even anger and depression in this group.
Heroism: It seems that heroism decreases with every generation. It used to be that people idolized movie stars in Hollywood and heroes in the sporting world; but young Americans see these people as false heroes. They are exposed as such on social media and in courtrooms across the country. They’re people who can memorize and spit back lines in a script, but they are anti-human beings on the inside. They are not real heroes. They are fabricated by Hollywood or idolized on a field simply because they can run fast, catch a ball, or hit hard. Those things don’t make them heroes, don’t make them deserving of idolatry. Look at O.J. Simpson, he got away with double murder because he was a football hero, and that blinded the jury. Or the recent college admissions scandals, where rich actors believed they were above the law and could afford to pay people to lie, cheat, and steal on their behalf in order to get their kids into a specific college. In reality, they’re dirtbags with more money than scruples. Young Americans see through all of that kind of bs and don’t tolerate it, which is a good thing; but it also makes them jaded, which isn’t such a good thing.
Technology: As I mentioned before, technology is a double-edged sword. For all of its good, it also makes people outdated very quickly. It causes uncertainty to cloud our futures, and leads to complexity and chaos, because we do not know what’s going to happen next or how our livelihoods will be affected by the advances in technology. If you’re a cashier, a bank teller, a retail worker, a postal worker, a UPS driver…anxiety city. Earlier this month, the drug store CVS had a live test for delivery of medications during the coronavirus pamdemic via drone for a huge senior community in Orlando, a job that had employed humans. Evidently it was a great success. Even the practice of medicine is under threat of being replaced by algorithms. There is even an algorithm for the practice of radiology, which has the highest malpractice insurance rates, along with obstetrics. If radiology becomes algorithmic, then that affects insurance companies too. I guess no career path is an island. Think about Detroit- the car companies that all went automated. People were replaced by robotic machines that never get sick, don’t have unions, don’t take vacations, and don’t complain. It became a ghost town overnight. Young people almost need a crystal ball to make a decision on what to do for work, so they don’t think in the long term future, they take a job to make money now, whether they like it or not. They lack security, and that does affect their psyche.
News Media: The media used to be a trusted organization. When the news came on, previous generations watched and listened and believed. If it was stated or printed, it was so. Nobody trusts the media anymore, their opinions are bought by the highest bidder. It is so biased that if you watch it you are misinformed, but if you don’t watch it,you are ill-informed, so there’s just no way to win. These days, every news outlet has its own agenda, and damn if you can figure out what it is. Where previous generations believed that if it was in print or on the television it was true, today, young Americans have zero faith in the institution of media and news reporting. They take everything with a grain of salt, because they have to. Facts are no longer factual, and truth is no longer subject to reality.
University educational system: Young Americans see this for what it is…a biased, outdated system to give people a questionable education in return for saddling them with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. They overcharge for an archaic teaching methodology, then pronounce graduates “educated.” Those graduates then enter the job market and find that surprise(!) they aren’t really prepared to work anywhere.
. Two year technical degrees are most definitely more appealing to young Americans these days, because at least they walk out of there certified in a trade, able to do something for someone somewhere. Our educational systems are a failure, in desperate need of an overhaul. They don’t do the vast majority of young Americans any justice at all.
Do you see a pattern here? All of these organizations and systems that are meant to give us direction, give us purpose, and set us up for the future, seem to be failing, becoming less important, less useful, or not worthy of our trust. We have no confidence that what our leaders are saying is worthwhile or applicable to our real life. As a result, we are generally more cynical. It is a precarious situation for young Americans, and there are no google maps to get from here to there or now to then. So I have some suggestions.
Dear Young Americans,
I’m sorry the world is basically stacked against you. Following are some suggestions on how to deal with the hand you’ve been dealt.
Be original. Create your own moral codes and live by them. Decide which relationships are most important to you, and build them up so as to make them permanent and impermiable. They are the most valuable things in your life. Treat them as such.
The place where you sleep at night is your home. The area surrounding it is your community. The area surrounding that is your environment. Your home, your community, and your environment are important. Always endeavour to make them a better place.
You do not require an organized religion or a brick-and-mortar church to live a spiritual life, to believethat there is something greater than you in the universe, or to be grateful to it.
Only you can decide what your work life will look like or what career direction is for you. The job you’re in does not have to dictate your path, it can be a stepping stone to the work life that you wishto create.
You must decide how to approach politics. Don’t let it entrap or bias you. Don’t deal in generalities, only in specifics. Decide what issues matter to you and work toward improving them.
Some part of your life must be dedicated to a charity or charities of your choice. It’s a two-for-one…by helping others we help ourselves, enriching our lives at the same time.
Understand the pitfalls of social media. It is a solitary pursuit, born and bearing of loneliness. In healthy measures, social media is a positive andessential part of life, educating us and expanding our horizons. Optimize the positives and eliminate the negatives, don’t overuse and abuse it.
Remember that by its very nature, life is constantly changing. As such, it must be reexamined andreevaluated on a continual basis.
Good luck. Make yourself proud of yourself.
Mark Agresti M.D.Learn More
A Coronavirus PSA
Before we get to this next blog on suicide, I must say something related to Coronavirus transmission, because I’m tired of yelling it at my television when I see people doing it or talking about it, how “safe” it is. What is it? It’s “elbow love,” bumping elbows with someone to say hello, goodbye, good job, whassup, whatever. Think about this, people: during this viral outbreak, what have we been asking people to do when they sneeze or cough? Ideally, to do so in a tissue, but that’s not realistic, it rarely happens, so we ask them to sneeze or cough into their bent arm, at the elbow. Get the picture? The droplets they expell during that sneeze or cough are deposited everywhere surrounding that area, including the part you bump, so if your “bumpee” has Coronavirus, even if they have no symptoms, you, the “bumper” get those bijillions of virions on your elbow, and you can take them home with you. Then maybe your spouse or partner welcomes you home by putting their hands on your arms to give you a kiss… and now half a bijillion virions may be on one of their hands, just waiting to be deposited everywhere. Bottom line: for as long as this virus is around, use your words, not your body, to say whassup. So pass this knowledge on…not the virus.
Suicide is always a very difficult topic for every family, and in thirty years as a psychiatrist, it’s never gotten much easier to broach this subject. What motivated me to write this blog is a recent conversation I had with the father of one of my young patients, a fourteen-year-old named Collin, who in fact had just made what I believed was a half-hearted suicide attempt; the proverbial ‘cry for help.’ Understand that half-hearted does not mean it’s totally safe to blow it off, but we’ll get to an explanation about that later. His father, Lawrence, who prefers to be called Law, was a single parent, a widower after metastatic melanoma devastated the family of three about eighteen months before. Shortly after the mother, Sharon, passed away, Law brought Collin to my office. It was clear from the first appointment that Collin was depressed, and had been for some time. Psychotherapy was difficult with him, and it took about five appointments to establish more than a tenuous relationship and for him to begin to open up to me. I had tried him on a couple of medications, but they never seemed to do the job. I strongly suspected that it was due to a compliance issue. Actually, I’m certain that it was. He just didn’t take them regularly or as directed. That always mystifies me, patients who are miserable, anxious and depressed, but they take their meds haphazardly, at best; meds that could turn their worlds around…not because they’re inconvenient, and not because of side effects, just because. So, the tenuous connection made for less than optimal psychotherapy sessions, and that, combined with the absence of appropriate meds, put Collin on a path that led here, my office, 22 hours after his attempt. I was a little shocked by his attempt, but very shocked at how effectively, how deeply, he was able to hide the monumental amount of pain that he had obviously been feeling. His father Law looked exhausted, shellshocked, and was having such difficulty talking about it for a number of reasons, but he told me that one of the main reasons was shame. He was ashamed that Collin was so ill, and even ashamed that he was ashamed of it. He was ashamed that he could do nothing to help him, and ashamed that he had possibly caused or contributed to his son’s illness. I told him repeatedly and in several different ways that I understood, that his feelings weren’t unusual among parents of children like Collin, that he absolutely was helping him, and that while mental illness does have a familial component, he was not responsible in any way for his sons illness or attempt. Unfortunately, I don’t think he really heard a word I said. In my experience, suicidal ideation, thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts, and the actual act of suicide affects everyone it touches in a way that no other psychiatric illness does. But in this situation, I think Law was thinking about what his life would be like if Collin tried again and succeeded. It would be very sad, alone, and lonely.
Facts and Figures
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, claiming 47,173 lives in 2019. Montana and Alaska have the highest suicide rates, which is interesting because both of those states have very high gun ownership rates. Believe it or not, New Jersey is the lowest. I have no clue why that would be the case. There were 1.4 million suicide attempts last year in the US. Men are 3.54 times more likely than women to commit suicide. Of all the suicides in the United States last year, 69.67% were white men; they don’t seem to be doing so well. The most common way to commit suicide is by firearm, at about 50%; suffocation is 27.7%, poisoning is 13.9%, and other would be the rest, things like jumping from a tall building or bridge, laying on train tracks or jumping in front of a subway car or a bus. Among US citizens, depression affects 20 to 25% of the population, so at any given point, 20% of the population is a bit more prone to suicide, as obvi people must first be depressed (chronically or acutely) before attempting suicide. There are 24 suicide attempts for every 1 completed suicide. The most disturbing statistic is that suicide rates are up 30% in the past 16 years, with a marked increase in adolescent suicides, and suicide is now the second leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 24.
You would think the US would have the highest suicide rates in the world, but in fact, Russia, China, and Japan are all higher.
Suicide Risk Factors
What are some factors that may put someone at higher risk of suicide?
– Family history of completed suicide in first-degree relatives
– Adverse childhood experiences, ie parental loss, emotional/ physical/ sexual abuse
– Negative life situations, ie loss of a business, financial issues, job loss
– Psychosocial stressors, ie death of loved one, separation, divorce, or breakup of relationship, isolation
– Acute and chronic health issues, illness and/ or incapacity, ie stroke, paralysis, mental illness, diagnoses of conditions like HIV or cancer, chronic pain syndromes
But, understand there’s no rule that someone must have one or more of these factors in order to be suicidal.
Mental Illness and Suicidality
In order to make a thorough suicide risk assessment, mental illness must be considered. There seem to be 6 mental health diagnoses that people who successfully complete suicide have in common:
– Bipolar disorder
– Schizoaffective disorder
– Post-traumatic stress disorder
– Substance abuse
Suicidal ideation refers to the thoughts that a person may have about suicide, or committing suicide. Suicidal ideation must be assessed when it is expressed, as it plays an important role in developing a complete suicide risk assessment. Assessing suicidal ideation includes:
– Determining the extent of the person’s preoccupation with thoughts of suicide, ie continuous? Intermittent? If so, how often?
– Specific plans; if they exist or not; if yes, how detailed or thought out?
– Person’s reason(s) or motivation(s) to attempt suicide
Assessment of Suicide Risk
Assessing suicide risk includes the full examination/ assessment of:
– The degree of planning
– The potential or perceived lethality of the specific suicide method being considered, ie gun versus overdose versus hanging
– Whether the person has access to the means to carry out the suicide plan, ie a gun, the pills, rope
– Access to the place to commit
– Note: presence, timing, content
– Person’s reason(s) to commit suicide; motivated only by wish to die; highly varied; ie overwhelming emotions, deep philosophical belief
– Person’s motivation(s) to commit suicide; not motivated only by wish to die; motivated to end suffering, ie from physical pain, terminal illness
– Person’s motivation(s) to live, not commit suicide
What is a Suicide Plan?
A suicide plan may be written or kept in someone’s head; it generally includes the following elements:
– Timing of the suicide event
– Access to the method and setting of suicide event
– Actions taken toward carrying out the plan, ie obtaining gun, poison, rope; seeking/ choosing/ inspecting a setting; rehearsing the plan
The more detailed and specific the suicide plan, the greater the level of risk. The presence of a suicide note suggests more premeditation and typically greater suicidal intent, so an assessment would definitely include an exploration of the timing and content of any suicide note, as well as a thorough discussion of its meaning with its author.
I spent years teaching suicide assessment to other physicians, medical students, nurses, therapists, you name it. It all seems super complicated when you look at all the above factors written out, but as I always taught, it becomes clearer when you put it into practice. What are we doing when we embark on a suicide assessment? We’re determining suicidality, the likelihood that someone will committ suicide. You’re deciding how dangerous someone is to themselves using the factors discussed above. You’re either looking at how lethal they could be, how lethal they are at this time, or how lethal they wereduring a previous episode of suicidal ideation or previous suicide attempt.
When we put this all into practice, we look at statements and actions to determine how dangerous a person is. Did someone say, ‘if so and so does this, I’ll kill myself’ or, did someone act but just scratched their wrist? Those would be low level lethality, and they would not be very dangerous. Did someone buy a gun, load the ammunition, learn how to shoot it, go to the place where they planned to kill themselves at the time they planned, and then practice putting the gun to their head…essesntially a dry run? That would be the most lethal; that person would be the most dangerous. Those are the two poles of lethality and danger, but there are variant degrees and many shades of gray, so you really have to discuss it very thoroughly with each individual.
Let’s say a 15-year-old is in the office after taking a big handful of pills in a suicide attempt. I ask him if he realized that taking those pills could have actually killed him, and he says no. He’s not that lethal, not that dangerous, because even though his means (pill overdose) was lethal, he didn’t know it was, so lacking that knowledge mitigates the risk, making him less dangerous. Example: acetominophen is actually extremely lethal. People who truly overdose on it don’t die immediately, but it shuts down the liver, killing them two days later. A person that takes a bunch of it thinking it’s a harmless over the counter drug is not that dangerous, because even though their method was lethal, they didn’t know it. In a similar manner, I’ve had people mix benzos with alcohol, which is another very lethal method. It’s a very successful way to kill yourself, but a lot of people don’t realize it, so it’s not that lethal to them. In the reverse case, people who know about combining alcohol and benzodiazepines, who know how dangerous it is, are dangerous, highly lethal to themselves.
People who play with guns, like Russian Roulette-type stuff; or people who intentionally try asphyxiating or suffocating themselves, as for sexual pleasure; or people who tie a rope to a rafter and then test their weight…these people are very dangerous, very lethal, very scary to psychiatrists.
Where someone attempts suicide is also very telling, very instructive in determining their lethality, how suicidal, how dangerous they are. If they do it in a place where there is no chance of being found, of being interrupted, they are very suicidal, very dangerous. Contrast that to doing it in a place where there are people walking by, or in a house where someone is, or could be coming home, then they are not as suicidal, not as dangerous. As an exaple, let’s say someone leaves their car running in a garage when they know that no one will be around for 2 days. That is very dangerous, they are very suicidal. If someone takes an opiate overdose at night when everyone’s in bed so they won’t find them for many hours, they are dangerous. If someone takes the overdose during the day, when people are awake at home, they are less dangerous.
A change in somone’s behaviors and/ or outlook can also help determine lethality. When people start giving away their possessions, that is a sign that they are very lethal, very dangerous. Another factor that can be informative is if an unnatural calm comes over them, and they say that they have no more problems, and everything is great. That is an indicator of serious lethality, major danger. These people have a sense of ease because they know that they’ll be dead very soon, and they don’t have to worry about things anymore. These are ominous signs.
Giving information about an attempt also informs a person’s level of lethality. If someone makes a statement of intent to commit suicide, they are not very dangerous. For example, a spouse saying ‘if you leave me, I’ll kill myself’ or ‘you broke my heart, I can’t live without you, I’m going to kill myself’ those statements alone do not indicate a very dangerous person. Not telling anyone and hiding when they plan to attempt is much more dangerous. There are many cases when people don’t come out and tell, but they aren’t being very secretive, intentionally or not, possibly even subconsciously. They leave clues, almost giving people a road map. This is very common, and these people are typically discovered. The discovery can either totally abort the act before it’s attempted, or can abort after the attempt, but in enough time to get the person help. This is why for every 1 “successfully” completed suicide, there are 24 failed suicide attempts. Similarly, someone who says ‘if this thing (interview, event) goes my way, I’ll be good, but if it doesn’t, I swear I’ll kill myself’ is not that dangerous, not very suicidal, because they’re bargaining, which means they’re still living in the real world. But, someone who does not want to negotiate, doesn’t care to affect things one way or another, may not be living in the real world, and they’re dangerous, they may be high risk to enter the world of the dead.
There are a couple other things to be considered in assessing risk of suicide, determining how dangerous someone might be. If someone is impaired, using drugs and/ or alcohol when they attempt or consider suicide, and if they are not suicidal when they’re clean and sober, they are generally not that suicidal, not that dangerous, they just have a drug or alcohol problem. When they get clean and sober for good, the risk is essentially zero, barring anything else. In a similar way, if someone is suffering from a mental illness when they attempt or consider suicide, but when you correct that mental illness they are not suicidal, they are not a huge danger.
So during suicide risk assessment, you can be looking at someone having a nebulous thought and/ or making a statement that a lot of people may have or make, and you know that they’re not very dangerous; or looking all the way to the opposite side, someone who thinks about it, formulates a thorough plan, picks the place and time, aquires all the things needed to commit the act, writes a suicide letter, and practices the complete act soup to nuts, and you know that they are very, very dangerous. And all the shades in between.
So that’s my primer on suicidal thinking and assessing suicide risk. There are lots of factors to keep in mind, and sometimes it’s a little like reading minds, but you get more proficient as the years go by…it’s easier to tell when someone is misleading or being honest and open. If you enjoy a humorous approach to character studies in all sorts of diagnoses, you would enjoy my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon. I mean, most of you are isolating, sheltering in place anyway, right? Might as well entertain yourself! Check it out. – Dr. Mark AgrestiLearn More
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
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
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
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
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
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that results in-psychological trauma. This event may involve the threat of death to oneself or to someone else, or to one’s own or someone else’s physical, sexual, or psychological integrity, overwhelming the individual’s ability to cope. As an effect of psychological trauma, PTSD is less frequent and more enduring than the more commonly seen acute stress response. Diagnostic symptoms for PTSD include re-experiencing the original trauma(s) through flashbacks or nightmares, avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma, and increasedarousal – such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, anger, and hypervigilance. Formal diagnostic criteria (both DSM-IV-TR and ICD-10) require that the symptoms last more than one month and cause significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.Learn More
Agoraphobia Without a History of Panic Disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by extreme fear of experiencing panic symptoms, of panic attacks.
Agoraphobia typically develops as a result of having panic disorder. In a small minority of cases, however, agoraphobia can develop by itself without being triggered by the onset of panic attacks. Historically, there has been debate over whether Agoraphobia Without Panic genuinely existed, or whether it was simply a manifestation of other disorders such as Panic Disorder, General anxiety disorder, Avoidant personality disorder and Social Phobia. Said one researcher: “out of 41 agoraphobics seen (at a clinic) during a period of 1 year, only 1 fit the diagnosis of agoraphobia without panic attacks, and even this particular classification was questionable…Do not expect to see too many agoraphobics without panic” (Barlow & Waddell, 1985) . In spite of this earlier skepticism, current thinking is that Agoraphobia Without Panic Disorder is indeed a valid, unique illness which has gone largely unnoticed, since its sufferers are far less likely to seek clinical treatment.Learn More
Not to be confused with agraphobia, agoraphobia is a condition where the sufferer becomes anxious in environments that are unfamiliar or where he or she perceives that they have little control. Triggers for this anxiety may include wide open spaces, crowds (social anxiety), or traveling (even short distances). Agoraphobia is often, but not always, compounded by a fear of social embarrassment, as the agoraphobic fears the onset of a panic attack and appearing distraught in public. This is also sometimes called ‘social agoraphobia’ which may be a type of social anxiety disorder also sometimes called “social phobia”.
Not all agoraphobia is social in nature, however. Some agoraphobics have a fear of open spaces. Agoraphobia is also a defined as “a fear, sometimes terrifying, by those who have experienced one or more panic attacks”. In these cases, the sufferer is fearful of a particular place because they have experienced a panic attack at the same location in a previous time. Fearing the onset of another panic attack, the sufferer is fearful or even avoids the location. Some refuse to leave their home even in medical emergencies because the fear of being outside of their comfort area is too great.
The sufferer can sometimes go to great lengths to avoid the locations where they have experienced the onset of a panic attack. Agoraphobia, as described in this manner, is actually a symptom professionals check for when making a diagnosis of panic disorder. Other syndromes like obsessive compulsive disorder or post traumatic stress disorder can also cause agoraphobia, basically any irrational fear that keeps one from going outside can cause the syndrome.
It is not uncommon for agoraphobics to also suffer from temporary separation anxiety disorder when certain other individuals of the household depart from the residence temporarily, such as a parent or spouse, or when the agoraphobic is left home alone. Such temporary conditions can result in an increase in anxiety or a panic attack.
Another common associative disorder of agoraphobia is necrophobia, the fear of death. The anxiety level of agoraphobics often increases when dwelling upon the idea of eventually dying, which they consciously or unconsciously associate with being the ultimate separation from their mortal emotional comfort and safety zones and loved ones, even for those who may otherwise spiritually believe in some form of divine afterlife existence.
Agoraphobia occurs about twice as commonly among women as it does in men. The gender difference may be attributable to several factors: social-cultural traditions that encourage, or permit, the greater expression of avoidant coping strategies by women (including dependent and helpless behaviors); women perhaps being more likely to seek help and therefore be diagnosed; men being more likely to abuse alcohol in reaction to anxiety and be diagnosed as an alcoholic. Research has not yet produced a single clear explanation for the gender difference in agoraphobia.
Causes and contributing factors
Although the exact causes of agoraphobia are currently unknown, some clinicians who have treated or attempted to treat agoraphobia offer plausible hypotheses. The condition has been linked to the presence of other anxiety disorders, a stressful environment or substance abuse. Chronic use of tranquilizers and sleeping pills such as benzodiazepines has been linked to onset of agoraphobia. In 10 patients who had developed agoraphobia during benzodiazepine dependence, symptoms abated within the first year of assisted withdrawal.
Research has uncovered a linkage between agoraphobia and difficulties with spatial orientation. Individuals without agoraphobia are able to maintain balance by combining information from their vestibular system, their visual system and their proprioceptive sense. A disproportionate number of agoraphobics have weak vestibular function and consequently rely more on visual or tactile signals. They may become disoriented when visual cues are sparse (as in wide open spaces) or overwhelming (as in crowds). Likewise, they may be confused by sloping or irregular surfaces. In a virtual reality study, agoraphobics showed impaired processing of changing audiovisual data in comparison with healthy subjects.Learn More