The Scariest Mental Disorders of All Time
Hello, people! I hope everyone had an excellent Thanksgiving! Is everybody on tryptophan overload? I know I am, but man was the turkey great this year! And the stuffing, the mashed potatoes, the gravy, the pineapple casserole… you get the idea. Anyhoo, last week and 5 pounds ago I finished up our series on the dark side of ADHD. I hope everyone learned something. Squirrel!! Again, if you don’t get that joke, check out the series. This week, I want to talk about the weirdest and scariest psych disorders out there. I remember this section from med school- it really caught my attention- you’ll see why shortly. Imagine suffering from a mental illness that causes you to believe your significant other is an imposter, hell bent on harming you, or one that convinces you that books are for eating, not reading. Or that your genitals are shrinking? YIKES!! Or the ultimate… that you have somehow become the walking dead. Pretty scary, right?
While a very small percentage of people are forced to live with these unusual disorders, 450 million people worldwide suffer from mental illness. In the United States alone, one in four families is affected. While some mental disorders, like depression, usually occur naturally, others are the result of brain trauma or other injuries. Although it’s certainly fair to say that any mental illness can be scary for those suffering from it- as well as their families- there are a few rare disorders that are especially terrifying. Those are what I’m going to talk about this week, so jump on the empathy train and buckle up, people… it’s about to get wild.
Also known as Body Integrity Disorder or Amputee Identity Disorder, Apotemnophilia is a disorder that sort of blurs the lines between neurology and psychiatry- we aren’t certain of the origins- so I’ll call it a neuropsych disorder. Whatever it is, apotemnophilia is typically characterized by the overwhelming desire to amputate or permanently damage healthy, functional parts of the body. More rarely, affected individuals have the express desire to be paraplegic, and in some exceptionally rare cases, they seek sensory deprivation, such as blindness or deafness. Oddly enough, the first description of this condition traces back to a series of letters published in Penthouse magazine in 1972, but the first scientific report of this disorder came about in 1977 with the medical description of two cases. As happens, two have become many, and now there may be thousands of people with apotemnophilia desiring amputation. They seem to gather on the interwebs, and some even have their own websites seeking support or pleading their cases. I mean, Captain Obvious says that the vast majority of surgeons won’t just amputate healthy limbs upon request… hello, Hippocratic Oath… so some sufferers of apotemnophilia feel forced to perform amputations on their own. DIY surgery? That’s a very dangerous scenario to be sure. But there have been some cases who have had a limb removed by a doctor, and most are reportedly very happy with their decision.
Since little was known about it, one American shrink made an attempt to further illuminate the disorder by surveying 52 volunteers desiring amputation. Thanks to his work, a number of key features were identified: there seems to be a gender prevalence, as most individuals are men, as well as a side preference, with left-sided amputations being most frequently desired. He also found that there was a preference toward amputation of the leg versus the arm. Until recently, the explanation for apotemnophilia has been in favor of a psychiatric etiology; it was thought to be a pathological desire driven strictly by a sexual compulsion. But a neurological explanation has recently been proposed, in the form of damage to, or dysfunction of, the right parietal lobe, thereby leading to a distorted body image and subsequent desire for amputation. In order to investigate this potential etiology, recent studies have utilized electrophysiological and neuroimaging techniques in an attempt to identify neurological correlates of body representation impairments. That work is ongoing. What’s interesting is that, in my experience, most of these folks seek limb amputation primarily to “feel complete” as they put it, as opposed to wanting to satisfy any sexual proclivities, but the debate about the reasons behind the desire rage on as studies continue. Sounds a little oxymoronic, to remove something to feel more complete, but that’s apotemnophilia.
Also known as imposter syndrome or Capgras syndrome after Joseph Capgras, a French psychiatrist who was fascinated by the illusion of doubles, Capgras is a debilitating mental disorder in which one irrationally believes that the people and/ or things around them have been replaced by identical imposters. Sort of like Leonardo Di Caprio in Inception, but without a totem to tell if you’re in the real world. Whether it’s a close friend, spouse, family member, pet, or even a home, people suffering from Capgras feel that their reality has been altered, that the real thing has been substituted for a fake. And if that weren’t bad enough, even worse, the imposters are usually thought to be planning to harm them. Capgras is usually transient, ranging from minutes to months, but unfortunately, also usually recurrent.
Capgras syndrome is most commonly associated with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, both of which affect memory and can alter one’s sense of reality. Schizophrenia, especially paranoid hallucinatory schizophrenia, can cause episodes of Capgras syndrome, as this also affects one’s sense of reality and can cause delusions. In rare cases, a brain injury that causes cerebral lesions, especially in the back of the right hemisphere, can also cause Capgras syndrome, as that’s the area of the brain that facilitates facial recognition. Rarely, people with epilepsy and migraine may also experience temporary Capgras syndrome as well. There are several theories on what causes the syndrome. Some researchers believe that it’s caused solely by a problem within the brain, by conditions like atrophy, lesions, or cerebral dysfunction, while others believe that it’s a combination of physical and cognitive changes, causing feelings of disconnectedness. Still others believe that it’s a problem with processing information, or an error in perception which coincides with damaged or missing memories. For all we know about the brain, there is still so much we don’t. Occurring more commonly in females than males, Capgras is relatively rare, and is most often seen after traumatic injury to the brain. No matter the how and why, Capgras is upsetting for both the person experiencing the delusion and the person who is accused of being an imposter, and it’s easy to see why it’s one of the scariest disorders of all time.
Diogenes Syndrome is more commonly referred to as simply hoarding, and is one of the most misunderstood behavioral disorders. Named after the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope- who was, ironically, a minimalist- this syndrome is usually characterized by the overwhelming desire to collect seemingly random items, to which an emotional attachment is then formed. In addition to uncontrollable hoarding, people with Diogenes syndrome often exhibit extreme self neglect, apathy towards themselves or others, social withdrawal, and no shame for their habits. It is very common among the elderly, those with dementia, and people who have at some point in their lives been abandoned, or who have lacked a stable home environment. Occurring in both men and women, people with Diogenes syndrome often live alone, tend to withdraw from life and society, and are seemingly unaware that anything is wrong with the condition of their home and lack of self-care. The conditions they live in often lead to illnesses like pneumonia, or accidents like falls or fires, and in fact, it’s often through these situations that the person’s condition becomes known.
Diogenes syndrome is often linked to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, dementia, and addiction, especially to alcohol. While there are defined risk factors for developing Diogenes, having one or even more doesn’t necessarily mean it will occur. In many cases, a specific incident becomes a trigger for the onset of symptoms. This can be something like the death of a spouse or other close relative, retirement, or divorce. Medical conditions may also trigger symptom onset: stroke, congestive heart failure, dementia, vision problems, increasing frailty, depression, and loss of mobility due to any number of reasons are the most common medical triggers.
This condition can be difficult to treat, and it can be very frustrating to care for people who have it. While Diogenes syndrome is sometimes diagnosed in people who are middle aged, it usually occurs in people over 60. Symptoms usually appear over time, and in early stages, generally include withdrawing from social situations and avoiding others. People may then start to display poor judgment, changes in personality, and inappropriate behaviors. Due to the associated isolation, people typically have this condition for a long time before it’s diagnosed. Warning symptoms in an undiagnosed person may include skin rashes caused by poor hygiene, fleas or lice, matted, unkempt hair, overgrown toenails and fingernails, body odor, unexplained injuries, malnutrition, and dehydration. The person’s home generally exhibits signs of neglect and decay, with possible rodent infestation, overwhelming amounts of garbage in and around the home, and an intense, unpleasant smell. Despite all of these factors, people with Diogenes syndrome are typically in denial of their situation and usually refuse support or help.
Most people cringe at the first sniffle that may indicate a potential cold or illness, but not people with Factitious disorder, as this scary mental disorder is characterized by an obsession with being sick. Factitious comes from the Latin word meaning artificial, so as the name suggests, people with factitious disorders will present artificial symptoms of real medical conditions. They will often go to incredible lengths to imitate symptoms of a real medical condition, and some will go so far as to intentionally harm themselves to feign symptoms. I’ve seen people inject bacteria into their bodies, intentionally contaminate lab tests, and take hallucinogenic drugs to feign symptoms of whatever illness they’re aiming for, and they’re often willing to be hospitalized and even undergo unpleasant or painful medical tests in order to further their efforts. I should note that factitious disorders are similar to hypochondriasis, in that the symptoms or complaints are not the result of having true, tangible medical conditions, but there is one key difference between factitious disorders and hypochondriasis: people with hypochondriasis believe that they are ill, whereas people with factitious disorders know that they are not.
There are basically three types of factitious disorders. The first is Munchausen syndrome, where people will repeatedly fake symptoms of medical problems. The symptoms will usually be exaggerated, and they tend to go to great lengths to convince others that those symptoms are real. Munchausen syndrome patients have been known to undergo multiple unnecessary medical procedures, even surgeries, and they tend to go to different medical facilities so as not to be detected. The second is Munchausen by proxy, which is like Munchausen, but when by proxy, the person suffering from factitious disorder will force someone else into the patient role. Most commonly, it is the parent(s) or caregiver(s) forcing children into the proxy role, putting them through various medical procedures, making up symptoms that the child has, encouraging the child to lie, falsifying medical reports, and/or altering tests to give the appearance of a sick child. The third is Ganser syndrome, which is a rarer factitious disorder that mostly occurs amongst prisoners, whereby they’ll display faked psychological symptoms such as psychosis. At times, they know they’re not going to get anything out of it, but they’ll give it a try anyway. Psychological testing and sharp shrinks usually tell the true tale with Ganser syndrome.
It can be difficult to identify factitious disorders because the perpetrators are often very adept in feigning symptoms, and they may go to great lengths to physically cause symptoms. I had one case where a woman was admitted to a hospital complaining about vomiting blood, and she insisted on receiving surgery. When an endoscopy didn’t show any stomach bleeding or other source of blood, she shoved her fingers up her nose to make it bleed down her throat. The ruses almost always include elaborate stories, long lists of symptoms, and jumping from hospital to hospital. As you can imagine, it’s incredibly difficult to get an accurate depiction of how prevalent factitious disorders are, because many people are so masterful at faking their symptoms. The estimated lifetime prevalence in clinical settings is 1.0%, and in the general population, it is estimated to be approximately 0.1%, but it ranges widely across different studies, from 0.007% to 8.0%. In one study of patients in a Berlin hospital, it was shown that approximately .3% of hospitalized patients had a factitious disorder. I suspect that whatever the actual number is, these disorders may be much more common than previously thought. Since people with factitious disorders can be very persistent, physicians have to carefully monitor people for it.
Experts have not identified one solid cause of factitious disorders. Some experts believe that these people suffer from a sense of inadequacy or unstable self worth, and use the factitious behaviors to get attention and sympathy, and this essentially defines their self worth. Most likely, they’re caused by a combination of emotional aspects. Such an obsession with sickness often stems from past trauma or serious illness, and it can be linked to a history of hospitalization or sickness during childhood which the patient tries to recreate, in order to return to normalization. Another possible cause is that someone close to the person really was chronically ill, and the person became jealous of the attention, and began to feign symptoms in order to get that same attention. People with factitious disorders will almost always insist that their symptoms are real, even despite clear medical evidence to the contrary, and this makes them very difficult to treat. Unfortunately, most factitious patients will steadfastly deny it and refuse any sort of treatment, but when help is sought, it’s often able to be at least limited with psychotherapy.
That’s a good place to stop for this week. Next week, we’ll talk about more weird and scary psych disorders. I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and educational. Please feel free to share it with family and friends. Be sure to check out my YouTube channel with all of my videos, and I’d appreciate it if you would like, subscribe, leave comments, and share those vids! As always, my book Tales from the Couch has more educational topics and patient stories, and is available in office and on Amazon.
Thank you and be well people!
Hello, people… welcome back to the blog! Last week, we finished our two part series on phobias, and it seems everyone enjoyed it. I got a lot of great feedback on it, and people have been sharing their weird phobias with me even more than ever… I’ve really added to my list of doozies! This week, I wanted to talk about a topic I ran into recently, seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
What is SAD? In the shrink bible, the DSM-5, it’s identified as a type of mood disorder. It’s not a standalone, but is specified as a major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern, meaning that it happens every year at the same time, typically starting in fall or early winter and ending in spring or early summer. Because of this, some people call SAD the “winter blues,” but this is misleading, as there is a rarer form of seasonal depression known as “summer depression” that begins in late spring or early summer and ends in fall. And while the two types obviously share many symptoms, interestingly, their profiles are slightly different. More on that in a moment.
First, let’s talk statistics. In the United States, the percentage of the population affected by SAD is about 5%, but varies widely based on geographical location, from 1.4% of the population in Florida, to 9.9% in Alaska. This should give you a clue about one of the main factors associated with SAD, the amount of available sunlight. SAD may begin at any age, but it typically starts between the ages of 18 and 30, and as with other types of depression, SAD is much more common in women; they are three times more likely to be affected than men.
Calling SAD the “winter blues” makes it sound like no big deal, but people with SAD experience serious depression- the mood changes and symptoms are very similar to chronic depression- and these symptoms can have a major impact on their lives for 40% of the year, as symptoms usually occur during the fall and winter months and typically improve with the arrival of spring, with January and February being the most difficult months in the US. While temporary, SAD symptoms can be overwhelming, and in some cases, it can seriously interfere with daily functioning. Thankfully, it can be treated, and that’s why I decided to cover this topic. Recognizing the disorder is very important because it can cause such serious psychosocial impairment, but it’s not just important to recognize it… getting help is key, because acute treatment can be very effective, and maintenance treatment can actually prevent future episodes.
People with SAD experience mood changes and symptoms similar to depression, and these can vary from mild to severe. Everybody gets bummed out from time to time, those everyday feelings of sadness or fatigue brought on by life’s ups and downs- even during the holidays- but depression is a different animal.
Seasonal depression is marked by some specific symptoms, and these may include:
-Sleeping more than usual and still feeling drowsy and fatigued during the day
-Loss of interest in activities that once brought you joy
-Increase in purposeless physical activity, like pacing and hand wringing; an inability to sit still
-Slowed movements or speech, severe enough to be observable by others
-Feeling irritable and anxious
-Feeling guilty, worthless, hopeless, sad, tearful
-Desire to isolate, not wanting to see people
-Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
-Increased appetite, overeating, and weight gain
-Cravings for carbohydrates
-Physical symptoms, such as headaches
-Thoughts of suicide or death
Clearly you don’t have to have every one of these to have SAD, and as with anything else, symptoms occur on a spectrum. Some people with SAD have mild symptoms and basically feel out of sorts or cranky, while others have symptoms that totally interfere with relationships and work. As I mentioned earlier, spring and summer SAD is much less common, but still occurs. The symptom profile is a little different; instead of people eating their way through it as a result of increased appetite, it’s difficult to get summer SAD people to eat at all, as they tend to have zero appetite. In my experience, it also seems to feature more agitation, almost manic type behavior.
What causes SAD? Like so many disorders, the cause isn’t completely understood, but we know that the body uses sunlight to regulate sleep, appetite, and mood. It’s believed that the decreased sunlight in the fall and winter months disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm. Lower light levels in winter disrupt the body clock, leading to depression and tiredness. As seasons change, people already naturally experience a shift in their biological internal clock that can cause them to be out of step with their daily schedule, so people may be more vulnerable during this time. The change in season, with shorter daylight hours, can lead to a biochemical imbalance in the brain, specifically in levels of serotonin and melatonin, two hormones that affect sleep and mood. SAD has been linked to this imbalance. There are risk factors involved as well. You’re more likely to develop SAD if you have an existing form of depression, or a relative with SAD or another form of depression. And Captain Obvious says that SAD is much more common in people living far from the equator where there are fewer daylight hours, so living somewhere where you expect months of darkness during the year isn’t the best plan if you have any of the risk factors.
The main feature of SAD is that your mood and behavior shift along with the calendar. So how do you know if you have it? If for the past 2 years, you:
-Had depression or mania that starts as well as ends during a specific season
-You didn’t feel these symptoms during your “normal” seasons
-Over your lifetime, you’ve had more seasons with depression or mania than without
I should note that sometimes it takes a while to diagnose SAD, because it can easily mimic so many other other conditions, like chronic fatigue syndrome, underactive thyroid, low blood sugar, viral illness, and/ or other mood disorders. If you suspect that you or a loved one may have it, the best course of action is to see a physician. There are online resources available as well, from the Center for Environmental Therapeutics, at cet.org. More on that at the end of this blog.
Clearly, you can’t stop the changing of the seasons, but there are some things you can do to combat SAD, including light therapy aka phototherapy, antidepressant medications, talk therapy aka cognitive behavioral therapy, or a combination of all three. Meds are usually brought in as adjuvants if light therapy is insufficient in reducing symptoms. Wellbutrin XL was the first drug approved specifically for SAD in the United States, and I’ve seen some success with it. Symptoms will generally improve on their own with the change of season, but it happens far more quickly with treatment. Treatment course differs depending on how severe your symptoms are, and of course, depending on whether you have another type of depression or bipolar disorder. For some people, simply increasing exposure to sunlight can help improve symptoms of SAD, and it’s recommended that people get outside early in the morning to get more natural light. If this is impossible because of the dark winter months, then phototherapy is key.
As I mentioned, light affects the biological clock in our brains that regulates our circadian rhythm, a physiological function that may induce mood changes when there’s less sunlight in winter. We know that natural or “full-spectrum” light can have an antidepressant effect. In phototherapy, you mimic that by sitting about 2 feet away from a light box, usually a 10,000-lux light box specifically, so that full spectrum bright light- about 20 times brighter than normal room lighting- shines directly upon you, but indirectly into your eyes. You do this for 15 minutes per day to start, and the times are increased as necessary with a max of 30 to 45 minutes a day, depending on your response. If using a weker lightbox, such as those that emit 2,500 lux, it will require much longer, about two hours of exposure per day.
Light therapy should be done in the early morning, upon waking, to maximize treatment response. Morning therapy also helps to specifically correct any sleep-wake cycle issues contributing to the symptoms. Please people, don’t look directly at the light source of any light box, to avoid possible damage to your eyes. I’ve heard of some practices that provide light boxes for patients with SAD. Again, the Center for Environmental Therapeutics has info on this. I’m sure you can also rent light boxes, and I know you can purchase them, but they’re expensive, and health insurance companies don’t usually cover them. But if you have SAD and live in a “dark” winter area, they can be worth their weight in gold.
Optimum dosing of light is crucial, since if done wrong it can produce no improvement, or partial improvement, and that can potentially lead to worsening of symptoms. I read some research that found that even a single, one hour light session can improve symptoms of depression in people with SAD. It varies; some people recover within days of using light therapy, most see some improvement within one or two weeks of beginning, but a few take longer. To maintain the benefits and prevent relapse, light treatment is usually continued through the winter, until you can be out in the sunshine again in the springtime. Because of the anticipated return of symptoms in late fall, I highly recommend that SAD patients begin phototherapy when fall first starts, even before feeling the effects of SAD. If the SAD symptoms don’t go away, your physician may increase light therapy sessions to twice daily. While side effects are minimal, be cautious if you have sensitive skin or a history of bipolar disorder. Common side effects of light therapy include headache, eyestrain, nausea, and agitation, but these effects are generally mild and transient, or disappear with reducing the dose of light.
Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT can also be an effective treatment for SAD, particularly if it’s used in conjunction with light therapy and/ or medication. CBT involves identifying negative thought patterns that contribute to symptoms, and then replacing these thoughts with more positive ones. For many of my patients, I utilize all three modalities for treating SAD, as this has shown the most benefit.
… is worth a ton of cure in this case. So what can you do to avoid SAD?
Get out! Get as much natural sunlight as you can. Spend some time outside every day, even when it’s cloudy, as the effects of daylight still help. If it’s too cold out, let the sunshine in… open your blinds, and sit by a sunny window, even at work. If trees block the sunlight, trim them. I have a SAD patient that has her trees pruned way down in early fall so she can get as much light in the house as possible.
Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. Our diets do more than provide us with energy, they also impact our mental health. A healthy diet rich in fruits and veggies and low in processed garbage can help curb feelings of depression by reducing inflammation in the body, which is a big risk factor for depression. Pass up all those sweet starchy “foods” in favor of lean proteins and veggies. This will help you have more energy, even if you’re craving carbs bigtime. If you recall the blog on Vitamin D, research has found that people with SAD often have low levels, so people with SAD are also often encouraged to increase their intake of Vitamin D through supplementation, in addition to diet and sunlight exposure.
Stay Active! Exercise is a great way to naturally combat the imbalance of brain neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine that can contribute to depression. When you exercise, your body produces endorphins, the mood boosting hormones that counteract serotonin and dopamine deficiencies that can bring you down. Exercise for 30 minutes a day, five times a week. That doesn’t have to mean you’re tied to the gym pumping iron all the time… Do something structured, but also pick an activity you enjoy and do it. Gardening, walking, dancing, and even playing with your kids can all be good forms of exercise.
Stay Connected! Social connections can be a great defense against depression. Whether you talk on the phone, video chat, or better yet, meet in person, keep in regular contact with friends and family for a healthy and happy mind. Experiencing depression of any kind isn’t a sign of weakness and shouldn’t be dealt with alone. Social support is very important, so stay involved with your social circle and regular activities. If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression that keep you in, seek help. Ask your physician what treatment options are available.
When should you call your physician? If you feel depressed, fatigued, and cranky at the same time each year, if it seems to be seasonal in nature, you may have a form of SAD. Talk openly with your physician, and follow their recommendations for lifestyle changes and treatment.
The Center for Environmental Therapeutics, CET, is a non-profit organization that provides information and educational materials about SAD, along with free, downloadable self-assessment questionnaires and interpretation guides, to help you determine if you should seek professional advice. All of that can be found on their website, cet.org.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and educational. Please feel free to share it with family and friends. Be sure to check out my YouTube channel with all of my videos, and I’d appreciate it if you would like, subscribe, leave comments, and share those vids! As always, my book Tales from the Couch has more educational topics and patient stories, and is available in office and on Amazon.
Thank you and be well people!
Working Remotely, Part Deux
Last week I discussed some of the more personal issues I’ve noticed in remote workers, aka digital nomads, and made some suggestions (lectured?) on some things they should be doing for themselves in order to help ensure a better, more fulfilling life. As a global workforce, ‘rona allowed us, or forced us, depending on your point of view, to embrace the remote work concept. So much so, that many companies are progressively implementing it into their current strategies, and/ or incorporating it into their expansion plans. But given my profession, I have to ask, how psychologically healthy is it? It seems to me that as it stands in some companies now, not very. But certain personality types are somewhat uniquely suited to remote work, and thrive in the independence associated with it. Even if you aren’t necessarily one of them, humans are supremely adaptable beings. The questions then become, are you a person that could be happy working remotely, or could you make it work for you?
Many of my patients say remote work has been an answer to their most ardent prayers. But a disturbing proportion of them say it through a mouth of unbrushed teeth, from a face covered with scraggly unshaven beard, and topped with a head of tangled unkempt hair, so I’m just not buying what they’re selling. So what’s up with that? Why are some digital nomads, who are usually neat and tidy, suddenly messy and… messy?! The answer is deceptively simple: they’re SAD. Stressed, Anxious, and Depressed. But why, when most people’s greatest wish, to ???work from home??? has suddenly been granted? Can you hear the angels sing? Visual sound effects! I’m absolutely positive that it might become a thing.
Well, as with so many things in life, the remote work format is like an equation, with positives and negatives to take into account. In order to know if it works for you or not, you have to know the factors involved in order to effectively evaluate them. Today will basically focus on the more negative side of that equation, and some of the reasons why some people might feel SAD, even though they ???work from home??? Just wanted to test them to make sure they still worked.
I know I make a lot of jokes, maybe as the result of a coping mechanism that morphed into a habit, but there can be real and unanticipated mental health consequences as a result of the stresses associated with working remotely, and it is important to be aware of this fact. I should also note that it’s equally important to remain aware of it, as sometimes it can seemingly sneak up on you, or can even be a building phenomenon. While they can have a serious impact on mental health, these effects can also be very subtle, or happen within a dynamic and fluctuating range. The best idea if you start to notice that working from home is bumming you out, is to make some changes to improve your situation right away, because you don’t get extra points for spending more time miserable. Toward that end, next week’s blog will discuss some solutions to the issues I’ll be posing here today, along with the positive side of the remote work equation.
The Work Experience
Clearly, the actual experience of working from home is very different from doing so in a public office. But it also differs amongst each person who works remotely as well. On a basic level, the work experience is vastly different, because the quality of the home working experience largely depends on the home. Captain Obvious says it’s a much better experience for people that have dedicated rooms within their homes than it is for people in small apartments, or those who share homes, and therefore have to work in their bedrooms. Please note the five extra letters denoting the compound word- bedrooms– not beds, people. At any rate, companies must consider what they can do to help even that playing field a bit, if they want to improve productivity in a remote work situation for all of their employees.
Another huge difference in the remote work experience comes into play when we talk about technology. When it doesn’t work at home, it’s a bigger problem than when that happens at the office. One specific concern focuses on the speed of technology- or lack thereof- when working remotely. Most organizations demonstrated great agility in switching to remote working nearly overnight, but it’s common knowledge that technology never works as well remotely as it does in an office, where it’s laced together with high-tech cabling and hardware. Here in the good ole US of A, if our wi-fi drops out, we feel pretty indignant, but in some places on the planet, just getting a good enough signal to even access the internet can be challenging enough. It may not sound like a big deal, but internet connectivity is important, because it’s how technology talks. As a human, if you’re speaking with someone, and they choose not to respond for ten or fifteen minutes, or not at all, that would be frustrating, no? Especially if it happened all. the. time! All. day. everyday! That’s why connectivity is a big deal when working remotely; because the lack of it is very frustrating to humans, especially when we’re working.
If you’re working from home and faced with problems with wi-fi or getting a decent signal, it’s usually a persistent and pervasive issue. Because it can extend timelines and destroy deadlines, it affects your everyday business, and sometimes can even affect your employment. All of that of course impacts your stress levels, so you can’t really afford to underestimate it. The short answer solution is that you have to do whatever you can to mitigate the issue. Communicate with your supervisor, if you have one, and call whomever you need to call to have the issue resolved. Captain Obvious says your supervisor has a vested interest in making sure you’re adequately equipped, because they want you to get your projects done too. Or build an office entirely out of wi-fi hotspots and boosters, and maybe wear a tin foil hat. You decide.
No matter where you are, if your computer decides it doesn’t want to play ball, forget feeling indignant, we feel screwed. If you’re from a conventional office environment, and now working from home, any tech problems you may have probably won’t get resolved as quickly off site as they would in the office, and unfortunately, that can make it difficult- even impossible at times- to work remotely. The time it takes the IT software and people to diagnose and fix any issues further disrupts processes and extends timelines, adding to everyone’s frustrations. That’s if you even have IT people, people. If you’re the IT department, president, and janitor, that makes it a little more frustrating, and time consuming, to solve tech issues. Because bringing the office home depends so much on remote technology, when you multiply networking issues by slow running apps and software, working from home can equal big tech stress.
But it’s not just IT that has a long road to hoe in the remote work equation. Management also has to make big changes if the remote work equation is going to balance, because you can’t manage people the same way if you’re not with them. If nothing else, ‘rona proved to management that most employees do have the capability to adapt to remote work, and fairly productively and effectively, to boot. But in reality, management and supervisors themselves have to adapt as well. For it to work effectively, they have to learn to trust and enable their staff, rather than interrogate and demand. One of the biggest complaints I hear from employees is that while working remotely, they sense an implied, or sometimes more direct, mistrust from supervisors and management. They feel like every minute must be accounted for, like they have to prove they were working during the day, not just watching television or doing their nails. That said, one of the biggest complaints I hear from supervisors and management types about working remotely, is that they suspect that their employees are taking advantage of a remote work arrangement. I wonder if maybe they suspect they’re watching television or doing their nails instead of working?
This dichotomy would be funny, if it didn’t have the capacity to be so inherently stressful and anxiety producing in all parties involved in the equation. I think the concept of how to manage a person you’re not watching poses interesting psychological questions. When you feel like you’re “losing control” over something, or someone, a natural human response is to grip it tighter; evolution has built that into our brains. In a remote work environment, when a supervisor can’t see what an employee is doing for eight plus hours every day, that equates to the dreaded micromanagement. And in the minds of the employees or people being supervised, that often comes across as suspicion, and can feel accusatory. Taken together, this tends to breed mistrust; and so the problem begins. If the problem sounds complicated, imagine the solution. Personally, I can easily see both sides of this issue, but I know that traditional management methods aren’t the answer to a modern remote work problem, and that for the equation to balance long term, we have to take big strides on the road toward improving the remote work experience for everyone.
Isolation and Loneliness
As I mentioned briefly last week, isolation and feelings of loneliness are among the most commonly reported issues that remote workers face. While working remotely has some benefits, like allowing you to effectively bypass distracting and/ or annoying coworkers, it also prevents you from sharing pleasantries with your boss, clients, and the coworkers you doenjoy camaraderie with. You miss out on the more social aspects of traditional work life, like water cooler venting, office gossip, and bouncing ideas off of one another. These interactions simply don’t translate to tech like Zoom very well, and this lack of interaction between coworkers can be a detriment to team building and corporate culture. In a prolonged state, such as occurs in a remote work environment, this disconnectivity contributes to isolation and loneliness in individuals, and is associated with higher rates of anxiety and depression, as well as somatic symptoms, such as headache and generalized body pain.
If you’re a person who is already accustomed to, and appreciative of, conventional office life, and the steady rate of social interactions at work, the effects of switching to remote work might have a surprising effect, because our daily interactions help us reinforce our sense of well-being and belonging in a community. Researchers have demonstrated that loneliness as a result of isolation is actually twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. One study I read found that 19 percent of people who work remotely report loneliness; and as with many such conditions or feelings, this poses a bigger risk when it becomes chronic. As you can imagine, people who not only work remotely, but also live alone, are especially at risk for feeling lonely, though I certainly see a fair amount of it in digital nomads who live with others.
Working from home can also feel like never leaving work, and another commonly reported cause for concern is burnout. I read a 2019 US study that polled remote tech workers. It found that 82 percent reported feeling burned out, 52 percent reported that they believed they work longer hours than their in-office counterparts, and 40 percent reported feeling as though they were required to contribute more than their in-office counterparts. These points are very common themes that people considering remote work, and new to remote work, should definitely keep in mind. In my experience with patients, this near compulsion to work longer hours is almost universal. I assume it’s the result of attempts to prove their ability to be productive from home, despite the presence of distractions and the availability of “extracurricular” activities that can accompany working from home.
For many people, it’s already difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance when working from an office, and it seems that this is also the first thing to go when work goes remote. The lines start to blur, and every hour in a day becomes a work hour. If you’re behind on a project, you figure you can afford to spend the “extra” hours in your day on completing it. But not for long. After a much shorter period of time than you’d think, that becomes a dangerous practice. Five minutes for one more email becomes hours, and when you stop to look up, you’ve spent far too long working, and you haven’t moved for 13 hours. My response to burned out, remote workers is to remember that home is also your office now, so you’re not really leaving work unless you turn off all communication platforms. You have to make a concerted effort to leave work, just as you would if you worked in an office. So just as you would walk out the office door about nine hours after you walked in, when you’re working from home, you turn off the devices after about the same amount of time…or else risk the ravages of burnout. Besides, when you’re mentally and physically exhausted, you’re not at your sharpest, not doing your best work, and you’re bound to make mistakes.
Focus, Motivation, Distraction
Any number of factors in a remote work situation can make you lose focus and motivation, and chief among them are distractions. These are the things, intended or not, that distance you from your work. But the reverse is also true. When you’re not focused and motivated, it’s easy to fall prey to the siren’s call of distraction. Remember last week, I said that just because the refrigerator is a short distance away, that doesn’t mean you should constantly make the trip? Eating can be a distraction you act on when you’re bored. If snack o’clock happens every hour, or you’re having multiple versions of lunch, you’re distracted, or maybe looking for something- anything- to do, other than work. When you’re working remotely, you have a lot of freedom, which is generally a good thing in life. But understand that distraction is really the blacksheep cousin to burnout, and it’s all too easy to get sidetracked by it.
Some other favorite classic distractions include wanting to sleep in, kids, myriad chores, online surfing and social media, calling friends or vice versa, pets thinking playtime is whenever you’re breathing, and good weather tempting you to ditch work and go to the beach, mall, spa, movies, etc. It’s easier to become distracted because you may be the only one managing your time, and this is one of the big reasons why people may not be as productive at home as they would be in a traditional work setting. It’s also the biggest reason why employers and management don’t generally like the idea of working remotely. While it might seem that the only way to be a successful remote worker is to be a self starter with superhuman focus who is impervious to distraction, there are ways to manage distraction, focus, and motivation. I’ll get into all of that next week, but here’s a hint until then: having a door to shut is an incredibly helpful head start.
Working remotely can also be stressful because of the inconsistent wages that may be associated with it. The term freelancing is the one most commonly used for positions of this type, though you may better recognize the alternative terminology of independent contractors. It essentially means that they are self-employed, rather than being directly supervised or employed by someone else; as a result, they typically follow a remote arrangement. No matter what you call it, when you compare freelance work to a regular full-time job, there are some important distinctions. In a regular job, you know that no matter what happens, you’ll be paid (at least) the same amount each month; and since you took the job, I can only assume it’s sufficient to cover whatever bills it’s supposed to. But with freelance positions, because getting paid is typically based on contracts and invoices, payments can be pretty variable, and you don’t have any guarantees that your invoices will be paid on time. If the payor is unreliable, or decides to dispute, you have to expend time, and sometimes even money, to collect. Understandably, these variables and unforeseen complexities can result in cash flow concerns, and we all know that can lead straight to stressville. Not only is income variable, but workload is too. The temporary, variable, too much or too little nature of freelance assignments is intensely anxiety producing, and can wreak havoc with your sense of well-being.
Communication with coworkers, supervisors, and clients can be a minefield, as things can easily be misconstrued under the best of circumstances. In a remote work arrangement, when you often keep in touch through non-visual methods like email and instant messaging, communication is further complicated, and this can have some very unwanted effects. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the amount of damage that can result from ineffective communication falls along a spectrum, from “uh oh” to “oh no!” One big problem in general, not just in a work setting, that may serve you well to remember, is that you can’t really get a sense of a person’s tone via typed electronic communication, because they can’t read facial expressions or hear your tone of voice. To the recipient, words read the same way regardless of whether you were smiling or yelling when you typed them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a complaint from a patient start with, ‘And then he texted…’ because instant messaging, while convenient, can also be a recipe for instant miscommunication.
In a work setting, most tone concerns have to do with accuracy; that the words you’re using are literally sending the right message. Do you have a tendency to be very lighthearted and positive, and therefore potentially at risk for sounding like perhaps you’re not serious enough about a certain topic with a client? Or maybe you have a tendency to be sarcastic and risk that same issue? You might be most vulnerable to this when the person doesn’t really know you, or in circumstances where you may be sending an instant message you don’t give as much thought to as you would a more formal email. As you might imagine, these are situations where the smiley face in cool shades emoji doesn’t really cut it. ?
Probably the most common communication issue I hear about is the lack of communication. Just as with the tech issue I mentioned previously, when a coworker is unresponsive, humans get frustrated. And understandably so. When you need an answer, but the person you need it from is uncommunicative via whatever digital channels you try, it can pose a problem. In the office, you could simply visit that individual’s desk and see them in person, but in a remote setting, that’s not an option. Since it’s work, you may have a deadline to complete a project, so not having that answer might make it late, and that may have a negative impact on your reputation. It can be a gnarly domino effect, I get it. But I can tell you that the answer is not to sendthem a message you may regret later, because chances are very good that’ll have an even bigger impact on your reputation, than the original lack of communication on their part would’ve had.
Another thing to keep in mind when communicating electronically is not to set yourself- or anyone else for that matter- up for disappointment, by asking questions that really can’t be answered satisfactorily via these methods. If you’re seeking appreciation or other “feelings” on job performance in a text, you’re nearly bound to read disappointment in the reply, whether it was intended or not. Save the sticky wickets for more personal communication methods, even if they’re not necessarily the easiest choice. While some sarcasm or jokes may be funny, some people may not think so, and that can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings that can have a serious effect on company culture, productivity, team dynamics, and relationships with coworkers, supervisors, and/ or clients. Remember that nothing dies on the net, and everything leaves a digital trail, especially in a remote work setting, so things can come back to bite you later. Lastly, I would suggest that you always think twice whenever you instant message someone in order to avoid instant embarrassment and instant regret, proofread messages to make sure nothing’s getting in the way of what you’re trying to say, and save the complicated stuff for face to face when possible, or at least for video chat when it’s not.
Next week, the working remotely blog continues- I’ll address some solutions to all of the issues I mentioned today, and then I’ll tell you about the positive side of the remote work equation.
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Thank you and be well people!
How You “Catch” Feelings
You’ve probably heard the expression “Smile and the world smiles with you,” or at least heard Louis Armstrong’s rendition of the song that refers to it, When you’re smiling, in the movie Analyze This with Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal- which, being a shrink, I of course found very amusing. Expressions don’t become embedded in the public’s consciousness for no reason, so where does this one come from?
Maybe you’ve experienced a situation where “contagious laughter” has swept through a room, or even been the catalyst for it yourself, because of your “infectious laugh.” If you watch the news, you’ll eventually hear a reporter describe how “panic ensued” while covering certain events involving “mob mentality.” But what do these things really mean? How can feelings be shared or transmitted between people, even when they’re all strangers to one another?
The answer is a phenomenon called emotional contagion, or EC, the subliminal process by which emotions are transferred from one person to another, such that the receiving individual experiences the emotions as their own. Living in a covid-19 world, we’re all too aware that it takes just a cough or a handshake to spread germs from one person to another, but you can “catch” feelings far more easily than you can catch covid, and far faster. The process takes just milliseconds, faster than the blink of an eye. EC is an important and primitive instinctual process that forms the basis of interpersonal communication, but don’t let that confuse you, that doesn’t mean it can’t or doesn’t occur amongst groups, because it absolutely does. I should note that EC can also be induced in people via some inanimate objects and cultural artifacts, such as photographs, movies, cartoons, and music. Think about crying at sappy movies or dancing in the car when your favorite song comes on. Not only that, but EC isn’t a “humans only” phenomenon; studies have demonstrated that it also occurs in all other primates, some birds, and it’s even been demonstrated in rats.
To further the covid analogy, the “virulence” of EC and the susceptibility to EC vary by individual. That is to say, some people can be more effective at transmitting it, and some can be more prone to feeling its effects, i.e. susceptible, but everyone is essentially both to varying degrees. EC isn’t type specific, meaning that research has found that both positive and negative emotions- enthusiasm, joy, sadness, fear, and anger- are easily passed from person to person, typically without either party being aware of it. You can be going about your business, feeling whatever you’re feeling, and have an encounter with someone doing the same thing; then afterwards, you feel differently, for reasons that you can’t specify. That can be a bad thing or a good thing, depending on a number of factors that I’ll get into. So apparently Forrest Gump’s mama was right… life is like a box of chocolates- you never know what you’re gonna get. Covid and chocolates- it’s a mixed metaphor day, people.
How Emotional Contagion Happens
At the most basic level, it works like this: if someone is happy and smiles at you, it tends to cause you to smile back, and that act of smiling back actually improves your mood and causes you to feel happier. But how and why? You might’ve noticed I’ve said that EC is a process; in fact, it involves three stages: mimicry, facial feedback, then contagion.
As people communicate, they express themselves not only through language, but also through gestures and facial expressions. Throughout a communication exchange, individuals constantly read each other’s faces and body language, then instinctively and unconsciously tend to reflect it i.e. copy it; that is called mimicry. When a person then displays the emotion on their face through mimicry, those muscle movements trigger the actual feeling associated with the emotion, and they then get a subjective experience of that emotion i.e. they start to feel the emotion as their own, which is sometimes referred to as adoption. This is because the area of the brain that is activated through the unconscious act of mimicry is the same area that normally would’ve been activated if the person had initiated and performed the action themselves. Same area of brain activated equals same response, regardless of the catalyst for the activation. Handily, this phenomenon is explained by “mirror neurons” in the brain. These neurons fire whether an individual initiates the act themselves, or observes the act being performed by another individual. So the act of mimicry causes the observer’s neurons to fire, and thus “mirror” the activity of the first person’s neurons. It’s sort of like monkey-see, monkey-do for neurons.
When you put all of the stages of the EC process together, it works like this: when someone is happy and smiles at you, you will typically smile back (mimicry) and that act of smiling back actually improves your mood (facial feedback) and ultimately causes you to experience that happiness as your own feeling (contagion).
Role of Emotional Contagion
Humans are social beings. We are born equipped with the evolutionary capacity of EC to help synchronize our emotions and express our wants and needs. A simple example would be a newborn baby crying to be fed because it’s the only way they know how to get food from their caregiver. When they cry and are then fed in response, it reinforces the mechanism. In this way, EC acts as a primitive tactic that continues to develop, and later assists in the recognition and processing of feelings, and a cumulative understanding of how to deal with them in an appropriate manner.
Emotional contagion contributes to empathy, and there is a direct correlation between the two. In other words, decreased sensitivity to the EC results in a decrease in empathy. They are also linked by the fact that both involve the monkey-see, monkey-do mirror neurons, but they are not technically the same thing. Empathy is the capability to share and understand another’s emotion and feelings that is often characterized as the ability to “put yourself into another person’s shoes,” in an effort to experience what the other person is feeling. But it is a conscious choice, so you know the source of the emotions you feel. In contrast, EC is an automatic, subconscious and subliminal process, generally mediated through mimicry of facial and/ or vocal expressions, whereby your feelings or emotional states are influenced by those of another person, such that you experience, or adopt, those feelings as your own. This is also termed emotional convergence or synchronization, and the source of the feelings is typically unknown, and often unexamined.
Scientists agree that there is an emotional climate and culture that tells us which emotions we should or should not display and when. Our understanding develops over time, and guides us in making behavioral decisions according to what is and is not socially acceptable. Imagine that you somewhat reluctantly made plans with an acquaintance, but then they see you and tell you they need to cancel them. Inside, you may actually feel some sense of relief, but instead, you noncommittally say, “Well, that’s too bad, but okay.” On the other hand, if you are insensitive to EC, and therefore are lacking empathy, you might say, “Phew, because I didn’t want to go anyway.” But because you realize that saying that would probably hurt the person’s feelings, and/ or would make you look like a cad, you respond appropriately. This is an example, albeit an extreme one, of how EC allows you to instinctively know what is appropriate, and alter your response and exhibit the correct emotional behavior to maintain success in relationships. In fact, because the automatic processes of EC happen so quickly, you have the ability to change your reply on the fly, even mid-sentence, based solely on the other person’s emotional response as communicated by their facial expression, in order to avoid a social faux pas. All brought to you, in a matter of milliseconds, courtesy of emotional contagion. Which gives you an idea of how important it is in avoiding problems and.
Factors Influencing Emotional Contagion
As I mentioned in the beginning, some people can be more effective at transmitting emotional contagion, and some can be more susceptible to its effects, but nearly everyone is affected, albeit at varying levels and times. There are many factors that influence susceptibility to EC; most of them essentially boil down to the common bases of individual differences, such as age, genetic predisposition, personality traits, gender, and early emotional experience. But it has also been found to vary between interactions, based on the type of interaction, intensity of the expressed emotion, mood at the time of the interaction, and the level of empathy and power dynamics between the individuals involved. All of these influence the intensity of the contagion and have an impact on how likely a person is to “catch” an emotion.
But in fact, you don’t really have to guess how susceptible you may be to EC, because there is an accepted way to accurately measure it, called The Emotional Contagion Scale. Designed in 1997, it takes the form of 15 questions that measure individual differences across five basic, cross-cultural emotions: love, happiness, fear, anger, and sadness, by determining how likely a person is to mimic those emotions. I’ve included the scale and scoring instructions at the end of this blog if you’re interested in taking it. In the meantime, I’ll continue with the factors that tend to influence EC.
Some personality types generally have greater awareness of emotional states, their own as well as those of others, and are therefore more open to the process of emotional contagion in general, in both transmitting emotions to, and receiving emotions from, others. They are also generally more sensitive, attentive, and skilled at reading non-verbal cues.
Other people who are more expressive, meaning that they wear their hearts on their sleeves- and their faces- may be more likely to transmit or share their emotions because they telegraph their feelings more powerfully. Not only that, but the more expressive someone is, the more likely another person is to notice that expression and mimic it. And remember those mirror neurons? They come into play here bigtime, because when that emotion is reflected through mimicry of the associated facial expression, those muscle movements trigger the actual feeling in the brain, brought to you by mirror neurons. On the other hand, people who have a stronger internal response to emotional events- whose hearts may race when they’re nervous, even if they seem calm on the outside- may be more susceptible to catching other people’s moods.
EC is also influenced by the level of intimacy, and therefore empathy, between the individuals involved. People who know one another well and are in frequent contact are typically more affected by EC; this is generally true whether they are the transmitter or receiver. Have you ever found yourself tearing up when you see someone else crying? It’s perfectly fine if you have, and can even be considered a very good sign in relationships where it serves as an indicator of the level of emotional investment. It is more likely to happen when the person crying is someone close to you, such as a spouse, child, parent, or close friend. In fact, studies have shown that emotional convergence occurs more often in relationships that are more cohesive and less likely to dissolve. Not surprisingly, people living under the same roof are especially likely to catch each other’s emotions and moods, as they are the types of relationships where individuals tend to become more similar in their emotional responses.
That said, studies have shown that mere acquaintances, or even strangers, can catch each other’s moods, though the degree to which it happens does depend more on their individual susceptibility. But if you bump into someone in your neighborhood while getting the mail or taking out the trash, and they smile and just say hello you, they can make you feel a mood boost. Or if you’re in the elevator in the morning on your way to work, and someone is impatient and grumpy because the door opens to let someone new on board, they can easily influence your mood, even if no words are exchanged. Normally that’s not amusing, but loyal blog readers may be chuckling if they recognize that as a little DISC humor from last week. If you don’t know what on earth I’m thinking right now, read last week’s blog on the DISC model, because even this instruction is laced with it!
Researchers have also found that language and word choice drives some part of the contagion process, as negatively charged words, i.e. strong language, like “hate,” “worthless,” “anger,” and “sad” are more likely to increase susceptibility to the emotion being conveyed. So strong language generally induces a stronger EC response, which isn’t always great news. There’s enough of that in the world, no need to propagate it.
We’ve learned that age plays a role in influencing EC. Scientists very recently published research describing how the moods of teenagers were affected by those of other teenagers around them. If you’ve ever raised a teenager, this definitely resonates; but more not-so-great news, bad moods were more potent. They also found that when a teenager “catches” a bad mood from a friend, the friend’s outlook becomes more cheerful. That’s a very interesting finding with very mixed news- good for the friend that’s transmitting, but bad for the person that catches it. So much for sharing means caring… more like take this away and don’t stay! Remember that I’m a shrink, not a poet, people.
EC is influenced by gender as well. I should preface this by saying that the relationship of gender to emotional contagion can be a pretty thorny one, as it’s a complicated issue. You’ve probably noticed that I used the word “appropriate” to describe the ideal effects EC has on the expression of emotion, i.e. behavior. The issue is that behavior is often governed by cultural rules which actually vary according to gender; that makes it difficult to make hard and fast “rules” about which gender “should be” expressing which emotion(s), and how and to what level it “should be” expressed. Using a purely theoretical example, women “should be” nurturing caregivers, so they are more susceptible to EC. In other words, it’s super biased, sexist, and constrictive.
Probably as a result of this issue, the research into gender differences in EC has had mixed results. An early study hypothesised that because women were more emotionally expressive than men, they would be more susceptible to catching emotions; and indeed, the results from the EC scales of the participants confirmed this. In contrast, another study found that there were only minor differences between men and women in their experience of “caught” emotions. However, it also found that both men and women had a stronger emotional response when the emotional model used was female rather than male. Still another study found that gender differences came into play when the expressive model was displaying a threatening emotion, such as anger. They found that women responded to the angry faces with more expression, whereas men suppressed their emotional expression, and some even displayed a tendency to smile in response. The scientists hypothesised that this was due to the effect of socialization in the expression of emotion, with women being more likely to attempt to communicate their distress and men more likely to mask or suppress it. This is consistent with the concept of hegemonic masculinity, which is shrink speak for having stereotypically male dominant traits. Yet another study examined moods, before and after pairs of friends talked about multiple predetermined topics. It found that, after talking with a troubled friend, women’s moods were more likely to deteriorate in general, on both sides of the contagion equation (hey, maybe I am a poet) but men’s moods were far less changed, regardless of whether the troubled friend’s mood improved or not.
Regardless, all of the differences in these studies can only be interpreted as confirmation of the fact that cultural and behavioral “rules” are actually responsible for the mixed results and ensuing confusion when it comes to attempting to define how gender affects the expression of EC. And that’s pretty much what we figured, right? So now you know for sure.
Emotional Contagion: Practical Applications
Captain Obvious says that if you’re unhappy, being able to adopt the emotions of a happy person may allow you to feel better and more motivated. And clearly, a positive mindset helps you feel less stressed, which has a positive impact on emotional and physical health. By now you know that this phenomenon helps people connect on a basic emotional level, but EC also has some less obvious practical applications and implications as well, and some of these are an argument for how it can be developed as an intentional tool. In fact, some people subscribe to a broader definition of the phenomenon of EC as “a process in which a person or group influences the emotions or behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotional states.” I can appreciate the value of applying EC as a tool to motivate others, but I don’t appreciate it when it’s used as a tool to manipulate others into serving personal interests. First I’ll talk about the positive applications and implications of EC, then I’ll address the less than positive.
Humans generally want to be accepted and understood. To that end, it’s beneficial to know what other people are thinking, if they agree or disagree with you, if they’re understanding what you’re attempting to convey, and whether or not you’re connecting with them on a very basic emotional level. In a way, EC is sort of like a very primitive form of mind reading, as it gives you an idea of what another person is thinking, and therefore feeling.
EC is important to personal relationships because it fosters emotional synchronization. If you want to connect with a person on a deeper level, you want to be “in sync” with them, the euphemism derived from the term, and awareness of the phenomenon can give you an idea of whether your attitudes and beliefs are sympatico with another person’s.
EC can be developed as a skill for use as a tool for effective communication, and therefore one that would be especially important for public speakers and trial attorneys, and people in motivational type positions like sports coaches, among others. Think about listening to a lecture where the presenter is dynamic and expressive, and clearly believes what they’re saying; then contrast that with a presenter who is monotone, slumped over the podium, not moving, and clearly disinterested. Same idea goes for the coach or captain of any team. If one is animated and motivated and obviously believes and expresses that you’re a valuable and capable player, and that your team will win, will that be more effective than one that is totally unmotivated and seems unconvinced that the team is up to the task? Who would you be more inclined to listen to and believe in either of these situations? Even Captain Obvious says that the answers are so clear that they don’t even require responses.
EC has survival value as well. It has been conserved, developed, and reinforced throughout human evolution, which doesn’t tend to keep unnecessary processes. In fact, evolutionarily speaking, EC has evolved, in part, to ensure survival. The brain is hard-wired to keep you safe, and that’s one of the reasons it’s especially attuned to pay more attention to negative emotions like fear and pain. Speaking of which, let’s talk about a real world example of EC’s survival value. Imagine that you were on a plane, and (heaven forbid, but just go with it people) there was some emergency; you may not know how serious the situation is or how concerned and prepared you should be, but by paying attention to the emotions expressed on the faces and in the voices of flight attendants and the pilot(s), you can infer signals that may be critical to your survival. Like when to assume the crash position. I say early… very, very early. Like maybe immediately after boarding. Jk, people.
EC can also be useful in work settings, but only when the moods swing the right way. Numerous researchers have found that when business leaders are in a good mood, members of their work group not only experienced more positive moods, they also experienced fewer negative moods. Studies have also demonstrated that groups with leaders in an upbeat mood were more coordinated and actually expended less effort on tasks than groups with more downbeat leaders, which made them more efficient. But keep in mind that this is a double-edged sword, and a co-worker’s or boss’ bad attitude can spread quickly through a company and create a toxic environment for everyone.
Emotional Contagion: Conscious Strategy
We’ve just discussed how EC can be used as a positive tool, but as I mentioned, EC can also be used as a strategy for… let’s say, potentially less altruistic means.
Emotional Contagion in Marketing
Because it influences thoughts and feelings, EC results in changes to mood, emotions, and behaviors; and studies confirm that this includes consumer behaviors. This was verified by setting up experiments that videotaped participants’ facial expressions before and after exposure to specific photographs. After analyzing the changes in the expressions, these studies concluded the following:
-Participants who saw a smiling model in an advertisement mimicked the picture, smiling back, therefore confirming the process of CE.
-The positive emotion conveyed by the facial expression was also associated with a positive evaluation of the product displayed in the advertisement.
Therefore, as expected, the advertisement with a positive expression of a smiling model elicited a more positive attitude, sympathy, and increased perceptions of reliability and intentions to purchase, as compared to the neutral condition before the photograph was shown. In other words, if an advertisement can make you smile, laugh, or stimulate EC through any positive means, you will feel more positive about the product that the advertisement features. It will make you believe that you need that product, it is the best, better in every way when compared to similar products; and it will do that as if you thought these points yourself, thanks to the monkey-see, monkey-do mirror neurons.
Advertising and marketing execs know this and use it. I’m not saying that this is good, bad, right, or wrong; I’m just saying that EC is purposely used as a tool by employing advertisements that feature cute and cuddly babies, beautiful women in bikinis, hunky men in uniforms, and whatever imagery execs think will elicit a positive response, to sell you a product that you may or may not need, and that may or may not actually be as awesome as you might (literally) be led to believe. So be aware.
Emotional Contagion in Dating
Remember how I used the words “less altruistic” to describe some of the ways EC can be used as a strategy? Well, for this particular application, I’m going to replace those words with “morally reprehensible.” And I suspect many of you will agree. There’s a guy that developed what he calls a “method,” (I use quotation marks because it isn’t actually a method) for men to study and apply EC in an effort to manipulate women into “dating” them (which is actually just a euphemism for having sex with them), and all for the “low, low price of” (my best announcer’s voice) of whatever over-inflated amount he charges for it.
There are so many faults in this that I almost don’t know where to start. First, given my profession, I find it especially deplorable that a person would intentionally manipulate someone else’s feelings just because they can’t manage to get a date, i.e. have sex, with someone any other way. That said, my views on this would remain the same if I were a garbage man. And, it does bother me that this guy is so sexist that he clearly can’t even envision, much less appreciate, the fact that he developed a program “for men to get women,” and clearly doesn’t recognize that men can love men and women can love women; not that any program like this should exist, regardless. Also, not for nothing, but the light that this casts the users of this “method” in isn’t flattering at all. Helll-ooo, desperation. And that has to be considered, because I can almost guarantee you that eventually, your target will find out that you’re using psychology to manipulate them- which won’t make them very happy- because this program is fake.
Speaking of fake, who wants to be fake enough, in order to manipulate people long enough, to get them to sleep with you? And people with even an average amount of awareness can usually sniff out fake like two week old fish, because that’s what fake- and this program- smell like. And if your potential target didn’t have enough awareness before reading this blog, they certainly will after. So the solution to this problem is to share this blog and spread the awareness, people.
Unfortunately, I’m sure that this may cause some of you to want to try to look it up, even though I haven’t given you the name of this program. I say unfortunately, because I don’t want this guy to get any more credit than he already has; and because regardless, you’d be wasting your money. I can save you that, plus a lot of time and fake energy, and tell you that it won’t work, for any number of reasons. I can even make an alternate suggestion if you’re lonely enough to consider paying for something like this “method” which isn’t a method. Why don’t you use that money and make an investment in yourself, see a psychiatrist or psychologist and try to find out why you might not be attracting whatever person you want to be with, because I can say with some authority that attraction really starts with you, so you have to know yourself to attract other people.
I’ll even help you out here and now and tell you that, of the six factors that influence attraction, the most important psychological factor is reciprocity, which basically means that you are more likely to like someone who likes you. Some of the other factors that influence attraction are things like familiarity and similarity, which- guess what- also depend on you knowing yourself. So I suggest you get to know more about you. The very worst that could come of it is that you gain some perspective and some self esteem, and that’s half the battle won.
I apologize if my opinion is too clear, or offends anyone, but everyone has people they care about- friends and family- and most people wouldn’t want them to be manipulated and conned in this way, just to serve someone else’s purposes. That perspective is empathy at work, by the way, and hopefully it’s contagious. Maybe this guy and his “method” upset me so much because I expend such a huge amount of time and energy undoing the damage caused by manipulation. Just a theory. Anyway, moving on to slightly less manipulative applications of EC as a strategy.
Emotional Contagion in Digital Interactions
Emotions can even spread through all of our digital interactions, because EC doesn’t rely solely on visualizing facial expressions; it can also be influenced by emotions that are implied via language and word choice. All digital interactions are subject to EC, including text messages, emails, instant messages, and most importantly, social networks. It’s the most important because the moods are propagated i.e. spread to, and influenced by, the mood of your friends, that of your friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends, and so on. This has been demonstrated by one study that looked at online social justice movements, and which found a demonstrable “amplification effect,” wherein people more frequently liked replies that were actually more emotional than the original message posted. This would be a very effective method for propagation, because again, language and word choice play a role in the contagiousness of EC. But that’s another double-edged sword.
And speaking of social network studies, one dominant social media site, whose name rhymes with placelook, conducted a particularly controversial study that came to light in 2014, when scientists published a paper revealing that, in 2012, researchers (who were also employed by the same social media site by the way) conducted a study into EC. In the study, they surreptitiously altered the news feeds- the main page that users land on for a stream of updates from friends- of nearly 700,000 users. Feeds were changed to reflect more “positive” or “negative” content, in order to determine if seeing more sad messages makes a person sadder. My response: duh.
After analyzing more than 3 million posts, the team found that people exposed to fewer positive words made fewer positive posts themselves, whereas those exposed to fewer negative words made fewer negative posts. In other words, you are what you feed, not what you eat, on placelook. The experiment also demonstrated that personal interaction and verbal clues weren’t necessary for emotional contagion. It’s worth noting that both of those things had already been discovered from separate studies, designed and conducted by different researchers, one of which found that the very existence of feeds was making some users sadder. So basically, now we are absolutely sure, as if we didn’t know before, that placelook can manipulate your mood, which does affect your perspective, what you buy, why you buy it, whether you vote, how you vote, and pretty much everything else in your life. It certainly has the biggest effects on how you interact with your social media friends, especially after your news feeds are altered… helll-ooo!!
If you’re wondering about permission, here’s the scoop on how news feeds were surreptitiously tweaked without warning: placelook users agree to the social giant’s general terms of data use when they create a profile, and researchers tracked emotional responses of test subjects by judging any subsequent changes in their use of language, which is covered in those terms. It’s unclear if you, or I, were tested, and it will remain that way. Ultimately, as users, the check-box agreement gave permission for this kind of psychological experimentation.
I should add something. One reporter that had been aggressively following this story for Forbes got a response from placelook, which stipulated that, “…the research was conducted for a single week and none of the data used were associated with any specific user.” They further explained that they do research to make the content “…as relevant and engaging as possible” and that, “a big part of this is understanding how people respond to different types of content, whether it’s positive or negative in tone, news from friends, or information from pages they follow. We carefully consider what research we do and have a strong internal review process. There is no unnecessary collection of people’s data in connection with these research initiatives and all data is stored securely.”
One last note on this topic: another reporter had apparently spoken with the editor of the placelook study, who is also employed by them, and she reported that even they thought the mood study was creepy. I agree, and I also think that, when it comes to studies, placelook may not know exactly what they’re doing, but they definitely know what they have the power to do, and what a platform with access to the personal interactions of more than a billion users can do. And now I’ve said all I’ll say about the placelook study controversy.
When it comes to the ways emotional contagion can be used as an external tool, potentially on- or against- you, the take home message is be aware and beware.
Emotional Contagion: Final Thoughts
With any luck, people catch all the positive emotions, a colleague’s enthusiasm for a promotion at work, or a friend’s excitement over an engagement, and miss the negative ones. But what goes up must come down. Research suggests that just being around someone who’s stressed can increase your own stress levels. Other studies have found the same to be true for depression. Negative emotions, like sadness, fear, pain, and anger, are more contagious; and on top of that, they can be damaging to your overall health, as they can lead to sadness, depression, fatigue, decreased energy, and stress. Ultimately, negative states of mind may increase the risk for heart disease and other serious health issues over time. You’d think that with such negative impacts, people would always stay away from those who emit negativity. But it’s not that simple.
While the idea of making yourself impervious to other people’s emotions may be appealing, putting up an emotional barrier isn’t the answer. This is because the cost of it is the loss of empathy. You have to consider that shutting out other people’s dark moods precludes you from catching their good ones as well. So how should you respond to negativity?
First, consider this: research indicates that people can catch something that isn’t actually there to begin with, for the same reasons why EC confers survival value. Because we are wired to pick up on threats in the environment, we are susceptible to interpreting situations negatively. In addition, humans tend to create our realities in accordance with our beliefs, so if we go into an ambiguous interaction believing the worst of someone, we tend to act in a way that makes the other person more defensive, or worse, antagonistic; and this confirms our original view. The lesson is that reality is what you make it, so try to make it positive, even if it seems negative.
Since you can’t- and shouldn’t- shut out all negativity, what can you do to regulate it, while still ensuring that the positivity comes through loud and clear? There is some strategy involved in managing this, and like EC, it’s a skill you can work on. Take some time and reflect on your own emotional state.
Now we know how easily so many things can affect our mood, and then affect the moods of others, without us even realizing it. Below are some tips to manage EC if you think your moods “infect” others negatively, or vice versa, and some ways to do yourself a favor when they do.
Awareness is Key
When you become aware of the emotions you exude toward others, it helps you recognize when you’re picking up on the negative or positive emotions of others; this will allow you to create change if needed and protect your own emotional well-being, as well as that of the people around you. Take care of yourself when you need to. If you feel exceptionally stressed, first remember the possibility that you may be feeling something that’s not actually there. If you find it is actually there, then proceed with management.
Seek Professional Guidance
If you find that you’re more aware or sensitive to the moods of others, you can always evaluate those relationships and those triggers. Talking with a trained professional can help you in thought pattern recognition and guide you into healthy coping skills to ward off EC.
Create Your Happy Place
Surround yourself with things that make you happy. You’re less likely to succumb to someone else’s bad mood if you keep your surrounding environment full of things that bring you joy. So create your own personal happy place, at home and at work, that can help you if you start feeling like you’re coming down with a bad case of negativity. Bring in plants, put up photos of your pet, partner, children, and friends, and listen to your favorite music.
Accentuate the Positive
Incite radical acts of positive contagion: play upbeat songs on your way home if you’re stressed, like on the way home from work. Find proactive ways to boost your moods, and those of loved ones will increase as well. If you don’t want another person’s negativity to affect you, try turning the tables by smiling and trying to keep your voice cheerful. This not only helps you feel more positive, but the other person might also mimic your body language and catch your mood, making it a win-win situation.
When you feel negativity creeping in, share a funny video, tell a good joke, or enjoy your favorite sitcom or movie for a boost of positivity. Just like offering positivity, laughing can help improve your mood and relieve stress, and it can also spread to people around you.
One of the best ways of avoiding contagion with people who are down is actually to engage with them. Do things with them that will lift both their mood and yours, like taking a walk, sharing a meal, working out together, or just being generally supportive and talking through things.
It’s Not Personal
People have their own issues and they have nothing to do with you. Don’t encourage or even engage with bad behavior, or anything else that doesn’t feel right, and that includes online. Bad behavior breeds bad behavior. If you send out calm, positive signals, you are more likely to attract the same, and less likely to attract the opposite.
Remember that changing the behavior of an adult who thrives on negativity is typically very unlikely to happen, and the attempt can wear you out, especially because you’ll find you’re doing it over and over. If you’re dealing with an angry boss or an anxious father, always remember to take time for yourself to think the situation through before engaging and trying to convince people to change their bad behavior.
When you’re in a bad mood, there are also ways to avoid infecting other people with your negative emotions. They all boil down to one central theme: control. Realize that you have the power to “infect” a room via contagion, especially in your own home, and use that as an incentive to keep emotions in check and safeguard your colleagues, neighbors, and loved ones from your negativity.
We know what inoculation means, so try to do that first to make yourself less susceptible to bad moods that you can easily pass on to others. This includes the basics, like getting adequate sleep, eating well, exercising, and cultivating a sense of purpose.
Compartmentalizing can be useful in managing the effects of EC. You might think you have every right to be cranky, but if you consider how it can infringe on other people’s rights to exist in a content state, you might find it easier to set aside your negative thoughts and emotions. So shelve the bad mood when you know you’ll be interacting with other people. You can always choose to wallow in your negativity later, in private.
Show some emotional awareness by asking a long-term partner, or someone else you trust implicitly, for input on whether you’re giving off negative vibes too often. If so, work to regulate your sadness, anger, and anxiety through therapy or mindfulness, or by modifying your expectations or looking at the situation from a different perspective.
If you’re particularly irritable, consider isolating yourself. We’re all familiar with this one. You might be better served by watching happy movies or going to bed early.
Ask yourself some questions:
-What types of emotion do I give off and how does that affect the people I interact with, my family, roommates, spouse, colleagues, etc?
-How easily do I let others affect my emotions? Am I even aware when it’s happening?
-Are the people in my social networks the type of people I really want to surround myself with?
-Whom do I feel my best around?
-Who reinforces my strengths and best qualities?
-With whom am I the best version of myself?
-Are there actions or changes I need to make?
Keep in Mind:
-You aren’t responsible for the feelings of others, only your own.
-You may not be able to help other people, but you’ll never be of much help if you’re not feeling well, either. You can always take the time to help yourself, and you’re absolutely worth it.
-People usually share their experiences in the only way they know, and this is especially important to remember when they’re depressed.
-Check out the Emotional Contagion Scale to see how vulnerable you are to catching and adopting the feelings of others.
The Emotional Contagion Scale
This examines a person’s tendency to mimic five basic emotions: sadness, fear, anger, happiness, and love.
If you want to take it, forget everything you’ve just read- temporarily, mind you- and remember that there are no right or wrong answers. Read each question and choose the answer that best applies to you using the key below. Scoring interpretation instructions are at the end.
4 = Always; 3 = Often; 2 = Rarely; 1 = Never
1. If someone I’m talking with begins to cry, I get teary-eyed.
2. Being with a happy person picks me up when I’m feeling down.
3. When someone smiles warmly at me, I smile back and feel warm inside.
4. I get filled with sorrow when people talk about the death of their loved ones.
5. I clench my jaws and my shoulders get tight when I see the angry faces on the news.
6. When I look into the eyes of the one I love, my mind is filled with thoughts of romance.
7. It irritates me to be around angry people.
8. Watching the fearful faces of victims on the news makes me try to imagine how they might be feeling.
9. I melt when the one I love holds me close.
10. I tense up when I overhear an angry quarrel.
11. Being around happy people fills my mind with happy thoughts.
12. I sense my body responding when the one I love touches me.
13. I notice myself getting tense when I’m around people who are stressed out.
14. I cry at sad movies.
15. Listening to the shrill screams of a terrified child in a dentist’s waiting room makes me feel nervous.
The highest possible score is 60, and the higher the score, the more susceptible you are to emotional contagion.
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Thank you and be well people!
The Skinny on Psychostimulants, Part 3: Modafinil
Over the past two weeks, we’ve been discussing the psychostimulants amphetamines and methylphenidate, which stimulate the central nervous system by increasing synaptic concentrations of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine to varying degrees, and are used in pharmaceutical preparations primarily for treating ADHD, narcolepsy, obesity, and binge eating disorders. They are also used off label to treat cognitive dysfunction and depression in cancer patients and as part of a regimen in chronic pain patients, as well as being used recreationally to get high, study, take tests, improve focus, and/ or stay awake for extended periods of time. In this last installment on psychostimulants today, I’ll discuss a popular drug called modafinil.
While modafinil isn’t technically a psychostimulant, it acts “stimulant-ish,” and ultimately elicits similar effects as its stimulant brethren. It actually belongs to a class of drugs called eugeroics, which are wakefulness-promoting agents, and is also considered a nootropic. Nootropics are “smart drugs,” substances that can enhance brain performance or focus. Strictly speaking, the term nootropic is generally reserved for prescription and over the counter (OTC) pharmaceuticals and supplements that are not taken therapeutically to treat a particular illness, but rather to enhance cognitive function in healthy individuals beyond what is usually considered “normal” in humans. Nootropics or smart drugs can alternatively be referred to as performance enhancers or pharmacological cognitive enhancers (PCE’s). To cover all the bases and avoid ticking off the biohackers, I suppose you could call modafinil a nootropic eugeroic. Whatever!
Originally synthesized in France in the 1970’s, modafinil was approved by the FDA in 1998 and is used primarily to treat sleep disorders, including narcolepsy, shift-work sleep disorder, and residual/ excessive sleepiness in obstructive sleep apnea despite continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP).
It is used recreationally to increase focus and learning, for cognitive and physical performance enhancement, and to stay awake for extended periods of time. Modafinil is taken by mouth, usually once a day. Most people who work during the day take it in the morning on either a full or empty stomach, but shift workers who take it to promote wakefulness do so before their shifts begin. Modafinil is marketed under the trade name Provigil, while its R-enantiomer armodafinil is marketed under the name Nuvigil. If you recall, enantiomers are mirror image molecules, like left and right hands, that generally induce similar pharmacological effects. Indeed, the two are used to treat the same disorders, but armodafinil is a newer compound and has a slightly different side effect profile than its older sibling modafinil. More on that in a moment.
Both forms are Schedule IV drugs, which defines them as having a low potential for abuse and low risk of dependence. Some other examples of Schedule IV drugs are benzodiazepines like diazepam and alprazolam. That said, while I concur that (ar)modafinil has a low risk of abuse and dependence, I beg to differ on the risk of abuse and dependence being comparable to benzos. In my experience, benzos are far more commonly abused, and the incidence of dependence on benzos far exceeds that of modafinil. However, while studies have not shown any significant withdrawal effects from discontinuation of modafinil, any drug that provides stimulant effects to the brain can enforce drug taking to some extent, and thus carry the potential for dependency, which could lead to withdrawal symptoms upon cessation. Anecdotally, people have reported reduced energy, lack of motivation, and depression following discontinuation of modafinil; therefore, modafinil should always be tapered when discontinued if it has been used for a long period of time.
I’ve found that modafinil carries a very low risk of side effects, and a very mild profile when present, one that may be comparable to having an extra cup of coffee. The most common side effects are potentially occasional minor headaches, possibly some jitters, and sometimes trouble sleeping, which is usually related to the time of dosing being too late. But the official list of side effects also includes: dizziness, upper respiratory tract infection, nausea, diarrhea, nervousness, anxiety, agitation, and dry mouth. For armodafinil, you can add upset stomach to the list and take away upper respiratory tract infection. Something you have to be aware of when taking modafinil are the synergistic effects of other stimulants. If you consume coffee, energy drinks, or anything with caffeine, you’re likely to have much stronger stimulating effects, and these may include jitters or anxiety. It is wise to avoid anything else meant to make you or keep you awake when taking modafinil, at least until you are aware of its effects on your system, and even then you should still use great caution. As with any medication, if you take other prescription or OTC medications, be sure to disclose them with your prescribing physician to discuss potential interactions. Modafinil has a half-life of 12 hours, meaning that after 12 hours, the effects will start to wear off, but half of the drug will still remain in your system.
Modafinil’s off label and “lifestyle” use in healthy individuals to stay awake for extended periods of time and increase cognitive alertness and physical performance is well documented and likely exceeds its therapeutic utility as far as numbers go. In some professional groups such as pilots, academics, and scientists, modafinil use is reported in the ballpark of 20 to 30 percent; but I’d like to note that that is the reported use, not actual use, which I think is significantly higher, given how available it is on the internet. Modafinil’s popularity among college students, athletes, and the Silicon Valley techie set isn’t exactly a state secret, but its use among the military literally was until confirmed relatively recently. The US Armed Forces tested modafinil in improving performance despite sleep deprivation and in combating pilot fatigue; in fact, at one point, we led the world in military research on modafinil. I happened to catch part of a television show over the holidays that mentioned modafinil studies in Air Force fighter pilots. The show stated that it induced vigilance (aka kept them awake) for 40 hours, which, the show mentioned, is apparently a desired effect during times that necessitate flying to Iraq quickly. Now, I’ve never flown to Iraq, much less in a fighter jet, but I can’t imagine that it takes 40 hours to get there… but you get the point. If you were exhausted, but needed to get to Iraq all quick like, modafinil may be the compound of choice.
Of course, I had to look into these studies. Captain Obvious says that Uncle Sam has been “officially” dosing our Armed Forces for years, so modafinil is just another in a long line of compounds. I’ve had many patients that were/ are members of the US military, and I’ve been told of the sanctioned use of various drug combinations in all branches of it: hypnotics to induce them to sleep before a mission, followed by stimulants (in the form of dextroamphetamine) “go pills” to switch them back on just before, at “go time.” As far as modafinil is concerned, the experiments relating to sleep deprivation seem pretty ambitious, testing for 40, 60, or even 90 hours without sleep. In some journal articles, scientists speculated that with modafinil, troops might function for weeks(!) on as little as four hours of sleep a night.
Back to fighter pilots: in the study I looked at, Air Force scientists looked at the effects of being awake for 37 hours on pilot alertness and flight performance; this was evaluated through simulator tests repeated every five hours to track the pilots’ level of fatigue. The same experiment was conducted with and without modafinil, and also in a rested state without modafinil for comparison. What did they find? While on modafinil, the pilots’ performance significantly improved, especially at time points after 25 hours without sleep, and the pilots sustained brain activity at almost normal levels despite their sleep deprivation. Further, while under the influence of modafinil, flight performance degraded by 15 to 30 percent. Now that doesn’t sound great, until you consider that performance by pilots without modafinil (and without sleep) degraded by 60 to 100 percent (hell-ooo!!) as compared to rested levels. All of the findings led researchers to conclude that modafinil “significantly” reduced the effects and impacts of fatigue during flight maneuvers, even though sleep deprived pilots on modafinil were unable to maintain the same performance as they exhibited during a rested state off of modafinil. I’ll say… Degraded by 60 to 100 percent?! Bottom line: clearly, if a pilot can’t get sleep, they should get modafinil. Ultimately, they stated that until more research is done, a 100 mg dose of modafinil is viewed as an option to, but not a replacement for, a 10 mg dose of dextroamphetamine.
All of that said, most of us are not fighter pilots, much less operating a complicated machine at mach speed and 50,000 feet, under stress, and sleep deprived… and thankfully so. Most of the people that ask me about modafinil are everyday people looking to focus better at work, get excellent scores on SAT’s to get into a great school, win a medal or a pro poker tournament (pro poker players love modafinil) or maybe beat out somebody at work for a promotion. In my experience, for all of those things and more, modafinil is a safe and effective tool, and lots of folks want it in their tool box. It’s been around long enough to have some significant studies done; all findings echo my experience, and one another: it works well and nobody’s dropping dead at their desks.
The University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School conducted a formal review of all research papers on cognitive enhancement with modafinil in non-sleep-deprived individuals, dated from January 1990 to December 2014. They found and evaluated 24 studies, which included more than 700 participants total, dealing with different benefits associated with taking modafinil, including planning and decision making, flexibility, creativity, and learning and memory. They also surveyed overall performance enhancing capabilities and side effect reporting. Findings were as follows:
Modafinil made no apparent difference to working memory or flexibility of thought, but did improve executive function, the ability to sift through new information and make plans based on it.
As to side effects: (70 percent the of 24 studies looked at the effects of modafinil on mood and the side effects of modafinil) In those where side effects were studied, there were very few side effects overall, although a very small number reported insomnia, headache, stomach ache, or nausea, but these were also reported in the placebo group, meaning those who were unwittingly given a “sugar pill” with no biological action.
As to overall performance enhancing capacity of modafinil: this was found to vary according to the task; the longer and more complex the task tested, the more consistently modafinil conferred cognitive benefits.
Modafinil clearly and reliably enhanced cognition, especially in higher brain functions that rely on contribution from multiple simple cognitive processes.
Some snippets of findings from other studies:
“It has been shown to increase resistance to fatigue and improve mood.”
In healthy adults, modafinil improves “fatigue levels, motivation, reaction time and vigilance.”
Modafinil is effective at reducing “impulse response,” meaning it reduced the incidence of poor decision making.
Modafinil “…improved brain function in sleep deprived doctors.”
Modafinil “enhanced the ability to pay attention, learn, and remember.”
There is some evidence that modafinil only helps people with lower IQ, but I read validated accounts of years of use associated with validated corresponding increases in IQ, though this could theoretically be due to other unrelated factors.
How Does Modafinil Work?
Scientists haven’t gotten it all figured out quite yet, but like the psychostimulants we’ve already discussed, modafinil increases the production of norepinephrine and dopamine in the CNS, the neurotransmitters linked to emotional well being, motivation, memory, and focus. At the same time, modafinil may also reduce the production of neurotransmitters that are known for blocking communication between neurons. It also increases the production of histamine, which increases the oxygen concentrations travelling to the brain, making you more awake, or so it’s theorized. Just as the anti-histamine Benadryl dampens histamine and puts some people to sleep, modafinil boosts histamine levels, which has a tendency to wake you up and increase alertness. If you’ve ever had an acute allergy, especially an anaphylactic reaction, and experienced the typical increase in heart rate and blood pressure associated with it (which is also associated with wakefulness and alertness) then you’ve felt the acute effects of excess histamine production. Obviously, modafinil doesn’t cause this level of histamine release, that’s just an explanation of how the release of histamines from taking modafinil are thought to cause a feeling of wakefulness or alertness: from the increase in heart rate and blood pressure associated with their release. Though scientists aren’t exactly sure how it works, they have elucidated that modafinil also enhances several other CNS neurotransmitters, including serotonin, glutamate, and GABA.
The Ethics of Modafinil Use
Pharmacological cognitive enhancers (PCE’s) like modafinil may be used to treat cognitive impairments in patients, but they are more commonly used by healthy individuals in an effort to improve focus, stay awake and alert for extended periods of time, and boost mental and physical performance. This lifestyle use of modafinil by healthy people is increasing, and in fact, it appears that it far exceeds the therapeutic use of modafinil for cognitive impairment and sleep abnormalities. As it enhances cognition and has effects on attention, learning, memory, planning, and problem solving, this lifestyle use raises a number of ethical issues.
In societies and populations that foster or encourage academic and professional competition, access to knowledge about how to gain a competitive edge and how to perform better in the workplace is a valuable commodity, but not one that tends to be equally distributed across all social groups. As modafinil rises in popularity, will we soon be locked in a productivity arms race, pounding out after-hours spreadsheets with one hand while Googling “latest nootropic advancements” with the other? Some sports organizations already ban the use of prescription psychostimulant drugs- including methylphenidate- without an official ADHD diagnosis, for the same reasons they ban steroids and other performance enhancing drugs. Will employer drug screens soon test for off label modafinil use in an effort to avoid its presence in the workplace? Or will the opposite be the case; will CEOs welcome super sharp workers who never need sleep? Think about the Bezos’ and the Musk’s of the world… will they be adding modafinil to the water coolers?
Considering modafinil’s popularity, you can be sure that more cognitive enhancing drugs are right around the corner. Will everyone be able to compete? What if you can’t get access to a cognitive enhancer, can’t afford it, or can’t take it due to negative interactions or side effects… are you destined to be stuck in a dead end job or hit an impenetrable corporate ceiling while you watch your friends and co-workers climb the corporate ladder? How about your kids? If you think things are competitive now… just wait ten years. Will they be able to get into a good pre-school without putting modafinil or some other enhancer in their kool-aid, or juice, or whatever you’ll put in their sippy cups? Seriously, will they be able to compete… to get into a good school without cognitive enhancement? In a cognitively enhanced society, what happens to the benefits and self-satisfaction of earning something by the sweat of the brow… especially when that’s just. not. good. enough? Could this lead to a devaluation of hard work and generate less engagement with the world? And if so, what happens to a society where few people see the value of civic work or doing something for the greater good rather than getting ahead? These won’t be hypothetical questions for very long. How about things less under our direct control? Will the FDA save us by prioritizing drugs that preserve lives, or will they bow to pressures from big pharma to prioritize drugs that will undoubtedly be more popular among healthy individuals, have a far larger market, and make more money?
Hey people… these are things to think about. Don’t shoot the messenger.
In situations where there is a deficit in performance due to sleep deprivation or fatigue, a medical diagnosis, or learning disorder, there’s no doubt that modafinil can even the playing field. But what about in “normal” healthy individuals? Proponents of modafinil use in healthy individuals argue that it reduces fatigue-related and work-related accidents and improves learning outcomes; in other words, it’s a good thing, so use it. But when it comes to “enhancement” or “optimization” of performance, do the ends always justify the means? To use a sports analogy, does enhancement corrupt the “rules of the game”? If so, does it make the game pointless? Or is enhancement or optimization a slippery slope that leads to the desire to “perfect” human beings? The increase in medical options available to affect human characteristics and abilities over recent decades certainly offers more options to do so, but the desire to want to do so is hardly novel. The difference is that now we’re getting much closer to being able to actually do it. The door is open, and people are walking through it. Some people are running through it. But can we ever turn around to get back to where we were if/ when we find we don’t like what’s on the other side? What happens when average abilities become less the norm, and more of a negative exception… would average people feel fundamentally inadequate?
The ethical implications of the use of modafinil in particular, and smart drugs in general, has become one of the biggest issues in neuroethics and bioethics; it’s got ethics nerds everywhere red faced and arguing, and it’s certainly a favorite topic in the popular media as well, with tons of hype. What about the ethics of biohacking, using any and all, drug and non-drug technologies to improve cognition; ie training and nutrition to boost brainpower, and/ or the application of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), deep brain stimulation (DBS), or brain-computer interfaces (BCI)? There are plenty of biohackers out there- do they have an unfair competitive advantage, or is it mostly acceptable, because a lot of it requires at least more effort and dedication than just swallowing a pill? If most people biohack themselves in order to become cognitively superior, when is superior… superior enough? There could be serious ramifications concerning attitudes towards conventional human abilities in the long term.
I certainly don’t suppose that I have the answers to these questions, but I know that I’m not the only one asking them. The last question I’ll pose that is still unanswered is: when will we be forced to confront all of the above questions… and then some? Because that day is coming. Of that, I have no doubt.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and educational. If you did, let me know. If you didn’t, let me know that too!
Please feel free to share the love! Share blogs and YouTube videos with family and friends.
Be sure to check out my YouTube channel with all of my videos, and I’d appreciate it if you would like, subscribe, and share those vids too!
And if you like what you see and want more of it, or if you want a specific topic, leave it in the comments- I love reading them!
As always, my book Tales from the Couch has more educational topics and patient stories, and is available in the office and on Amazon.
Thank you and be well people!
The Skinny on Psychostimulants
Happy 2021 people! Are you as happy as I am that 2020 is finally in the rearview?! Weirdest. Longest. Year. Ever.
That actually makes me think of a new and hilarious commercial I just saw for a big online dating site. It starts out with Satan bored out of his mind in hell, and then he gets a text message from the site saying he’s been matched with a girl, and he’s very intrigued. When they meet, it’s obvious that they’re both instantly smitten. Then the starry-eyed girl introduces herself as 2020. They fall in love. And they live happily (?) ever after… apparently in hell. Unless they stay at her place I guess. Anyway, 2020 is over, even though unfortunately, we’re still schlepping some of its covid baggage, but hopefully not for much longer.
Considering the euphoria surrounding the new year and the stimulation of resolutions, I thought it very fitting that I start with a three part blog series on pharmacological central nervous system stimulants, aka psychostimulants. One of the main compounds in this class of drugs are the amphetamines, and that will be today’s blog topic.
As psychostimulants go, amphetamines are very strong ones; they are a group of very tightly controlled and well monitored schedule II drugs. Add a little carbon atom, bind some hydrogens to it, and you’ve got a methyl group; and that makes it methamphetamine, which everyone’s heard of. When prescription methamphetamine is (very) illegally altered…tah-dah…you’ve got crystal meth, aka speed, ice, crank, etc. Other examples of psychostimulants include caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, and other prescription compounds that I’ll cover next week.
Because of their stimulant activity within the central nervous system, prescription amphetamines are used in the treatment of several disorders, including narcolepsy, obesity, binge eating disorders, and very commonly, ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They can also be used recreationally in certain populations to get high, to stay awake for long periods of time, and/ or to improve focus and study for exams. In fact, it’s those last two that make amphetamines very popular party favors among college students.
Structurally speaking, amphetamines are drugs that are related to catecholamines, which are chemical messengers that help transmit a message or signal across neural synapses in the central nervous system, from the terminal end of a transmitting nerve cell to the receiving end of a target nerve cell. In an over-simplified explanation, when a signal gets to the end of one neuron, catecholamines help the signal jump to the beginning of the next neuron, hence the name “neurotransmitter.” That message is repeated billions upon billions of times, as there are billions upon billions of neurons in the central nervous system. These neural signals activate emotional responses in the amygdala of the brain, such as fear in a “fight or flight” situation. At the same time, catecholamines also have effects on attention and other cognitive brain functions. Examples of catecholamines include the neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Pharmacologically speaking, amphetamines increase levels of the specific neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the neural synapses, which helps the message to make the jump from one neuron to the next. In a way of thinking, amphetamines “speed” the transmission of the message by increasing the levels of these neurotransmitters. Amphetamines increase these dopamine and norepinephrine levels through three different mechanisms of action, at least that we know of: 1) they reverse the direction of the transporter pumps that would normally divert dopamine and norepinephrine away, 2) they disrupt cellular vesicles, thereby preventing the storage of excess dopamine and norepinephrine, which frees them up, and 3) they also promote the release of dopamine and norepinephrine at nerve cell terminals, making them readily available in the synaptic cleft. These three mechanisms combined ensure that there are very high concentrations of dopamine and norepinephrine in the synapses of the central nervous system. The “catecholaminergic” (try that one next time you play scrabble) actions of increasing the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine result in the very strong psychostimulant effects that amphetamines produce.
You’ll notice that I keep saying amphetamines, plural. Why? Because like the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine it effects, amphetamines are chiral molecules; this is a fancy way of saying that in their three dimensional world, they can exist in different forms called enantomers (more scrabble points!) that are mirror images of each other. I know this sounds complicated, but it’s really not. Think of it as “handedness.” Your left and right hands are mirror images of one another: they look similar, except the placement of the fingers and thumbs are mirror images, and they can do pretty much the same things, like hold a fork or a pencil, but the way they do so differs slightly. The same is true of amphetamines. The two enantiomers of amphetamines are usually referred to as dextroamphetamine (also denoted as d-amphetamine) and levoamphetamine (also denoted as l-amphetamine). All prescription amphetamines boil down to four variations of the amphetamine molecule, which have markedly similar, but potentially slightly variable effects: dextroamphetamine, aka dexadrine; lisdexamphetamine, which is a precursor or pro-drug of dextroamphetamine; methamphetamine, aka methamphetamine HCL, which has that methyl group I mentioned before; and mixed amphetamine, which is essentially a mixture of dextroamphetamine and levoamphetamine at a specific ratio.
Of those four active forms of amphetamines, there are several brand name drugs on the market, some of which have generic forms available. They are all oral formulations that may be immediate-release, which are typically taken twice a day, or extended-release, which are obviously released more slowly and taken once a day.
Adderall XR (generic available)
Dexedrine (generic available)
ProCentra (generic available)
The desired effects of amphetamines include: stimulation (thank you Captain Obvious), increased alertness, cognitive enhancement, euphoria, and mood lift. Amphetamines have been around for a long time and when taken as prescribed, they’re fairly safe, but there are potential negative side effects. These can include insomnia, hyperfocus, GI irritation, headache, anxiety, slight increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and anorexia. There is addiction potential associated with amphetamines, and there is a short and fairly mild associated withdrawal period where one might feel some fatigue, sleep a lot, and experience strange dreams.
When taken as directed, and by mouth, usually 20mg – 40mg per day, amphetamines are fairly safe. However, when smoked, injected, or snorted, they are decidedly UNsafe; especially in large doses. I’ve seen people take up to 1000mg per day… though not for long. Why? Because they usually end up dead of overdose. What happens if you choose to use amphetamines in large quantities and/ or via routes other than oral? Hallucinations, delusions, psychosis, seizures, cardiovascular collapse/ arrest, stroke… the bottom line is it ain’t pretty, people, so don’t do it.
Because amphetamines have multiple mechanisms of action and thereby are very strong psychostimulants, I generally restrict their use to adults only, and choose to use another type of psychostimulant in children called methylphenidate. And that will be the topic next week in psychostimulants part 2 of 3.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and educational. If you did, let me know. If you didn’t, let me know that too!
Please feel free to share the love! Share blogs and YouTube videos with family and friends.
Be sure to check out my YouTube channel with all of my videos, and I’d appreciate it if you would like, subscribe, and share those vids too!
Thank you and be well people!
Postpartum Depression: o
Signs, Symptoms, New Treatment?
Last week, we talked about sex and orgasms, so it seems only fitting that this week, I talk about the potential ‘homework’ that may come after the sex and orgasms: pregnancy… and the postpartum depression that may accompany it.
It is one of life’s greatest joys, and for me personally, the proudest moment of my entire life: the birth of a child. But no matter how much you love that baby or how you’ve looked forward to its arrival, having a baby is stressful on both parents for many reasons. However, there are specific reasons that make it more physically and emotionally taxing on mom. Captain Obvious says that there are many physical, emotional, and chemical changes in a woman’s body that allow them to (help) create, carry, and birth these little miracles. And add to that the onset of new responsibilities, sleep deprivation, and lack of time for any personal care, it’s not a big shock that lots of new moms get overwhelmed and feel like they’re on an emotional rollercoaster from hell. In fact, the mild depression and mood swings that are so common in new mothers have earned them a name, “the baby blues.” But how do you know if what mom is feeling goes beyond the blues? What should you look for, and when should you seek help?
The majority of women experience at least some symptoms of the baby blues immediately after childbirth. Why? It’s all down to female hormones: specifically, progesterone and estrogen, the big kahunas in the female hormone universe.
Progesterone’s role in pregnancy is so vital that it’s referred to as the “pregnancy hormone.” Actually, progesterone comes into play long before pregnancy, as it is one of the hormones secreted by the ovaries that governs ovulation and menstruation in post-pubescent women. Then upon conception, it gets the uterus ready to accept, implant, and maintain a fertilized egg, and it also prevents the uterine muscle contractions that would otherwise cause a woman’s body to reject it. During fetal gestation, it helps create an environment that nurtures the developing baby. It makes it sound like progesterone is in there painting, hanging curtains, and fluffing pillows, but its role goes way beyond that. The placenta, which is the structure inside the uterus that provides oxygen and nutrients to a developing baby, will itself begin to produce progesterone after about 8 to 10 weeks of pregnancy. At this point, the placenta increases progesterone production to a much higher rate than the ovaries ever thought about making. Those high levels of progesterone throughout the pregnancy cause the mom’s body to stop producing more eggs, as well as prepare her breasts to produce milk.
Also produced by the ovaries when not pregnant, and then later by the placenta during pregnancy, estrogen helps the uterus grow, maintains the uterine lining where the budding baby is nestled, steps up blood circulation, and activates and regulates the production of other key hormones. In early pregnancy, it also helps mom develop her milk-making machinery. And baby benefits too, as estrogen triggers the development of those teeny tiny organs and regulates bone density in those cute little developing arms that wave and legs that kick.
The increased levels of progesterone and estrogen during pregnancy actually make mom feel good and feel bonded to baby, even though she may be crying her eyes out for virtually no reason (sorry ladies) in the beginning. Levels of both hormones continue to increase as the pregnancy advances, and mom’s body actually gets used to these high levels. Then when the baby is born, there’s no more placenta, so mom’s progesterone and estrogen levels drop suddenly and precipitously, in a matter of hours. So mom goes essentially cold turkey from high hormone levels to comparatively no hormone levels. Sudden hormonal change + stress + isolation + sleep deprivation + fatigue = tearful + overwhelmed + emotionally fragile mom. Generally, these feelings can start within just the first day or so after delivery, peak at around one week, and taper off by the end of the second, third, or maybe up to the fourth week postpartum; that’s if it’s the baby blues.
These baby blues are perfectly normal, but if symptoms are extreme, don’t go away after a month, or get worse, mom may be suffering from postpartum depression and likely needs help.
Postpartum Signs & Symptoms
Though they share some symptoms, postpartum depression is a much more serious problem than the baby blues, and should never be ignored. Shared symptoms of the two include mood swings, crying jags, sadness, insomnia, and irritability.
Postpartum depression is the most common complication of childbearing, and it occurs in 10% to 20% of all moms after delivery. It is different from the baby blues in that the symptoms are more severe and longer lasting. It is an issue that can’t be blown off or underestimated, because it begins at a critical time, when mom is caring for a helpless infant and needs to be bonding with them.
Symptoms of postpartum depression can include suicidal thoughts, an inability to care for the newborn child, and in extreme cases, even thoughts of harming the baby. Postpartum can be extremely debilitating, and certain signs can put the lives of mom and/ or baby in jeopardy.
Beyond the Blues
Common Red Flags for Postpartum:
-Mom withdraws from partner
-Mom’s unable to bond well with baby
-Mom’s anxiety gets out of control, preventing ability to sleep and/ or eat
-Mom feels guilty, worthless, useless, overwhelmed
-Mom seems preoccupied with death or wishing she were no longer alive
There’s no single reason why some new moms develop postpartum depression and others don’t, but a number of interrelated causes and risk factors are generally at play.
Postpartum Causes/ Triggers
Hormonal changes after childbirth cause fatigue and depression:
-Progesterone/ estrogen levels drop
-Thyroid levels can drop
-Changes in blood pressure, immune system functioning, metabolism
Numerous physical/ emotional changes after delivery:
-Physical delivery pain
-Difficulty losing baby weight
-Insecurity, especially in physical/ sexual attractiveness
Significant stress of caring for a newborn:
-Mom is sleep deprived
-Mom is overwhelmed/ anxious about her abilities to properly care for baby
-Mom has difficulty adjusting
All of the above factors are especially true in first time moms, as they must also get used to an entirely new identity at the same time.
Postpartum Risk Factors
Several factors can predispose a mom to suffer from postpartum depression:
-History of postpartum depression
A prior episode can increase the chances of a repeat episode by 30% to 50%.
-History of non-pregnancy related depression and/ or family history of mood disturbances
-Social stressors, including lack of emotional support, abusive relationship, and/ or financial uncertainty
-Significantly increased risk in women who discontinue medications abruptly for purposes of pregnancy.
Postpartum psychosis is an even more rare, and more extremely serious disorder that can also develop after childbirth. Characterized by a loss of contact with reality, postpartum psychosis poses an extremely high risk for suicide or infanticide, and hospitalization is nearly always required to keep both mom and baby safe. Postpartum psychosis develops suddenly, usually within the first two weeks after delivery, and sometimes within a matter of 48 hours.
Postpartum Psychosis Symptoms
Postpartum psychosis is considered a medical emergency requiring immediate medical attention.
-Hallucinations: seeing things and/ or hearing voices that aren’t real
-Delusions: paranoid, irrational beliefs
-Extreme agitation and anxiety
-Suicidal thoughts or actions
-Confusion and disorientation
-Rapid mood swings
-Inability or refusal to eat or sleep
-Thoughts of harming or killing baby
There is a screening tool that can be used to detect postpartum depression, called the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. I will put the questions and explain the scoring of this scale at the conclusion of this blog. It can be helpful if mom or partner isn’t quite sure if symptoms are the baby blues or true postpartum depression.
Coping with Postpartum Depression
Four Tips for Moms:
1) Create a secure attachment with baby.
The emotional bonding process between mom and child, known as attachment, is the most important task of infancy. The success of this wordless relationship enables a child to feel secure enough to develop fully, and affects how he or she will interact, communicate, and form relationships throughout their entire lives.
A secure attachment is formed when moms respond warmly and consistently to baby’s physical and emotional needs. When baby cries, quickly soothe them. If baby laughs or smiles, respond in kind. In essence, the goal is for mom and baby to be in synch, and to be able to recognize and respond to each other’s emotional signals.
Postpartum depression can interrupt this bonding. Depressed moms can be loving and attentive at times, but at other times may react negatively or not respond at all. Moms with postpartum depression are generally inconsistent in their care, and tend to interact less with their babies; they are also less likely to breastfeed, play with, and read to them. Postpartum is sinister in this way, as learning to bond with baby not only benefits the child, it also benefits mom by releasing endorphins that make mom feel happier and more confident. By its very presence, postpartum makes the bonding process difficult, and therefore mom is less likely to produce those endorphins that would make her feel better. It’s a vicious cycle.
If mom didn’t experience a secure attachment as an infant, she may not know how to create a secure attachment as a mom. However, this can be learned, as human brains are definitively primed for this kind of nonverbal emotional connection that creates so much pleasure for both mom and baby.
2) Lean on others for help and support.
Human beings are social creatures. Positive social contact relieves stress faster and more efficiently than any other means of stress reduction. Historically, and from an evolutionary perspective, new moms have typically received help from those around them after childbirth. In today’s world, new moms often find themselves alone, exhausted, and lonely for supportive adult contact.
Ideas to better connect with others:
-Make relationships a priority. When feeling depressed and vulnerable, it’s more important than ever to stay connected to family and friends, even if you’d rather be alone. Isolating will only make the situation feel even bleaker, so make adult relationships a priority. Let loved ones know your needs and how you wish to be supported.
-Don’t hide feelings. In addition to the practical help that friends and family can provide, they can also serve as a much-needed emotional outlet. Share experiences- good, bad, and ugly- with at least one other person, and preferably face to face. It doesn’t matter who mom talks to, so long as that person is willing to listen without judgment and offer reassurance and support.
-Be a joiner. Even if mom has supportive friends, she may want to consider seeking out other women who are dealing with the same transition into motherhood. It’s very reassuring to hear other mothers share the same worries, insecurities, and feelings. Good places to meet other new moms include support groups for new parents or organizations such as ‘Mommy and Me.’ Pediatricians can also be excellent neighborhood resources.
3) Take care of yourself. One of the best things moms can do to relieve or avoid postpartum depression is to take care of themselves. The more moms care for their mental and physical well-being, the better they’ll feel.
Simple lifestyle changes can go a long way toward helping moms feel more like themselves again.
-Skip the housework. Make yourself and baby the priority, and give yourself the permission to concentrate on just that. Remember that being a 24/7 mom is far more work than holding down a traditional full-time job.
-Ease back into exercise. Studies show that exercise may be just as effective as medication when it comes to treating depression, so the sooner moms get back up and moving, the better. No need to overdo it: a 30-minute walk each day will work wonders. Stretching exercises, like those found in yoga, have shown to be especially effective.
-Practice mindfulness meditation. Research supports the effectiveness of mindfulness for making moms feel calmer and more energized. It can also help moms become more aware of what they feel and need.
-Don’t skimp on sleep. A full eight hours may seem like an unattainable luxury when dealing with a newborn, but poor sleep makes depression worse. Moms must do whatever they can to get plenty of rest- from enlisting the help of the partner or family members, to catching naps at every opportunity.
-Set aside quality time for yourself to relax and take a break from mom duties. Find small ways to pamper yourself, like taking a bubble bath, savoring a hot cup of tea, lighting scented candles, or getting a massage at a day spa, or even calling a masseuse to come to you.
-Make meals a priority. Nutrition often suffers during depression. What mom eats has an impact on her mood, and also the quality of breast milk the baby requires, so always make the best effort to establish and maintain healthy eating habits, for yourself and baby.
-Get out in the sunshine. Sunlight lifts the mood, so try to get at least 10 to 15 minutes of sun each day.
4) Make time for your relationship with your partner. More than half of all divorces take place after the birth of a child. For many men and women, the relationship with their partner is their primary source of emotional expression and social connection. The demands and needs of a new baby can get in the way and fracture this relationship, unless couples put time, energy, and thought into preserving their bond.
-Don’t scapegoat. The stress from nights of no sleep and new or expanded responsibilities can leave parents feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. It’s all too easy to play the blame game and turn frustrations onto your partner. Instead of finger pointing, remember that you’re in this together. If you tackle parenting challenges as a team, you’ll find that you’ll become an even stronger unit.
-Keep the lines of communication open. Many things change following the birth of a baby, including roles and expectations. For many couples, a key source of strain is the post-baby division of household and childcare responsibilities. It’s important to talk about these issues, rather than letting them fester. Don’t assume your partner has a crystal ball or knows how you feel or what you need, because you’re bound to feel perpetually disappointed and frustrated if you do.
-Carve out couple time. It’s essential to make time for just the two of you when you can reconnect. But don’t put pressure on yourself to be romantic or adventurous, unless you’ve discussed it and found you’re both game. And you don’t need to go out on a date to enjoy each other’s company. Just spending even 15 or 20 minutes together, undistracted and focused on each other, can make a big difference in how close you feel to each other.
Treatment for Postpartum Depression
If, despite self-help and the support of family, mom is still struggling with postpartum depression, it’s best to seek professional treatment.
-Individual therapy/ marriage counseling A good therapist can help moms deal better with the adjustments of motherhood. If moms or partners are experiencing marital difficulties or are feeling unsupported at home, marriage counseling can also be very beneficial.
-Antidepressants. In postpartum cases where mom’s ability to function adequately for herself or baby is compromised, antidepressants may be an option, though they are more effective when accompanied with psychotherapy. Obviously, medication must be closely monitored by a physician.
-Hormone therapy: Estrogen replacement therapy can sometimes be helpful in combating postpartum depression, and is often used in combination with an antidepressant. There are risks that go along with hormone therapy, so moms must be sure to talk to their doctor about what may be best, and safest, for them.
Helping New Moms with Postpartum
If your loved one is a mom experiencing postpartum depression, the best thing you can do is to offer support, give her a break from her childcare duties, provide a listening ear, and always be patient and understanding. But, be sure to take care of yourself too. Dealing with the needs of a new baby is hard for the partner as well as mom. And if your significant other is depressed, that means you are dealing with two major stressors.
Tips for Partners:
-Encourage mom to talk about her feelings. Listen without judgement and without making demands. Instead of trying to ‘just fix’ things, simply be there for mom to lean on.
-Offer help around the house. Chip in with the housework and childcare responsibilities, and don’t wait for mom to ask… trust me on this one!
-Make sure mom takes time for herself. Rest and relaxation are even more important after a new edition. Encourage her to take breaks, hire a babysitter, or schedule some date nights.
-Be patient if she’s not ready for sex. Depression affects sex drive, so it may be a while before mom’s in the mood. Offer her physical affection, but don’t push it if she’s not up for anything beyond that.
-Getting exercise can make a big dent in depression, but it’s hard for moms to get motivated when they’re feeling low. So do something simple, like going going for a walk with mom. Better yet, make walks a daily ritual for just the two of you, or for the whole family.
There is a fairly new breakthrough drug called Zulresso (brexanolone). Approved in 2019, Zulresso is a neuropathic drug, and first in its class. So what is it? Basically, it’s an aqueous (water-based) solution of progesterone products. They have taken the component product of progesterone and put it into solution; it is then administered to a new mom with postpartum depression. And then a miracle happens… seriously! This lifts postpartum depression like a kid does candy. It is a scientific breakthrough; never before have we had a drug that treats postpartum depression faster than any drug for any type of depression, ever. That’s the good news, but guess what comes next… the bad. While we know it works, very well and very quickly, there are some major disadvantages of this drug. The first one is that it can only be administered by IV infusion. So that means that you have to place an IV map into mom’s vein and drip the drug in with IV fluid. That brings me to the next big disadvantage: it can only be administered in a hospital setting. Why is that? Well, studies show that during administration, which takes place over about 60 hours, two and a half days, some moms can become very dizzy and faint, can lose consciousness, and can even stop breathing. For all of these reasons, moms must be medically monitored with an oximeter and telemetry for two and a half days, during which time they must be checked on every two hours. And they cannot be in charge of baby during this hospital stay, because they may be in and out of consciousness and/ or have severe respiratory issues. While that’s no bueno, the last disadvantage is muy loco, people. Are you ready? The drug costs $34,000. Yep. But wait, it gets better, which in this case, actually means worse. That little $34K is just for the drug! The hospitalization and monitoring costs more… a lot more. And to add insult to injury, you have to shell out the cash to pay for a sitter to watch baby, as mom could potentially be very busy losing consciousness and going into respiratory distress.
Needless to say, Zulresso is not used very much, even though it is an amazing breakthrough product, essentially curing the notoriously difficult-to-treat postpartum depression in a mere 60 hours. There are some other anti-depressants that work pretty well. Effexor (venlafaxine, desvenlafaxine) and Wellbutrin (bupropion) with antipsychotics like Abilify help to speed up the treatment process generally show some progress in about a week.
So while I’m very impressed with Zulresso as a novel, first-in-class drug, you can see my practical issues with it. Although, I suppose that everything is relative: if my wife were suffering from serious postpartum depression, to the point that she was suicidal, or the baby’s life was in danger, and it was refractory, meaning all other treatment options had been tried and failed, I would find a way to get the Zulresso treatment; I’d make it happen, by contacting the manufacturer for patient support options. Or maybe by selling a kidney. Whatever it took.
Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale
This 10-question self-rating scale has proven to be an efficient way of identifying patients at risk for “perinatal” or postpartum depression. While this test was specifically designed to be administered by a medical professional, to a woman who is pregnant or has just had a baby, it can be used as an effective at-home guide to determine if you or someone you care about has postpartum depression. Just make sure to follow all of your score’s corresponding action(s).
For each of the 10 questions, please check mark the answer that comes closest to how you have felt in the past 7 days. Scoring is explained after the questions.1) I have been able to laugh and see the funny side of things.
____ As much as I always could
____ Not quite so much now
____ Definitely not so much now
____ Not at all2) I have looked forward with enjoyment to things.
____ As much as I ever did
____ Rather less than I used to
____ Definitely less than I used to
____ Hardly at all3) I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong.
____ Yes, most of the time
____ Yes, some of the time
____ Not very often
____ No, never4) I have been anxious or worried for no good reason.
____ No not at all
____ Hardly ever
____ Yes, sometimes
____ Yes, very often5) I have felt scared or panicky for no very good reason.
____ Yes, quite a lot
____ Yes, sometimes
____ No, not much
____ No, not at all6) Things have been getting on top of me.
____ Yes, most of the time I haven’t been able to cope at all
____ Yes, sometimes I haven’t been coping as well as usual
____ No, most of the time I have coped quite well
____ No, I have been coping as well as ever7) I have been so unhappy that I have had difficulty sleeping.
____ Yes, most of the time
____ Yes, sometimes
____ Not very often
____ No, not at all8) I have felt sad or miserable.
____ Yes, most of the time
____ Yes, sometimes
____ Not very often
____ No, not at all9) I have been so unhappy that I have been crying.
____ Yes, most of the time
____ Yes, quite often
____ Only occasionally
____ No, never10) The thought of harming myself has occurred to me.
____ Yes, quite often
____ Hardly ever
SCORING VALUES AND GUIDE
Grade each of your checked answers with the specifically stated score, then add the scores together. Take that sum and apply to the interpretation/ action scale and follow the stated suggestion.1) I have been able to laugh and see the funny side of things
0 As much as I always could
1 Not quite so much now
2 Definitely not so much now
3 Not at all 2) I have looked forward with enjoyment to things
0 As much as I ever did
1 Rather less than I used to
2 Definitely less than I used to
3 Hardly at all 3) I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong
3 Yes, most of the time
2 Yes, some of the time
1 Not very often
0 No, never 4) I have been anxious or worried for no good reason
0 No, not at all
1 Hardly ever
2 Yes, sometimes
3 Yes, very often 5) I have felt scared or panicky for no very good reason
3 Yes, quite a lot
2 Yes, sometimes
1 No, not much
0 No, not at all 6) Things have been getting on top of me
3 Yes, most of the time I haven’t been able to cope
2 Yes, sometimes I haven’t been coping as well as usual
1 No, most of the time I have coped quite well
0 No, I have been coping as well as ever 7) I have been so unhappy that I have had difficulty sleeping
3 Yes, most of the time
2 Yes, sometimes
1 Not very often
0 No, not at all8) I have felt sad or miserable
3 Yes, most of the time
2 Yes, quite often
1 Not very often
0 No, not at all 9) I have been so unhappy that I have been crying
3 Yes, most of the time
2 Yes, quite often
1 Only occasionally
0 No, never 10) The thought of harming myself has occurred to me
3 Yes, quite often
1 Hardly ever
EPDS Score Interpretation/ Action
Score of 8 or less: depression not likely, but continue to seek support.
Score of 9 to 11: depression is possible, continue seeking support and re-screen in 2 to 4 weeks. Seriously consider appointment with primary care provider or established mental health professional.
Score of 12 to 13: fairly high possibility
of depression. Continue to monitor and seek support. Make appointment to see primary care provider or established mental health professional.
Score of 14 and higher: this is a positive screen for probable postpartum depression. Diagnostic assessment is required to determine appropriate treatment. See mental health specialist or primary care provider for referral to same.
Note: if there is any positive score (a rating of 1, 2, or 3) on question 10 (suicidality risk) definite immediate discussion and possible emergency management is required. Refer to primary care provider, mental health specialist, or emergency resource for further assessment and intervention as appropriate. The urgency of the referral will depend on several factors, including: whether suicidal ideation is accompanied by a plan, whether there has been a history of suicide attempt(s), whether symptoms of a psychotic disorder are present, and/ or if there is concern about harm to the baby.
So that’s all the news on postpartum depression. If you liked this, please share with friends and family. Look for new blogs here every Monday, and check out my book, Tales from the Couch, for more education and patient stories, available on Amazon.com. See my YouTube channel for new lectures- I post them all the time. And I’d appreciate it if you hit that subscribe button, people! Thanks everybody, be well.
Steroids: Seductive Today, Sinister Tomorrow
An Appointment and Cautionary Tale
I got a new patient who came into my office- we’ll call him Rocky- and he said to me, “Ya know, I’m here because I’ve been having trouble with rage.” And then he just looks at me expectantly. After eleven words, he’s waiting for me to open my desk drawer and take out my magic wand. Bing! You’re cured! He’s clearly never been to a shrink. We talk here.
In all honesty, I didn’t even need a magic wand at that point, because between those eleven words and my eyes, I had already diagnosed him. I should’ve waved my pen at him like a wand and said “Stop using steroids. You’re cured.” Instead, I said, “Let’s explore this a bit.”
He says “I’m worried, I might be bipolar….” How did I just know he was going to say that? It is so typical. At 32 years of age, Rocky’s a big boy, unnaturally bulky, looks like he’s been lifting a lot of weights. Compared to his trunk, his head looks like somebody washed it in hot water. His face is oily, pock-marked with acne and scars. I’m noting all these things, jotting them down on my pad, jot jot, as he goes on. “…and I like to go to the gym to blow off some steam…” Rages jot. Acne jot. Oily skin jot jot. Bacne jot. Receding hairline jot jot. “…and lately everybody just pisses me off and I can’t…” Angry jot jot.“…I mean, I can bench a lot. So the other day, I was with my buddy and I finally figured it out; I realized that he’s jealous; that’s his problem with me…” Paranoia jot jot. “…and I know I’m his competition. I undercut him all the time. He would love to see me fail and close up shop, but…” Ah ha. Psychotic? jot jot. All of this is very typical with steroid use and abuse. “…so anyway, I can push harder, lift more, ya know? I work at it! The steroids help, but the work is all me.” Bingo! Finally! Now we’re getting somewhere.
So tell me about that…the steroids. Who’s prescribing? “Oh no, I am buying it at the gym.” Well, how much are you using? “I’m doing 200mg every two days.” Injecting testosterone cypionate, 200mg Q 2 days jot jot jot jot jot. Buys at gym jot jot. And how long have you been using them? “Uhh, maybe about three years?” Times 3+ years jot jot jot. Do you think maybe you have a problem? “Oh, no. No.” Denies problem jot jot. I explain that he’s at a max dose for someone who has virtually no gonad function. Confusion jot. I explain that means someone who produces no natural testosterone. I spell it out. You’re taking the max dose that a person with no gonad function, zero testosterone would take, and that’s on top of your normal testosterone levels. Or I should say your natural testosterone levels. So you would be way above normal- ten times normal levels or more. And you’re wondering why you’ve been having these rages? Losing control? Loses control jot jot. Banging on s÷=%t at home jot jot jot. Screaming at wife jot jot. Have you ever hit her? “No. I haven’t hit her. But I’ve wanted to hit something. My fists are clenched and I want to tear something apart with my bare hands.” Denies hitting wife jot jot. Clenched fists jot jot jot. Believes he’s bipolar jot jot. I tell him that he’s not bipolar. Steroids are the problem here. He says, “No, it’s not. Can’t be.” No. It’s the steroids, I’m sure. Rocky says, “Ya know, I’ve been reading, and I’m saying it’s probably bipolar.” He’s just holding on to the bipolar excuse. Addicted jot jot. I mean, he would rather be bipolar- actually fight to be bipolar- than admit that his precious steroids are the sole root of his many issues. Denial jot. Steroids don’t cause a typical high, it’s more of an exhilarating positive feeling, an energized, almost super power feeling. For dudes like Rocky, with his temperment, he is all about that musclebound feeling of power.
Have you noticed your hairline is receding. “Oh. You can tell?” Umm, yeah, I can tell- it’s like three inches back from where it should be- that’s why I mentioned it. That’s what steroids do. “Really?” Really. Bipolar doesn’t do that. Have you noticed your oily skin and acne on your back? “Yeah, I have.” Yeah. Bipolar doesn’t do that either. Guess what does. You get really argumentative and pissy. Some people actually become psychotic. “Oh, I’m not psychotic, man.” Really? But, you know, in our conversation, you said you’re always worried about people at the gym being jealous and giving you side eye and you said people are trying to destroy your business. You know, maybe you’re getting a little paranoid. “Oh, I am not paranoid.” Uh huh, yeah. I tried to explain. When you’re getting paranoid, you don’t know you’re getting paranoid. He saw all these deep meanings and he was making these deep connections, why people would be tracking him and why government agencies would be interested in monitoring his business. Rocky is in the nursing home business. He’s not even actually running a nursing home, he just provides services to nursing homes. It’s not like he’s involved with any government agencies. He’s contracted to bring in ancillary services to nursing homes. It’s a fairly big business and he’s been pretty successful financially, but there was no root in reality for the paranoia he was demonstrating.
I asked him if he noticed anything else, like maybe breast enlargement? “Ahh, maybe a little bit, but no big deal.” Mmm hmm. + breast development jot jot jot. He says, “You know, my muscles got bigger, I got leaner, and my endurance increased. I felt trimmer, more energetic.” You said your endurance went up, how much cardio do you do, Rocky? He says, “Well, I used to do more, but man, I’ve gotten so much bigger that it’s hard to breathe when I do heavy cardio, you know?” No, I don’t know, because I don’t abuse steroids. Androgenic erythrocytosis jot jot jot. That means that you have increased the number of red blood cells in your blood, so your blood becomes thick and viscous like oil. You have so many red blood cells, it’s tough for your heart to beat, it’s tough for your lungs to get oxygen, because there’s drag from the increased viscosity, so when you do cardio, you can’t breathe. “Yeah, yeah. I can barely run. I used to do triathlons. I can’t do them anymore, but I can lift way more weight.” Yeah, because not only are the steroids making your blood thick like oil with RBCs, the thick blood makes the left heart ventricle- the one that does most of the pumping of the blood- thick. It’s a muscle, so the thick viscous blood overworks it as it tries to pump that thick gross blood through, so it makes that left ventricle wall thick, really thick. So instead of having a thin elastic pump that pumps blood in and out easily, you get this thick, wide left ventricle wall that cannot pump effectively. It enlarges the left ventricle wall, so you can’t pump good oxygen rich blood through. It’s called hypertrophy. With all those factors going on, it’ll cause hypertension. “Oh, yeah, I take medicine for that.” Like no, big deal. Aah, I just take medicine for the damage that I’m causing myself. Duh! + hypertension jot jot jot. + medication jot jot. And did you tell the doctor that prescribes that med that you’re using steroids? “No.” Nice. Prescribing Dr. unaware of illicit steroid use jot jot jot jot jot. Do you know that hypertension leads to kidney disease? “Really? My kidneys work good I think.” I’m thinking ‘maybe for now’ to myself. You think you look good on the outside, although you’re balding, your skin is oily, you have pitted acne scars on your face and acne on your back and you’re growing boobs like a teenage girl and your testicles are microscopic and you have low to no sperm and your penis doesn’t work… and you can’t breathe with any amount of exertion because your blood is thick and gross so your heart is all enlarged and your blood pressure is so high you have to take medication like a man more than twice your age. And you’re causing all of it! Through your steroid addiction. And as if the physical side isn’t bad enough, now it’s affecting you mentally. You’re paranoid, on the verge of psychosis…really you’ve got a toe or two over that line if you want the truth. So no matter how big your muscles are, no matter how good you think you look (and my raised eyebrows were clearly saying that was debatable) you are destroying your body. “Um, like what? How?” Now he’s really listening. I continued. Do you understand what hypertension actually is and does? Cause and effect? How about atherosclerotic plaques. What are those? What do they mean? The arteries in your heart become lined with plaques that are basically made of fat. These fat plaques are sticky, so as your thick gross blood slogs through the arteries, the fat plaques gather and narrow the arteries, so you cannot push blood through the arteries. Eventually, they clog off. It’s like a tunnel being filled with more and more muck, so there’s not enough room for blood to flow through and you get a heart attack and die. But before that happens, you’re incapacitated with high blood pressure because your thick oversized left ventricle is trying to push your thick gross blood through arteries that are filled with fatty muck, athersclerotic plaque filled arteries. “I didn’t know all that.” I’m sure you don’t, but I’m not done educating you yet. It gets better. Well, actually worse.
Education jot. Steroids decrease HDL, which is the good cholesterol that helps keep your arteries open. And it also raises the LDL, which is the bad cholesterol that causes the fatty plaque to build up. So lowers the good while raising the bad. Got that? “Yep. Got it.” So that causes hypertension, and makes you prone to heart attacks and strokes. Did you know that hypertension also makes your kidneys malfunction? I didn’t think so. Right now, your kidneys are trying to pump under hypertension, and that kills them. The gross viscous blood thick with red blood cells kills them. So your kidneys shut down. Do you like to be able to take a piss? To be able to clean your thick slaggy blood of all the toxins you make? He nodded that yes, he rather liked to be able to take a piss and clear his thick slaggy blood of all the toxins he makes. I thought so. Enjoy it while it lasts. Before long, a machine will do that for you: four hour sessions, three times a week…if you’re lucky enough to live that long. If the massive heart attack doesn’t kill you first. Honestly, Rocky looked like he was about to have a heart attack right now. I know I’m hitting him pretty hard with all of this at once, but this guy was in a romantic relationship with his precious steroids, and I need him to break it off, clean and quick like. But wait, there’s more!
Now, with all this bad stuff going on, the little vessels throughout your body do not pump blood as well because they are clogged and they are hypertensive. So all those tissues, joints, and bones are starved of nutrients and oxygen. You get something called avascular necrosis. Avascular means without vasculature- blood vessels- and necrosis means death. It’s everywhere, but especially in the hips, with the ball and socket joint. The little vessels that feed the balls of your hip joints, where the femur meets your hip? Hello, the blood supply gets occluded- it gets starved- and then it gets dead. So you can recognize all the steroid abusers out there: they’re the 40 year olds using wheelchairs and walkers, whining about the pain in their hips. Balding, acne, boobs, erectile dysfunction, heart problems, kidney issues, disability, chronic pain. On and on. Oh yeah, it’s pretty bad, but it gets worse. His face fell. I couldn’t let up now. You enjoy being able to lift weights? You enjoy being physically capable? Like a zombie, he mumbled on a sigh “Yes…” I’m glad you do. But don’t get too used to it. Because if you keep this crap up, keep injecting that garbage, you’ll build your muscles up beyond what your body can handle. You’ll build them up- your muscles will get bigger- but your ligaments and tendons can’t be built up, and they can’t support these unnaturally large muscles. Do you know what muscles without ligaments and tendons do? Not much. Without healthy ligaments and tendons, big muscles are useless for anything but causing pain, debilitating pain. When you’re pumping iron, lifting really heavy weights, your ligaments and tendons get damaged. In no time, the muscle size supercedes the ability of the damaged ligaments and tendons, so you get irreversible chronic muscle pain. Sounds great, right Rocky? Oh, wait, and to top it all off, now you’re having psychological effects. You’re having rages. You want to tear something apart with your bare hands. You said that. What’s scary is that right now, at this moment, you have the physical ability to do that. If somebody pushed you too far on a bad day, you might go there. You could kill someone. I’ve seen it happen to a patient. A guy a lot like you. He came in here young and dumb and I explained everything to him, just like I’ve done with you. For several years, I begged him to stop. He refused to listen; didn’t believe me. Ultimate in denial. He’s in prison now for the next 30 years; that equals a life sentence for him. It’s scary. What’s even scarier is that if you keep this crap up, keep sticking yourself with that needle, you won’t be able to tear somebody apart for long. You might want to, but you’ll be too debilitated. That guy in prison? He’s in a wheelchair now 90% of the time. He uses a walker sometimes- when he can stand the pain- which isn’t often.
I’ll make this very plain. You are addicted to steroids. They are physically wrecking your body, the body you seem to worship. Oily skin, acne, bacne, boobs, receding hairline, balding, teeny tiny testicles, a penis that you can’t get up…and no sperm to come out of it anyway. And that’s just the stuff on the outside that people can see! Your insides get wrecked too. Thick slaggy gross blood, hypertension, atherosclerosis, heart attack, stroke, kidney dysfunction, erectile dysfunction, avascular necrosis, chronic pain. And now you’re raging, scaring the crap out of your wife, you’re paranoid, becoming psychotic. You have nothing positive happening in your life. So it’s your call, Rocky. I can help get you off the train here before it runs your ass over. He was nodding very slowly, but clearly shell-shocked. Look, how about this. Don’t use for two weeks and see me again. You’ll have some time to digest all of this. Can you do it? If you can’t- if you feel like you’re gonna hit that needle- I’ll see you sooner. Here’s my cell number. Call me anytime, but especially if and when you’re tempted to use. Deal? “Deal.” We shook on it.
Dx: steroid addiction, assoc features jot jot jot jot
Pt agrees to d/c use jot jot jot
F/up 2 weeks, will call/ see sooner prn jot jot jot jot jot
Here’s the bottom line on steroids people. Your body just does not like these drugs in excess. There may be some use for them in people with anemia, in people who have wound healing problems, a temporary use in people with HIV or cancer who do not want to eat, and in muscle wasting diseases for short periods of time and in very regulated doses, okay…fine.
But, for my Olympic athlete patients, my professional athlete patients: you all know who you are. All of my Rocky’s out there: cut it out! You’re sterile, can’t get it up, scared everyone’s gonna see your breasts, hello, they are! I know you’re saying ‘but I cycle them on and off, doc!’ I say bullshit. No, it causes permanent damage to heart, kidneys, tendons, and ligaments. Not to mention the cosmetic aspects: the oily skin, the acne on your face and back, the balding, receding hairline… and you say ‘oh, but to minimize the breasts I use an estradiol’ (an anti-estrogen, because testosterone breaks down to estrogen, so if you use an anti-estrogen in someone who is abusing testosterone or testosterone-like drugs, you will not get the breast enlargement) Yes, that’s true. I’ll give you that. But, you still get all that other crap, guys! Hellllo!! All my elite athletes, you all whine like ‘No, no, no, I need it to stay competitive, because everybody else is doping!’ Whatever! You are addicted to the high, the performance, and the cosmetic enhancement. You get big muscles, tiny balls, and tinier brains. You also get limp and sterile, permanent damage to the ventricles, the heart, and the kidneys, hypertension, and its host of other problems. You are predisposing yourself to coronary disease, heart attack, and stroke. You become delusional, and you fly into rages when the wind blows.
As you are my patients, I’ve probably told you about other patient stories. For those that haven’t heard them: one steroid abuser was very paranoid and psychotic, but of course didn’t know it, because you will not see yourself becoming psychotic. He was stopped at red light. I don’t know what he was doing, but when the light changed green, he didn’t go right away. So the car behind him honked. He started ticking like a time bomb, and the car kept honking, but for whatever reason, he still didn’t go. Instead, with the light still green, he got out of his car. With a golf club. He went off, banging on the guy’s car with the golf club, and he just didn’t stop. Eventually, they called the police. The police came and they had to subdue him with a tazer because he was out of control. When he was transported to the emergency room, he continued there, even continuing to spit and scream, even after being put in four-point restraints. Finally, he had to be pharmacologically restrained with a freaking rhino dart. Unbelievable. I mean, he was all black and blue, like he had been beaten, but he did it by thrashing, all by himself. His whole affect was totally inappropriate. I know that some people are beaten by police for no reason; they don’t deserve it, but this maniac was taking every opportunity to hit the police officers for absolutely no reason. In the hospital, he was arguing with nurses, disturbing the entire emergency department for no reason. His wife finally came in, but even she couldn’t calm him. He just lost it, in every sense. He was (or had been) on the road to being Mr. Olympia or some such title. He was 190 pounds, and bench pressing over 450 pounds. It was just crazy. Eventually, but not long after, he went into kidney failure. But it wasn’t from the steroids. Yeah, right. Denial!! jot jot
You know, it also causes immune suppression, so you don’t fight off pathogens like viruses, like COVID-19, like any bacteria. I had someone who had a heart attack and died. He was 25. Another stroked out in his late 30’s. These patients are Olympians, professional athletes, and really elite level people. They’re so hyper-disciplined about their diets and their training and supplements and sleep patterns and all of that. But they’re abusing steroids. It’s a crazy dichotomy. Some have made it. Big success stories that stopped and then did it the right way. But many don’t. Right now I have a 45-year-old man who is just going into kidney failure. And the one with psychosis that killed the guy that set him off. He’ll die in prison. Now I have Rocky. I hope I opened his eyes.
Remember, people… just because you cannot see what’s going on doesn’t mean the steroids aren’t destroying you. They are. But you can get there without them. And PS, for those that are wondering, there is a steroid withdrawal: headaches, drowsiness, decreased appetite, weight loss, fatigue, depression, dizziness. It’s a mess when I get them off, especially when they do high dose. It takes two to four weeks, and they are miserable, cranky, irritable, and obnoxious people to deal with when they are in withdrawal. I use benzodiazepines, things to help them sleep; I sometimes add anti-psychotics because they can’t see themselves drifting to the psychotic lane, sometimes hearing voices and seeing things. It’s a spectrum. And lots of misreading events in reality… “Those people are talking about me. They’re plotting against me. Those police officers are here to get me, or that group of people talking over there are planning something against me or these workers are not working because they are all in a grand plot against me. They are very faint signs and forms of psychosis. Hearing voices and seeing things, disorganized speech and behavior is the extreme. But there can be the unextreme, the misreading, the over-emotional abnormal response to normal events, thinking people are plotting.
Probably from age 10 to 30 is when most people started and abused the steroids. And too often, it’s a one way trip, once they start, they get lost in it. You know, “I am superman now” and they don’t stop, and then they stroll into my office and then I deal with them when they are 45 to 50 and that’s when their kidneys shut down, when they get a heart attack, when they are debilitated with degenerative disk disease from lifting too heavy weights, their ligaments and tendons go, they become sterile, they cannot have kids, they’re in constant horrible chronic pain. They have heart problems and kidney problems, and that’s what gets them. If they have heart and kidney failure, to the point where the organs have just given up, that’s what kills them.
Hopefully not Rocky jot jot jotLearn More
The 15 Scariest Mental Disorders of All Time
Imagine having a mental disorder that makes you believe that you are a cow; or another that you’ve somehow become the walking dead. Pretty freaking scary, eh? Well, while relatively rare, these disorders are all too real.
Worldwide, 450 million people suffer from mental illness, with one in four families affected in the United States alone. While some mental disorders, like depression and anxiety, can occur organically, others are the result of brain trauma or other degenerative neurological or mental processes. Look, having any mental illness can be scary, but there are some disorders that are especially terrifying. Below, I’ve described the 15 scariest mental disorders of all time.
‘Alice in Wonderland’ Syndrome
In 1865, English author Lewis Carroll wrote the novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, commonly shortened to ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Considered to be one of the best examples of the literary nonsense genre, (seriously, who knew they even had a nonsense genre?) it is the tale of an unfortunate young girl named Alice, who falls through a rabbit hole into a subterranean fantasy world populated by odd, anthropomorphic creatures. That’s your vocabulary word for the week… anthropormorphic. Popular belief is that Carroll was tripping when he penned it. Regardless if that’s true or not, what is true is that one of Alice’s more bizarre experiences shares its characteristics with a very scary mental disorder. Also known as Todd Syndrome, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Syndrome causes one’s surroundings to appear distorted. Remember when Alice suddenly grows taller and then finds she’s too tall for the house she’s standing in? In an eerily similar fashion, people with ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Syndrome will hear sounds either quieter or louder than they actually are, see objects larger or smaller than what they are in reality, and even lose sense of accurate velocity or textures they touch. Described as an LSD trip without the euphoria, this terrifying disorder alters one’s perception of their own body image and proportions. Fortunately, this syndrome is extremely rare, and in most cases affects people in their 20’s who have a brain tumor or history of drug use. If you need yet another reason to not do drugs… well, there ya go.
Alien Hand Syndrome
While most likely familiar from cheesy horror flicks, Alien Hand Syndrome isn’t limited to the fictional world of drive-in B movies. Those with this very scary, but equally rare mental disorder experience a complete loss of control of a hand or limb. The uncontrollable body part takes on a mind and will of its own, causing sufferers’ “alien” limbs to choke themselves or others, rip clothing off, or to viciously scratch themselves, to the point of drawing blood. Alien Hand Syndrome most often appears in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a degenerative brain disorder that leads to dementia and death, or as a result of brain surgery separating the brain’s two hemispheres. Unfortunately, no cure exists for Alien Hand Syndrome, and those affected by it are often left to keep their hands constantly occupied or use their other hand to control the alien hand. That last one actually sounds even worse- one unaffected arm fighting against the affected arm that’s trying to tear into the person’s own flesh. Yikes.
Also known as Body Integrity Disorder and Amputee Identity Disorder, Apotemnophilia is a neurological disorder characterized by the overwhelming desire to amputate or damage healthy parts of the body. I recall a woman with Apotemnophilia making worldwide news ages ago when she fought with her HMO to cover the amputation of one of her otherwise healthy legs. Good luck; they don’t even cover flu shots. I remember I was pretty shocked that she found a surgeon to agree to do the amputation in the first place, as it seemed to me that might violate that little thing called the Hippocratic Oath us docs took when we got our medical degrees, specifically that part about ‘do no harm’… and sparked a debate about the ethical dilemma of treating or “curing” a psychiatric disorder by creating what is essentially a physical disability. Though not a whole heck of a lot is known about this strangely terrifying disorder, it is believed to be associated with damage to the right parietal lobe of the brain. Because the vast majority of surgeons will not amputate healthy limbs based purely upon patient request, some sufferers of Apotemnophilia feel forced to amputate on their own, which of course is a horrifying scenario. Of those who have convinced a surgeon to amputate the affected limb, most say they are quite happy with their decision even after the fact.
Those who suffer from the very rare- but very scary- mental disorder Boanthropy believe they are cows, and usually even go so far as to behave as such. Sometimes people with Boanthropy are even found in fields with cows, walking on all fours and chewing grass as if they were a true member of the herd. When found in the company of real cows, and doing what real cows do, people with Boanthropy don’t seem to know what they’re doing when they’re doing it. This apparently universal finding has led researchers in the know to believe that this odd mental disorder is brought on by possible post-hypnotic suggestion, or that it is a consequence of dreaming or a sleep disturbance, sort of kin to somnambulism, aka sleepwalking. I can buy the sleepwalking thing. I have a patient that is a lifelong sleepwalker who sleep-eats, sleep-cleans, sleep-cooks, sleep-destroys, sleep-online-shops, sleep-everythings. Some mornings she wakes up to very unpleasant findings of the house in total disarray, electronics dismantled and improperly and ridiculously fashioned together, every piece of furniture moved or a sink full of dishes and pots and pans with dried up food in them. Before setting up prevention measures, she even had single episodes of adult sleep-driving, and even sleep-biking at (eek!) age 9. In the middle of the night, her mother awoke to what she thought was the big garage door opening, and when she went to check, she saw her coasting out of the driveway on her bright yellow bike, heading right toward a very busy highway. She always has zero recall of the events afterwards. If she can do all of that while essentially sleeping, it would be comparatively easy to wander out to a pasture on all fours and stick around to munch on some grass. Curiously, it is believed that Boanthropy is even referred to in the Bible, as King Nebuchadnezzar is described as being “driven from men and did eat grass as oxen.” Or was it King Nemoochadnezzar? No? Okay, moooving on…
Named after Joseph Capgras, a French psychiatrist who was fascinated by the effective illusion of doubles, Capras Delusion is a debilitating mental disorder in which a person believes that the people around them have been replaced by imposters. As if that’s not bad enough, these imposters are usually thought to be planning to harm the sufferer. It really sounds like a bad Tom Cruise movie. Oh, wait; that’s redundant. Anyhoo, in one case, a 74-year-old woman with Capgras Delusion began to believe that her husband had been replaced with an identical looking imposter who was out to hurt her. Fortunately, Capgras Delusion is relatively rare, and is most often seen after trauma to the brain, or in those who have been diagnosed with dementia, schizophrenia, or severe epilepsy.
Like people with Boanthropy, people suffering from Clinical Lycanthropy also believe they are able to turn into animals; but in this case, cows are typically replaced with wolves and werewolves, though occasionally other types of animals are also included. Along with the belief that they can become wolves and werewolves, people with Clinical Lycanthropy also begin to act like the animal, and are often found living or hiding in forests and other wooded areas. Didn’t Tom Cruise play a werewolf in one of his many (vapid) movies? Or was it a vampire? Werewolf, vampire – tomato, potato.
In a case of life imitating art, or life inspiring art, we have Cotard Delusion. In this case, the ‘art’ is zombies, a la The Walking Dead. Oooh, scary! For ages, people have been fascinated by the walking dead. Cotard Delusion is a frightening mental disorder that causes the sufferer to believe that they are literally the walking dead, or in some cases, that they are a ghost, and that their body is decaying and/or they’ve lost all of their internal organs and blood. The feeling of having a rotting body is generally the most prevalent part of the delusion, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that most patients with Cotard Delusion also experience severe depression. In some cases, the delusion actually causes sufferers to starve themselves to death. This terrifying disorder was first described in 1880 by neurologist Jules Cotard, but fortunately, Cotard’s Delusion, like good zombie movies, has proven to be extremely rare. The most well-known case of Cotard Delusion actually occurred in Haiti, circa 1980’s, where a man was absolutely convinced that he had previously died of AIDS and was actually sent to hell, and was then damned to forever walk the earth as a zombie in a sort of pennance to atone for his sins.
Diogenes Syndrome is a very exotic name for the mental disorder commonly referred to as simply “hoarding,” and it is one of the most misunderstood mental disorders. Named after the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (who was, ironically, a minimalist), this syndrome is usually characterized by the overwhelming desire to collect seemingly random items, to which an emotional attachment is rapidly formed. In addition to uncontrollable hoarding, those with Diogenes Syndrome often exhibit extreme self neglect, apathy towards themselves or others, social withdrawal, and no shame for their habits. It is very common among the elderly, those with dementia, and people who have at some point in their lives been abandoned or who have lacked a stable home environment. This is likely because ‘stuff’ never hurts you or leaves you, though most people with the disorder are unlikely to be able to make that connection. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, this disorder is much more common than some of the others I’ve mentioned here.
Dissociative Identity Disorder
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), is the mental disorder that used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder. Another disorder that has inspired a myriad of novels, movies, and television shows, DID is extremely misunderstood. Generally, people who suffer from DID often have 2-3 different identities, but there are more extreme cases where they have double digit numbers of identities. There was a “reality” show a few years ago that centered on a young mother of two that supposedly had like 32 distinct personalities. All of them had names and ranged from a five-year-old child to an old grandpa; and according to her, a few of them were homosexual while the rest were not, so she was required to be bisexual. She claimed that many of the personalities knew everything about all of the others, and they would get mad at or make fun of the others at various times. What’s more, she would “ask” other personalities to come forward so that producers could ask them questions for the camera’s sake, and her voice and mannerisms changed, depending on the different characteristics of the personalities. It was all pretty difficult to buy to be honest, because I’ve seen a lot of people with DID, and none seemed like they were having as much fun with their illness as she did. In true DID cases, sufferers routinely cycle through their personalities, and can remain as one identity for a matter of hours or for as long as multiple years at a time. They can switch identities at any time and without warning, and it’s often nearly impossible to convince someone with DID that they actually have the disorder, and that they need to take medications for it. For all of these reasons, people with Dissociative Identity Disorder are often unable to function appropriately in society or live typical lives, and therefore, many commonly live in psychiatric institutions, where their condition and their requisite medications can be closely monitored.
Most people cringe at the first sniffle indicating a potential cold or illness, especially these days, but not those with Factitious Disorder. This scary mental disorder is characterized by an obsession with being sick. In fact, most people with Factitious Disorder intentionally make themselves ill in order to receive treatment; and this is what makes it different than hypochondria, a condition where people blow mild symptoms into something they aren’t, kind of like if you cough once and automatically think you have covid-19. Sometimes in Factitious Disorder, people will simply pretend to be ill, a ruse which includes elaborate stories, long lists of symptoms, doctor shopping, and jumping from hospital to hospital. Such an obsession with sickness often stems from past trauma or a previous genuinely serious illness. It affects less than .5% of the general population, and while there’s no cure, psychotherapy is often helpful in limiting the disorder.
Imagine craving the taste of a book or wanting to have sex with a car. That’s reality for those affected by Kluver-Bucy Syndrome, a mental disorder typically characterized by memory loss, the desire to eat inedible objects, and sexual attraction to inanimate objects such as automobiles. I’ve seen a television documentary that featured people with strange fetishes, and they had two British guys that were sexually attracted to their cars. They gave them names and described their curves in the same manner that some men describe women. While one guy (supposedly) limited it to “just” caressing his car, the other actually also made out with his car; I’m talking about tongue and everything. Talk about different strokes! Because of the memory loss, not surprisingly, people with Kluver-Bucy Syndrome often have trouble recognizing objects or people that should be familiar. They also exhibit symptoms of Pica, which is the compulsion to eat inedible objects. The same wierd fetish documentary featured two young women that were “addicted” to eating weird stuff; one routinely ate her sofa cushions. She actually pulled the foam apart into bite sized pieces and ate them, many times a day. She became so used to doing so that she would get anxious if she went too long without eating it, so she started having to bring pieces of her sofa with her to work. I’m guessing she didn’t have to worry about co-workers stealing her food. She had started eating the cusions so long ago that she was actually on her second couch. Her family was so concerned about the potential medical ramifications of eating couch cushions that they made her see a gastro doc, who thought he was being punked when he asked why she was there. After imaging studies, she was in fact diagnosed with some intestinal issues and told to stop eating couch cushions, but the desire was too great for her to cease. She’s probably on her fourth couch by now. The other girl actually loved eating powder laundry detergent. She described the taste in the same dreamily excited way a foodie describes a chef’s special dish du jour. This terrifyingly odd mental disorder is difficult to diagnose, and seems to be the result of severe injury to the brain’s temporal lobe. Unfortunately, there is not a cure for Kluver-Bucy Syndrome and sufferers are typically affected for the rest of their lives.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Though it’s widely heard of and often mocked, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is rarely well understood. OCD manifests itself in a variety of ways, but is most often characterized by immense fear and anxiety, which is accompanied by recurring thoughts of worry. It’s only through the repetition of tasks, including the well-known obsession with cleanliness, that sufferers of OCD are able to find relief from such overwhelming feelings. To make matters worse, those with OCD are often entirely aware that their fears are irrational, but that realization alone actually brings about a new cycle of anxiety. OCD affects approximately 1% of the population, and though scientists are unsure of the exact cause, it is thought that chemicals in the brain are a major contributing factor. I’ve discussed OCD and recounted OCD patient stories many times in this blog and in my book, Tales from the Couch.
Paris Syndrome is an extremely odd but temporary mental disorder that causes one to become completely overwhelmed while visiting the city of Paris. Stranger still, it seems to be most common among Japanese travelers. Of the approximately 6 million Japanese visitors to Paris each year, one to two dozen of them experience the overwhelming anxiety, depersonalization, derealization, persecutory ideas, hallucinations, and acute delusions that characterize Paris Syndrome. Despite the seriousness of the symptoms, doctors can only guess as to what causes this rare and temporary affliction. Because most people who experience Paris Syndrome do not have a history of mental illness, the leading thought is that this scary neurological disorder is triggered by the language barrier, physical and mental exhaustion, and the reality of Paris as compared to the idealized version. Slam! I’ll bet the Paris Tourism Board hates to hear about this one! Huh houn, wee wee monsieur.
The Reduplicative Amnesia diagnosis was first used in 1903 by neurologist Arnold Pick, when he described a patient with a diagnosis of what we know today as Alzheimer’s Disease. It is actually very similar to Capgras Syndrome, in that it involves duplicates, but instead of believing that people are duplicates, people with Reduplicative Amnesia believe that a location has been duplicated. This belief manifests itself in many ways, but always includes the sufferer being convinced that a location exists in two places at the same time. Today, it is most often seen in patients with tumors, dementia, brain injury, or other psychiatric disorders.
Stendahl Syndrome is a very unusual psychosomatic illness; but fortunately, it appears to be only temporary. The syndrome occurs when the sufferer is exposed to a large amount of art in one place, or is spending time immersed in another environment characterized by extreme beauty; probably one of those places that “takes your breath away.” Those who experience this scarily weird mental disorder report sudden onset of rapid heartbeat, overwhelming anxiety, confusion, dizziness, and even hallucinations. It actually sounds a lot like a panic attack to moi. Stendahl Syndrome is named after the 19th century French author who described in detail his experience after an 1817 trip to Florence, which is evidently a beautiful place. I have it on good authority that Stendahl Syndrome has never happened to any visitor to Paris, which, oddly enough is Stendahl’s country of origin.
So, we’ve learned a lot today: that there is a nonsense literary genre, that there are a bunch of freaky and frightening mental disorders out there, that some people might need to look up the word anthropormorphic, that illicit drugs are bad for yet another reason, that a lot of terrible B movies are actually based on some pretty obscure mental disorders, that people with Boanthropy probably get a lot of fiber in their diet, that the lives of people with Capras Delusion sound a lot like a bad Tom Cruise movie, that the term “bad Tom Cruise movie” is redundant, that Tom Cruise probably has Clinical Lycanthropy, that Tom Cruise is a tool, oops, sorry, everyone already knew that. We also learned that there is no longer such thing as Multiple Personality Disorder; it is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder, that Kluver-Bucy Syndrome is threatening to couches, and that if you have Kluver-Bucy Syndrome, co-workers will never steal your lunch. We learned that Japanese tourists hate Paris, and that Stendahl Syndrome never happens there. And we learned lots of other cool stuff, but that if you have so much stuff that you can’t walk through your house you likely have Diogenes Syndrome, probably because you have a deep seated knowledge that stuff never hurts you or leaves you.
Please check out my videos on YouTube- better yet, hit that subscribe button, and share them with folks. And as always, my book, Tales from the Couch has lots more information and patient stories on various psychiatric diagnoses and is available on Amazon and in the office. Be well, everyone!Learn More
How to Interact with the Mentally Ill
The purpose of this piece is to help the reader how to interact, both verbally and nonverbally, with people with mental illness; and as a corollary, how to get them the help they need. It’s basically a list of do’s and don’ts that I have compiled in my head over many years of seeing patients and dealing with their loved ones… becomes sometimes the former are far easier to deal with than the latter. Anyway, I’m constantly asked, “What do I do? What do I say?” Well, here is the answer to those.
Look, I understand that it’s very difficult when a loved one has a mental illness. A lot of issues come into play; a lot of balls in the air. So learn to juggle. Please understand that in some cases, logic no longer applies here, because when the mentally ill person is your child, your sister, your brother, your mother, your father, the rules don’t apply anymore; the book is out the window. But yet without it, you still have to figure out how you can help them while also respecting them, maintaining their dignity, and helping them to seek effective treatment. There are always degrees of everything. Some patients may be very independent and autonomous and need little help, and some may require a lot of help to get through their days. For the tougher cases, it may be easy to say, “Oh, just send them away to the hospital,” but that’s not how it this works. If you love them, that’s exactly what you don’t do. No finger snap and off they go, no fuss, no muss. Do be prepared to get appropriately fussy and mussy when, and if, necessary. It may not be necessary. But it may be.
Denial. Nope. You no longer have this luxury. Don’t pretend that they don’t have an illness. This is one of the most common issues that I see, families and friends sticking their heads in the proverbial sand. “He’s just eccentric!” Ugh, how I hate that word. No. Running naked across the Brooklyn Bridge while chased by half of the NYPD is not eccentricity. It is not a statement. It is not a personality quirk. And turning a blind eye is nothelpful. Loved ones that continuously make excuses for unusual, inappropriate, and/ or dangerous behaviors just allow the illness to flourish, a pretty word for get waaaay worse. I’ve seen too many depressed people make multiple suicide attempts and still not get the help they desperately need. Psychotic people walking around the neighborhood arguing with people only they see, and still the families don’t intervene, because it’s their loved one. They don’t want to interfere or take away that individual’s rights. In the United States, sometimes it’s not until the police finally arrest the person that they are offered help. But a lot of times, not even then. Families make excuses for a lot; too much, really. We live in a system where it is very difficult to give treatment to someone who doesn’t want it. The laws are very weak in terms of forcing people into treatment. So what happens far too often is that these people end up self-medicating with illicit drugs, living on the street, and suffering all of the consequences of being mentally ill without a place to turn to. And if you’re thinking that couldn’t happen to your loved one, you’d be taking a gamble there. Sadly, I’ve had patients belonging to some very wealthy Palm Beach families that managed to find their way from society to sidewalk, just because people were in denial, turned a blind eye, didn’t want to infringe, made excuses, whatever the case was… the end was still the same. If the person in question is a friend, or for some reason you don’t feel it’s your place to discuss treatment with them, then find out who you should talk to, and do so. Also, consider that you might be the only person in a place to see or know what’s really going on. You may be the one who has to make the difference for them, the one standing between them and help. So no denial, no blind eye, no excuses. If you love them, you have to face the issue head on in the appropriate way. It’s the only compassionate thing to do, and the most compassionate thing you can do.
Get some stick-to-it-itiveness and give some hope. Tell your loved one that they can get better, that treatment is available, and that better days will come. And once you do establish a treatment regime, good follow through is very important. Dounderstand that treatment can take years. It could even be a lifelong kind of deal. It won’t always be hectic and scary, a rollercoaster of loop de loops. Truthfully, it might even get monotonous, this appointment, then that one; this med, then that one. But I can tell you that once you find the right regime, if you stick to it, it will be rewarding. Just be supportive and keep standing by them. It may not always be the easiest thing ever, but it may well be the most rewarding thing ever.
Education is more than a do, it is a must. Everyone, the primary caregivers, ancillary caregivers, friends, families, associates, everyone should become educated. And as I said above, always instill hope and be supportive. This can and does get better. Be willing to help this person from A to Z, whether these things are obvious or not: to seek help, to help make their appointments, to make their appointments if they can’t for any reason (and yes, sometimes this is hard for them to do), to get to their appointments, to get to the hospital, to get to the day program, to get to the intensive outpatient program, to get to detox, to get to the treatment center, to the ER, wherever or whatever or whenever they need help.
Always express genuine concern. It is critical. They have mental illness, but that doesn’t mean they are stupid. They see through bull#%*£ as easily as you do. If they sense fake concern, they will assume that they’re a burden, you just want to get rid of them, or just want to shut them up. Captain Obvious says that this will be a blockade to their progress. I say that this could be the last blockade of their lives, and not in a good way. You never know when someone is at a tipping point. If you love them, do be honest, caring, and honestly caring.
Share “simple” insights. I use quotation marks, because sometimes what is simple to you may not be so simple to the person with mental illness. Depressed people may not be able to discern what’s good for them, or may not care what’s good for them. Daily activities tend to fall by the wayside when a human brain is contemplating if it’s worth it to live to see tomorrow, so they may not care what they’ll smell like tomorrow, or if their hair is combed and teeth are brushed tomorrow. It’s not uncommon for ADL’s (activities of daily living) to not make the to-do list. If you note this, do address it, but it’s important to do so in a specific way. Always be gentle. You don’t want to be mean or make them feel any shame. You can say “Maybe you want to take a shower today?” or “Would you like me to run a bubble bath for you? I bet you would feel great after you relax in a hot bath; I know I always do.” Do this in as gentle and open a tone as you can. Or if they’ve made a big mistake on something consequential, “Maybe it’s best to check your oil levels every few months, just to avoid any problems. We could even put it on the calendar if you want” or “I understand you’re upset that you failed your test (or burned the cookies, broke a vase, lost a jacket) but it’s not the end of the world and you’ll do better/ know better next time. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill, and don’t ever yell or chide them. They have feelings just like you do, but they may not have the capacity to take things on the chin like you do. Obvi they don’t want their car to be overheating, or a failed test, or burned cookies, and they’re probably already giving themselves a hard enough time as it is. There may be situations where inappropriate behavior related to their illness might have consequences from others, ie they may accuse someone of acting against them due to paranoia, eliciting a negative response. Or, maybe they’ve dressed a certain way and they’re made fun of or bullied in some way. Firstly, this can be a teaching moment, where you can educate that other person about mental illness or how all people are different. But then when you discuss it with your loved one, you can say “Maybe next time, try not to be so direct” or “…try to be less accusatory” or “…should dress more appropriately” or “If you were a little more open, it might be easier to make friends.” Whatever the case may be. Don’t demand this or that. Do just make suggestions, easy breezey lemon squeezey. Don’tmake a federal case out of stuff. “You know what, I understand that you believe that there are little aliens in the wall shooting you with energy beam guns, but people would disagree with you, so I don’t think that you should share those thoughts with people, because they may judge you in a negative way if you do.” Don’t put them on the defensive. Always find common ground and let them know that it’s safe to tell you anything and everything through encouragement. If they say, “The CIA have me under surveillance, and they’re reporting me to the president. They’re coming to take me to jail.” The safe common ground is usually that you know they think or believe whatever the thought is, ie “I know that you believe that, and it could happen, but I think it’s unlikely, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.” You can also add “Do you think you should mention that to Dr. Psychiatrist next time? I think he/ she would like to know that, don’t you?” Do make them feel safe to tell you whatever it is they may be feeling by not being judgemental. Do keep an open mind and once again, remember that mental illness has nothing to do with one’s intelligence.
Be aware of expressed emotion. It is exactly what it sounds like… how you express your emotion. You’re not a saint or an angel, you’re human, and you’ll have normal emotions like anger and frustration. But do pay attention to how you express it. Do take a breath, take a moment before you respond so that you can control how you express yourself. By the way, this is actually a good idea for everyone, no matter who you are or aren’t dealing with. Don’t ever raise your voice. Doalways speak in a relaxed and calm manner. Don’ttalk quickly. Don’t ever back them into a corner. Do speak in a calm and even tone in a quiet area without distractions. Do communicate in a very straightforward way, addressing one issue at a time. Do be apathetic, compassionate, and respectful.
Have a reflective listening policy. Do always listen to what they have to say. Even if you think what they’re saying is totally inappropriate, listen to what they have to say. And yes, I realize that this can be very difficult sometimes, but take a breath and listen. You can even tell them that you have a reflective listening policy, and that means that you will always listen to them before you respond. Then back it up by listening respectfully. Then if they have difficulty listening to you and respecting what you say, you can remind them of your policy and ask them for the same courtesy. It’s honestly just a better way to run your life; it makes it so much simpler. My wife and I told our son about this policy, and followed through and raised him with it, since before he could say the word policy, and it turned out just fine and saved a lot of headaches. I can’t stress how important it is to be a good listener.
This is a corollary to being a good listener… ask appropriate questions well, appropriately, ie softly or easily. Do ask simple questions: “Did you have breakfast today?” “We aren’t able to find your medicine, is everything okay with your medications?” Don’t say, “Did you take your medicine today?” “Did you eat yet?” It tends to sound accusatory. In a very gentle way, you say, “Everything okay with your medicine? Oh, here’s the bottle. Any problems?” Let them speak. Don’t press them. If they’ve forgotten to eat or take medications, don’t get upset or angry, tale a breath, let them explain. If you have an issue about why they don’t want to take their medication, listen to why. Respect them and let them at least give you an interpretation of the reasons and symptoms. Don’t interpret for them. There may be a side effect that’s intolerable to them, and all of that must be brought to the prescribing physician. It’s all valid information, so do listen. After you have listened, you may then calmly answer “I heard that you don’t like to take your medicine because it makes you xyz, but if you don’t want to take it, we’ll call Dr. Prescriber and explain it and see what he/ she says, okay?” That way they know you listened to what’s going on, they know they’ve been heard, but they also know it’s either take the medication or talk to the doctor.
I have heard some families make demands, withhold privelleges, make bargains, bark orders, physically intimidate; I’ve heard it all. It makes me a little anxious when I hear things like “Just take your *expletive* medicine!” or “Let’s pray about it.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for prayer, but it’s inappropriate in some respects when it comes to should Bobby or Suzie take their medication today, because they don’t feel like it.
Other don’ts: You need an attitude adjustment. You’ve got a bad attitude. Stop being so negative for once. You need to get a job. Why can’t you do something productive with your life? You need something to do. Your thoughts are totally misguided. Now you’re just being dumb. You really are crazy. Don’t act crazy.
No. None of those things are appropriate, ever. Especially the word “crazy” or any similar term. That is the ultimate “C word” in my office. Doremove it from your vocabulary, pronto. The goal is to not agitate them. No ultimatums. No threats. No punishment. It will get you nowhere except to crisis. Criticizing them or blaming them is a no go. And don’t ever speak rapidly or loudly. And don’tstare at them. It invites defiance. Silence is okay. Pauses are okay. I know you may get frustrated, but any sort of frustration or anger directed at them will not work. Don’t make jokes or be sarcastic, because it’s not funny. I don’t find it funny at all. Don’t talk at them with a patronizing, condescending tone, as in, “Are you going to take your medicine today, or what?” “Could you shower already, you know you smell?” “Are you going to do anything today besides watch TV and smoke cigarettes?” “Have you gotten a job yet?” “You are so useless” “You don’t work. How about you get a job to pay for things?” “When are you going to stop taking and start giving?” “Do you ever worry about anyone but yourself?” These kinds of comments do not work. If any of my patients report this kind of thing, I always make it a point to correct the situation quickly, because it can be very damaging, especially to an already fragile person.
You are dealing with a loved one with a mental illness, so do establish rapport, and through that rapport, using some of these do’s and don’ts which I just gave you, try to help them get a psychiatric appointment, get to a psychologist, get to a day program, or at least get them to some medical health practitioner for an evaluation. That may mean making an appointment with primary care for a referral, calling their psychiatrist or mental health therapist, or even taking them to an emergency room if it is an urgent situation. In some cases, it may even be necessary to call 911 and have them taken by police or ambulance if they aren’t willing to go on their own and they’re in crisis. Do be willing to do what it takes. Hopefully you’ll be properly directed to appropriate levels of care, and then do follow through with that. Don’t just let it go. Bottom line is get them somewhere. The most important thing that can happen at that point is that that caregiver establishes a bond with the individual, your loved one, and using that relationship, they can motivate and encourage and direct their care. That’s what you’re looking for: a caregiver (psychiatrist or mental health professional) they trust, that they will be honest and open with. That professional should be able to navigate issues and properly direct them to the appropriate level of care.
So, you want to do everything in your power to encourage a good relationship between your loved one and that professional. Don’t sabotage that relationship. Work within that relationship. Don’tthreaten that caregiver. Don’t give the caregiver ultimatums. Do everything in your power to maintain a good open relationship between the mental health professional/ caregiver and the patient, your loved one.
I hope this was helpful to any and all that needed to read it.
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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
THIS JUST IN!
24/7 NEWS CAUSES ANXIETY!
READ ALL ABOUT IT!
I remember when I was a kid, my family used to eat dinner after the news. The news used to be thirty minutes. People tuned in and heard about the church bake sale, the plumbing problem being fixed at the elementary school, road closings, and the weather for the next day, and then they moved on with their lives. In this modern age, we are instead constantly inundated with information. We are bombarded with news, 24/7 – 365. News from CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, FOX, CNBC, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, on and on. Even when you go to your email inbox it’s in your face. And it’s mainly negative. Why is this? Because negative gets a reaction. Positive news does not get a lot of attention, but negative news does. People react to it, so the news organizations push negative news. They sensationalize the negative, make it bigger, more fearful, more imposing. Until it raises the hairs at the backs of our necks. News that offends, insults, and shocks our sensabilities…that’s sensationalism. This kind of news- sensationalism- lures viewers. This sensationalism sells. That equals ratings, which then equals advertisers. It’s a big circle. And you, the watchers, the viewers, you’re the target smack dab at the center of that circle.
Today, when you turn on the news, you hear about more gun violence, another act of terrorism, a missing child, or a scary health epidemic, and it seems as if the world is getting smaller, but growing ever more frightening at the same time. I’m hearing more and more people tell me they’re finding it harder to feel calm in their day-to-day lives. They feel beleaguered by the never-ending cycle of bad news, and this changes them, changes how they feel about life; these changes range from having a constant low level sense of uneasiness all the way to having full-blown anxiety disorders. The persistent sense of worry is joy-robbing at the very least, and debilitating at worst. This news cycle-related anxiety has become particularly obvious in the 21st century, a time that has been packed with global events that live and breathe on the news cycle, the internet, and social media.
There have been studies on who is at risk for negative impacts from the news cycle. These show that women are more at risk, because they are better than men at remembering negative news for longer periods, and they also have more persistent physiological reactions to the stress caused by such news. The news makes many women feel personally devalued, unseen, unheard, and unsafe, resulting in them having a sense of dread and mistrust about the future. Age is also a big factor: millennials are the age group most upset by the news cycle, with 3 in 5 millennials saying that they want to stay informed, but that following the news causes them undue stress. That’s compared with 1 in 3 older adults saying the same. But these older adults are more apt to deal with this issue by avoiding the news, with 2 in 5 adults reporting that they have taken steps over the past year to reduce their news consumption in response to the stress and anxiety caused by it.
Our highly connected culture can exacerbate these feelings of anxiety. The internet and social media add to the illusion that the whole world is right outside your door, ready to get you. It used to be that danger from man-made or natural disasters seemed far away. In some cases, you never heard about it in the first place. Today, we have headlines in the 24-hour news cycle that detail the most horrendous crimes and tragedies, from those that touch a few individuals to those that affect thousands. The saying goes “there’s nothing new under the sun” but in fact, now in the last week of February 2020, there is a new thing under the sun: ‘coronavirus anxiety.’ It’s now a real thing in the psych world. The response to the coronavirus illustrates a point about response to the constant news cycle and the fear it breeds. In the last week of February 2020, the global coronavirus outbreak dominated headlines as it entered the political debate and sent stock markets tumbling. In response, Americans did what they always do when confronted with something new and scary: they hit the internet search bar…and the bar bar, and not necessarily in that order. Aside from “coronavirus,” among the most popular topics searched over the past week was “Lysol,” “dog coronavirus,” and “social isolation.”
Don’t misunderstand me, some anxiety is a good thing. Low levels of it enables awareness and proactive problem-solving. It motivates you to take sensible steps to protect yourself and your loved ones. News serves to inform us about things that are important to us, and at times to warn us about possible health dangers and empower us to avoid them. But too much news and some types of news content, especially when sensationalized, may lead to worry and anxiety. And when anxiety becomes more than a constructive concern, that’s when we need to slow down, when things need to change. So what can you do if what seems like a constant cycle of negative news throughout every media outlet is getting you down and interfering with your well-being? There are some measures you can take to control how much the news negativity affects your everyday routine and outlook. I have ten suggestions below.
1. When the news is first reported- there has been a bombing, there has been a shooting, war has been declared, there is a new coronavirus outbreak- turn it off, blow it off immediately. This may seem counter intuitive, but initial news, the first news to be reported, is notoriously inaccurate. Numbers are over-inflated. So wait until the news is organized, fully formulated, until they have multiple sources and they can accurately assess the situation. You’ll typically find that, no, it was not 500 people killed, it was 50. It was not 50 people shot, it was 15 people wounded. So just take a step back. When you hear breaking news, put it down, wait, and look at it in a few hours or the next morning, when the news organizations have multiple accurate reports.
2. Look for good news. Bad news comes your way free and easy, while you have to look for good news. So look for good news. Dig for it. If you look for positive things, you will find them. The whole world isn’t all bad, there are good things happening, positive things. Look for positive things things that interest you, on social media, on YouTube, on television, on the internet. Literally put ‘positive news’ in the search bar and read what you find.
3. Don’t leave a news channel on all day long, TV or radio, even if it is just for background noise. Some is bound to permeate your brain. Limit the amount of news you watch each day: 20 to 30 minutes a day is enough. You don’t need to be getting news all day long. Be strategic about news exposure. Maybe check the most recent headlines first thing in the morning and then disconnect for the rest of the day. It may be tempting to read every update of a breaking news story throughout the day, but your mind has a way of thinking that the longer a story goes on, the more you are actually involved in the event, even though it may not even directly affect you. And you don’t need to be checking texts, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc multiple times each day either.
4. I recommend not getting your news from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc because what they say doesn’t have to be true, and what you see will often be a raw emotional response to something that they just saw, which may or may not even be accurate. Get your news from newspapers, either online or in actual print format. News in newspapers, the printed word, tends to be more accurate. The information has been digested and scrutinized by multiple people, so it is a little more fair and presents a more well-rounded perspective.
5. Prioritize your sleep. Worry often interrupts sleep, and sleep deprivation increases worry. Short-circuit the vicious cycle by avoiding your television, iPad, laptop, and cell phone for at least an hour before bedtime. That means no more late-night scrolling through Instagram or Facebook, where you might find reminders of heavy topics. Pick a before-bed pastime that doesn’t involve a screen, like reading a book. Get your news dose in the morning or maybe a little bit when you first come home from work. Do not do it before bed, because you will not sleep. Murder, treachery, and deceit make for bad bedtime stories.
6. If you find that social media affects you negatively in any way, delete it. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, you really don’t need it, especially if it causes you stress or anxiety. Contrary to popular belief, you can live without it…likely better than you can with it. So just delete it.
7. Give yourself a minimum of two hours per day where you are cut off from text messaging, emails, posting, TV, and radio. Spend that time doing something body-positive, like exercise. Physical activity reduces stress and anxiety in the moment and long-term. Practice mindfulness while you exercise by tuning in to your breathing and the physical movement your body is experiencing. This way you’ll have a conscious train of thought that doesn’t involve worry. Or distract yourself some other way. You can preoccupy your brain with relaxing activities: take a warm bath, listen to music, or meditate. If these low-key methods don’t block out the anxiety, try something more engaging, like playing a card game, or catching up with a friend. Whatever you choose, the idea is to give your mind a break.
8. Do not catastrophize, meaning thinking that because one thing is wrong, the whole world is falling apart. Just because there is a terrible stabbing of a little girl in another state does not mean that everyone is unsafe. If there is a shooting in a church in Georgia, that does not mean that all churches are unsafe. Just because there is a strike by the NY City subway workers does not mean that all subway systems across the country are falling apart. Just because there is a viral outbreak in one country does not mean that the whole world is unsafe and that we should shut ourselves in our homes.
9. Stop querying fear. When fear first strikes, ask yourself once, “What can I do to solve this problem?” If you have an answer, make a plan and implement that plan as best you can. But if you can’t think of a plan or solution that is logical and realistic, then move on. If you continue to worry and rack your brain, resist those thoughts. Distract yourself. See my #7 above. Eventually, the questions will lose their power, and your mind will stop asking them.
10. Practice eternal optimism. When you start the day in a positive way, the rest of the day will fall in line. And continuing to go about your life with some degree of positivity and optimism is an important cue to your family and friends, reinforcing the message that you- and they- are okay.Learn More
Mental Health Benefits of Pets
The bond between humans and animals is a powerful one, so much so that there have been numerous books written and movies made centering on the relationships between them. Dogs were the first animals domesticated and kept as pets, as much as 45,000 years ago.Regardless of when pet ownership got started, our long attachment to these animals is still going strong. Americans own some 78 million dogs, 85 million cats, 14 million birds, 12 million small mammals, and 9 million reptiles, according to pet industry statistics.
Studies have scientifically explored the benefits of the human-animal bond, and a positive correlation between pets and mental health is undeniable. According to a recent poll, 95% of pet owners consider their pet a member of the family. Children, adolescents, adults, and seniors all find joy in their pets, so it follows that pets and mental health go hand in hand.
Pets provide companionship, ease loneliness, bring us joy, and give us unconditional love. They also help decrease depression, anxiety, and stress. While the word “pet” usually conjers up thoughts of dogs and cats, a pet doesn’t necessarily have to be a dog or a cat. Even watching fish in an aquarium has been shown to reduce muscle tension and lower pulse rate. A pet can be a horse, parrot, turtle, rabbit, skunk, lizard, chicken, snake…whatever you love and take care of.
Pets have evolved to become acutely attuned to humans. Dogs, for example, are about as intelligent as a two-year-old human child. Some more doggie fun facts: They are able to understand about 150 human words and most are even capable of following a count of five. They understand spatial relationships and are able to use them to navigate obstacles quickly. Although they can’t see the same color spectrum we can, they can see black, white, blue, and yellow; they can’t see red and green- those just look gray to them. A dog’s smell is like 10 million times better than yours. Dogs can sense if you’re going to have a seizure, they know if your blood sugar is low, and some say they can even sniff out cancer. While they understand many of our words, dogs are even better at interpreting our tone of voice, body language, and gestures. And like any good human friend, a loyal dog will look into your eyes to gauge your emotional state and try to understand what you’re thinking and feeling (and to use their special psychic powers to get you to give them treats and throw their ball, of course). I think dogs have psychic powers. My dog Beluga used to use her psychic powers to get me to do stuff all the time.
Pets, especially dogs and cats, can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and playfulness, and even improve cardiovascular health. Caring for an animal can help children grow up feeling more secure and being more active. Pets also provide good companionship for older adults. Perhaps most importantly, a pet can add real joy and unconditional love to your life.
Early researchers had discovered physical evidence of the mental health benefits of having pets. They found that pets could fulfill the human need for touch, so when hugging or stroking a pet, the human subject’s blood pressure went down, their heart rate slowed, their breathing became more regular, and their muscle tension relaxed. All of these physical changes are signs of reduced stress, which is indicative of a positive psychological impact.
Since then, scientists have learned much more about the connection between pets and mental health. As a result, animal-assisted therapy programs have become an important part of mental health treatment. But, by owning a pet, you can experience pet therapy benefits every day in your own home. Below are several ways in which pets support good mental health and how pets are beneficial to people with mental health issues.
Interacting with Pets Lowers Stress and Decreases Anxiety:
Just the sensory act of stroking a pet lowers blood pressure, which reduces stress. Petting and playing with animals also reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol while stimulating endorphin production and release of the happy hormones serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax the nervous system. It also increases the production of oxytocin, another chemical that naturally reduces stress. Having the companionship of an animal can offer comfort, help ease anxiety, and build self-confidence for people anxious about going out into the world.
Pets Make Us Feel Needed:
The act of caretaking has mental health benefits. Caring for another living thing gives us a sense of purpose and meaning, so people feel more needed and wanted when they have a pet to care for. This is true even when the pets don’t interact very much with their caregivers. In a very interesting 2016 study about pets and mental health, elderly people were given five crickets in a cage to care for. Researchers monitored their mood over eight weeks and compared them to a control group that was not caring for crickets or other pets. They found that participants that were given the crickets became less depressed after eight weeks than those in the control group, so researchers concluded that caring for living creatures produced the mental health benefits they saw. Simply put, doing things for the good of others reduces depression and loneliness.
Pets Increase Well-Being:
Pet owners lives are enriched and generally better in several areas. They have better self-esteem, they are more physically fit, they are less lonely, they are more conscientious and less preoccupied, they are more extroverted, and they are less fearful. Put simply, pet owners are happier, healthier, and better adjusted than non-owners.
Pets Provide Companionship:
Companionship can help prevent illness and even add years to your life, while isolation and loneliness can trigger symptoms of depression. Caring for a live animal can help you shift your focus away from your problems, especially if you live alone. Most dog and cat owners talk to their pets, and some even use them as a sounding board to work through their troubles. And nothing beats loneliness like coming home to a wagging tail or a purring cat.
Cats and Dogs Are Great Examples: Because pets live in the moment- not worrying about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow- they can help you appreciate life’s simple joys and help you to be more mindful. Mindfulness is a psychological technique, the process of bringing one’s attention to the present moment. This can help distract you from what might be bothering you and help remind you to try to be more carefree and playful. In people diagnosed with mental illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, pets can be among the most supportive connections they have. They provide a unique form of validation through unconditional support, which they may not have in other relationships. Patients report that pets help them manage their illness, navigate everyday life, and give them a strong sense of identity, self-worth, and meaning. Caring for a pet gave owners a feeling of being in control as well as a sense of security and routine. Most said that their pets helped them manage their emotions and distract them from their symptoms like hearing voices, habitual rumination, and even suicidal thoughts, because they felt needed by their pet.
Pets Help Us Build Healthy Habits:
Pets need to be taken care of every day, and as a result, they help us build healthy habits and routines and add structure to the day. Many pets, especially dogs, require a regular feeding and exercise schedule. Having a consistent routine keeps an animal balanced and calm, and it’s good for people too. No matter your mood, one plaintive look from your pet and you’ll have to get out of bed to care for them. Caring for a pet can help you adopt healthy lifestyle changes, which play an important role in easing symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. Some examples of these healthy lifestyle changes include:
Physical activity: Dog owners need to take their pets for walks, runs, and/ or hikes regularly, and owners receive the benefits of that exercise. Studies show that dog owners are more likely to meet recommended daily exercise requirements.
Time in nature: Walking a dog or riding a horse gets us outside, so we experience the many mental health benefits of being outdoors.
Getting up in the morning: Dogs and cats need to be fed on a regular schedule. As a result, pet owners need to get up and take care of them, no matter what mood they are in. So in this way, pets give people a reason to get up and start the day.
Pet care leads to self-care: Caring for a dog, horse, or cat reminds us that we must take care of ourselves as well.
Pets Support Social Connection: Pets can be a great social lubricant for their owners, helping to start and maintain new friendships. Pets are able to counteract social isolation and promote social connection by relieving social anxiety, because they provide a common topic to talk about. For example, walking a dog or playing in a dog park often leads to conversations with other dog owners. As a result, dog owners tend to be more socially connected and less isolated. This improves the owners’ mental health, because people who have more social relationships and friendships tend to be mentally healthier. The benefits of having social connections include better self-esteem, lower rates of anxiety and depression, a happier, more optimistic outlook, stronger emotional regulation skills, improved cognitive functioning, and having more empathy and feelings of trust toward others.
Pets Give Us Unconditional Love:
This one is best of all! Dogs and cats and pets of all kinds love their owners no matter what. That’s unconditional love. Pets don’t care how your presentation went, how you did on a test, or if you sold a house. Pets don’t judge you based on what you look like, if you are popular, or if you’re super athletic. They’re simply happy to see you, and they want to spend time with you, no matter what! This kind of unconditional love is good for mental health. It stimulates the brain to release dopamine, the chemical involved in sensing pleasure.
To summarize, the link between pets and mental health is clear. So if you don’t have a pet, think about getting one. For a dog or cat, go to a shelter or humane society and adopt somebody, take them home and make them a member of the family. Or maybe talk to a doctor about finding an emotional support animal. Either way, it’ll do you good and you’ll feel good for it.
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
Most of the patient population in my practice are millennials. There are varying opinions on the age of this group, but for my purposes, I go with 40 and under. It seems like all I hear about these days is that this group, these people, have ruined EVERYTHING, and frankly, I’m sick of it. Listen, the older generation blaming problems on the younger generation is certainly not new; it’s always been that way. But for some reason, millennials are taking a far bigger rap for the problems in the world today than any other generation has in the past. They should be called the “Scapegoat Generation.” Sure, millennials have different priorities, values, and goals than their parents’ generation. No argument there. In general, they value healthy eating habits, spending their money on experiences rather than on physical possessions, and working their butts off to pay down their astronomical student loan debt. And of course, you have to remember that they grew up with the internet, the world at their fingertips. Contrast that with the older generation that had to go to a libraryand check out actual books. And the older generation had to actually drive to a store to buy things, but millennials just order it and it shows up on their doorstop two days later. So the older generation thinks millennials have it too easy. But au contraire, they have to suffer the consequences for the actions of previous generations and take the blame for ruining everything to boot. It drives me so crazy that I just have to talk about it. So below I want to go through some of the things that millennials are blamed for annihilating, some of which are absolutely patently ridiculous. But that’s just my opinion. Read on and decide for yourself.
Restaurant Chain Gangs
Dummy’s Yummies, Fooligan’s, Thank God It’s Fattie’s, yada yada. “Casual dining” restaurants are losing business and having to close stores left and right because those damn millennials don’t want to eat the high cal, high fat, high cholesterol foods that have been expanding waistlines for years. To the “All you can eat all fried everything appetizer!!” they say no. They much prefer to cook healthy and at home so that they actually know what’s in their food. Shame on you, millennials!
Lucy in the Sky With(out) Diamonds
Remember the De Beers’ ad from years ago that said a reasonable guideline to spend on an engagement ring was six month’s salary?! That might have flown then, but times have changed. Shockingly, De Beers now reports that diamond sales have been steadily dropping, from 32% in 1990 to 27% in 2015, and that sales continue to follow this downward trend. Why? Well, the obvious reason is money money money. Millennials are having a hard enough time making ends meet without adding pricey ice to their already tight budget. A less obvious reason that they’re not buying diamonds is an ethical one…they’re actually concerned with how and where diamonds are mined. It’s very popular now to choose a non-diamond gemstone for engagement ring bling. Silly millennials…thinking independently.
Tears for (Crappy) Beers
Bud, Coors, Natty Light…millennials don’t care for the cheapo pee water that passed for beer that their parents and grandparents drank by the gallon. Instead, they prefer unique craft beers, the smaller the batch the better. They enjoy beer flights with lagers and IPAs that actually taste like something. Expanding your horizons and daring to break beer tradition…bad millennials!
Bar Soap is Bad Soap?
No, I’m not kidding. Millennials are destroying the bar soap industry. Marketwatch surveys reports that millennials think bar soap is “gross,” and that they prefer to wash up with liquid soap instead. Their statement of findings said, “Almost half (48%) of all U.S. consumers believe bar soaps are covered in germs after use, a feeling that is particularly strong among consumers aged 18-24 (60%), as opposed to just 31% of older consumers aged 65+.”
So nearly twice as many millennials are grossed out by germy bar soap than old people. Pesky millennials, preferring not to wash your hands with germy, gunky, dirty old bars of soap.
Endangered Species: Paper Napkins
These cheap millennials are even killing paper napkins. How do they carry out this dastardly deed? They buy paper towels! And get this…they not only use them for their intended use, they also use them as napkins! Oh, the horror! And why, why, why would they do this?!?! They say it’s because “it’s just one less thing to buy,” but I’m sure it’s a grand conspiracy.
Seriously? Paper napkins yesterday, boxed cereal today. It’s a very slippery slope, people! What is the world coming to? Evidently, cereal sales have fallen almost 30% in recent years, and it’s all the millennials’ faults. Reports state that “Almost 40 percent of millennials surveyed said cereal was an inconvenient breakfast choice because they had to clean up after eating it.” I assume this clean up involves washing a bowl and a spoon. Painful though it is, I have to side with the old folks on this one….40% of you are lazy millennials!
No “Fore!” Play
Millennials don’t play “the sport of kings,” aka golf, nor do they watch it on TV or waste time thinking about hitting a little white ball into a hole with a metal stick. A very expensive metal stick. They also don’t have respect for the people that hit that little white ball for a living…a very lucrative living. It makes no sense to them. Their apathy is real and ever-growing, so much so that fans of the sport fear that within the next 52 years, millennials will succeed in finally killing golf, making it (poof!) disappear entirely. Don’t ask me how they figured exactly 52 years…I have no clue.
Workin’ 9 to 5…Not the Way to Make a Livin’?
The days of clocking in at 9 AM and out at 5 PM are long gone, but not because millennials are lazy. In fact, thanks to technology, millennials are changing the way the American work force gets stuff done. With technology, they’re working from home more and demanding more work flexibility from employers. Instead of being unreachable and shutting the computer down at the end of the day, employees are never out of touch. That’s great for employers, but not so much for millennial employees. No fun when your boss interupts your binge-watch.
Vacay…Yay or Nay?
Speaking of always working….Travel & Leisure has decided that millennials have destroyed the American vacation, not because they’re poor or lazy as some believe, but because they’re obsessed with work! They say that work pressure and an always-on attitude have increasingly caused many Americans to abandon their vacation days. In 2015, it’s estimated that 55% of working Americans didn’t use all of their vacation days, leaving behind 658 million days of unused PTO on the table. Silly millennials…take your PTO!!!
You only need one word when it comes to how millennials and their evil technology have destroyed movie theaters…Netflix! Since its advent, the movie industry has been flailing, struggling to justify their own existence. Why spend $12 to sit shoulder to shoulder with loud, popcorn-munching strangers in a crowded, sticky-floored theater when you can Netflix and chill at home in your pajamas? The answer? You wouldn’t! Now who thinks like a millennial?
Super-Duper Home Improvement Stores
We’ve established that millennials are generally broke. If they aren’t living with mom and dad, most of them rent, meaning they don’t own a home. So they have no use for a home improvement store to buy a bunch of stuff to improve a home they don’t have. As a result, millennials are apparently killing Lowe’s and Home Depot, both of which have reported a huge dip in sales. Naturally, that’s all your fault, millennials!!
Family Ties (That Bind)
Millennials are being blamed for destroying the very fabric of society by choosing not to have children. Why? Kids are freaking expensive, potentially putting them in an 18-plus year financial bind. And we’ve established that millennials are mostly broke, struggling with little pay and humongous educational debt. As established above, most don’t own a home with a big backyard and white picket fence. Many work multiple jobs in a gig economy, (which is also their fault) so they don’t have a lot of the time it takes to raise a small human. And many of them don’t see the brightest future when it comes to finance, government leadership, and the environment. And why would they? They went to college with the surety of graduating to find a fabulous job with amazing benefits and instead graduated to the worst economical slump since the great depression of the 40’s, no jobs, dying oceans, drought, family farms closing, and no bright promise on the horizon. Jaded millennials…but I ask, why shouldn’t they be?
Millennials are killing football now too?! Looking into this, I see that it’s not so much that millennials don’t like football; it’s more that they don’t want their kids playing the sport. That’s if they even dare to have kids, a topic which I explored above. There is far more information about the danger of football today. Previous generations smacked their kids on the ass and sent ‘em out to the field and cheered as they tackled the other team’s players. Today we understand the cumulative damage of repetetive concussions, and not surprisingly, many parents are prohibiting their kids from playing tackle football. Eventually, this will lead to a dearth in potential professional football stars hired by the NFL, and that will equate to a lot of unhappy people in the fall and January of every year. Apparently millennials are staunchly against repetitive concussive brain injuries in their children. Go figure.
The American Dream…A Nightmare?
Damn it, millennials! Stop the madness! Now you’re killing off the American Dream? How could you…It’s been around for so long!! I’ve told you that millennials are poor, but let’s get specific. Studies have shown that millennials earn 20% less than their parents did at their ages, and they only own half the total assets as the Baby Boomers did at their age. Financial forecasts show that the idea of buying a home is now way out of reach for most young people today. They’re graduating from college with huge amounts of debt, they’re working longer hours than any previous generation, and they’re getting paid less than their parents made…so much for the American Dream. But somehow, the downfall of that American Dream is their fault. Hmmm…
What have we learned about millennials today? What are the takeaways?
– Smart and adaptive
– Hardworking but poor
– Debt-ridden with college loans
– Hooked on technology
– Clearly ruining everything!
I cover more in a full chapter about millenials in my book Tales from the Couch, which is available on Amazon.com.Learn More
Comedian Dan Aykroyd, children’s author Hans Christian Andersen, movie director Tim Burton, naturalist Charles Darwin, poet Emily Dickinson, scientist and mathematician Albert Einstein, chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, actress Daryl Hannah, late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, painter Michelangelo, music composer/ pianist Amadeus Mozart, and artist and cultural influencer Andy Warhol, just to name a few…
What do all of the above people have in common? Given their fame and success, I bet you’ll never guess. They all have islands of extreme expertise, but all also have social limitations in terms of their abilites to interact with others and their ability to communicate. What does that sound like? What diagnosis do they share? Autism.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition related to brain development that affects how a person relates to and socializes with others, and which also causes problems in communication and social interactions. Replacing just the single word autism, the term “spectrum” in autism spectrum disorder refers to the wide range of symptoms and potential severity of the disorder of autism.
Autism spectrum disorder is said to be a “developmental disorder” because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life. The disorder extends into adulthood, causing problems with functioning in society, in school, and at work. Children often show symptoms of autism within the first year of life, though signs may be subtle at first. Sometimes children appear to develop normally in their first year, but then exhibit regression between 18 and 24 months of age as they develop autistic symptoms.
Symptoms of ASD
Children can show signs of autism spectrum disorder in early infancy. These include reduced eye contact, lack of response to their name and/or indifference to caregivers. Some children may develop normally for the first few months or years of life, but then suddenly become withdrawn or aggressive or lose the language skills they’ve already acquired. Fairly definitive signs of ASD are usually seen by age two.
Each child with ASD will have difficulty with social interactions and will exhibit unique patterns of behavior and levels of severity, from low functioning to high functioning.
Some children with autism spectrum disorder may have difficulty learning, and some have signs of lower than average intelligence. Other children may have normal to high intelligence and learn quickly, but have difficulty communicating and applying what they know. Because of the unique mixture of signs and symptoms exhibited in each child, the severity of ASD can sometimes be difficult to determine. It’s generally based on the level of impairment and how that impairment impacts the ability to function.
A child or adult with ASD may have problems with social interactions and communication skills, including any of these signs:
Failure to respond to his/her name or appearing to not hear you at times
Resists cuddling and holding as child
Lacks facial expression
Prefers playing alone, retreats into his/her own world
Exhibits poor eye contact
Doesn’t speak/ has delayed speech/ loses previous speech ability
Can’t initiate or further conversation
Speaks with abnormal tone or rhythm; may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech
Repeats words or phrases verbatim, but doesn’t understand meaning
Doesn’t appear to understand simple questions or directions
Doesn’t express own emotions/ feelings and is unaware of others’ feelings
Inappropriate aggression or disruption to social interactions of others
Difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues, interpreting other people’s facial expressions, body postures, or tones of voice
A child or adult with ASD may exhibit limited and repetitive patterns of behavior, including any of these signs:
Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand flapping
Develops specific routines or rituals, becomes disturbed at the slightest change
Performs self-harming activities, including biting or head-banging
Is unusually sensitive to light, sound, and/or touch, yet can be indifferent to pain or temperature
Has problems with coordination or exhibits odd movement patterns, such as clumsiness, walking on toes, and odd, stiff, or exaggerated body language
Is fascinated by small details of an object without understanding the overall purpose or function of the object. Ex: spinning wheels of a toy car
Doesn’t engage in imaginative or make-believe play
Fixates on an object or activity with abnormal intensity or focus
Has very specific food preferences: eats very few foods/ refuses certain textures
A child or adult with ASD may exhibit other signs and symptoms, such as:
Unusual Touch and Sound Sensitivities: They may recoil when touched, and/or may be extremely hypersensitive to certain sounds
Seizures: Approximately four out of ten people with ASD suffer from seizures; most commonly occurs in childhood or entering teenage years and in those with more severe cognitive impairment.
Bowel Disorders: People with ASD tend to have more gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea than peers
Placing Inedible Objects in the Mouth: While it is common for babies and toddlers to put toys or other inedible objects in their mouths, older kids with autism may continue to do this even as they age. Some children have been known to put items like soil, chalk, and paints into their mouths, which means supervision is a must to prevent them from eating something toxic or choking on an object.
Sleeping Issues: Getting a child to sleep at an assigned time can be hard, but children with ASD often have different sleep patterns. ASD interferes with the “working clock” that regulates sleep patterns. Many children with ASD with sleep problems will have the problem in adulthood as well.
As they mature, some children with autism spectrum disorder become more engaged with others and show fewer behavioral disturbances, but some, usually those with the least severe problems, may end up leading normal or near-normal lives. But others continue to have difficulty with language or social skills, and for them, the teen years can bring even worse behavioral and emotional problems.
When to see a doctor
Babies develop at their own pace…they don’t necessarily follow the developmental timelines that Dr. Spock or other parenting book authors lay out. But children with autism spectrum disorder usually show some signs of delayed development before they are two years old. If you’re concerned about your child’s development or suspect that your child may have ASD, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician, as some ASD symptoms can look like other developmental disorders.
Your pediatrician may recommend developmental tests to identify if your child has delays in cognitive, language and social skills, or if your child doesn’t meet certain timelines:
Doesn’t respond with a smile or happy expression by 6 months
Doesn’t mimic sounds or facial expressions by 9 months
Doesn’t babble or coo by 12 months
Doesn’t gesture, point or wave by 14 months
Doesn’t say single words by 16 months
Doesn’t play “make-believe” or pretend by 18 months
Doesn’t say two-word phrases by 24 months
Loses language skills or social skills at any age
Causes of ASD
Autism spectrum disorder has no single known cause. Given the disorder’s complexity and the fact that symptoms and severity vary, there are probably many causes, with genetics and environment likely playing larger roles.
Genetics: Several different genes appear to be involved in ASD. For some children, ASD can be associated with another genetic disorder, such as Rett syndrome or fragile X syndrome. For other children, genetic mutations may increase the risk of autism spectrum disorder. Other genes may affect brain development or the way that brain cells communicate. Some genetic mutations are inherited, but others occur spontaneously.
Environmental factors: Researchers are currently exploring whether factors like viral infections, medications, complications during pregnancy, or air pollutants play a role in triggering autism spectrum disorder.
Not from childhood vaccines: One of the biggest controversies in autism spectrum disorder centers on whether childhood vaccines can cause ASD. Despite extensive research, no reliable study has shown a link between autism spectrum disorder and any vaccines. In fact, the original study that ignited the debate years ago has been retracted due to poor design and questionable research methods. Not only do vaccines not cause ASD, but
avoiding childhood vaccinations can place your child and others in danger of catching and spreading serious diseases, including whooping cough (pertussis), mumps, and/or measles. So don’t let the fear of ASD keep you from allowing your child to have their vaccines.
Risk factors for ASD
The number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder is rising. It’s not clear whether this is due to better detection and reporting or a real increase in the number of cases, or a combination of the two.
Autism spectrum disorder affects children of all races and nationalities, but certain factors increase a child’s risk. These risk factors may include:
Your child’s sex: Boys are about four times more likely to develop autism spectrum disorder than girls are.
Family history: Families who have one child with autism spectrum disorder have an increased risk of having another child with the disorder. It’s also fairly common for parents or relatives of a child with autism spectrum disorder to have minor problems with social or communication skills themselves or to engage in certain behaviors typical of the disorder.
Other disorders: Children with certain medical conditions have a higher than normal risk of autism spectrum disorder or autism-like symptoms. Some examples include fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, and Rett synsyndrome.
Extremely preterm babies: Babies born before 26 weeks of gestation may have a greater risk of autism spectrum disorder.
Parental ages: Children born to older parents may be more likely to develop ASD, but more research is necessary to fully establish this link.
Complications of living with ASD
The problems that come with ASD in terms of social interactions, communication, and behavior can lead to issues in life, including:
Problems in school and successful learning
Inability to live independently
Stress within the family
Victimization and being bullied
Prevention of ASD
There is no way to prevent autism spectrum disorder, but there are some treatment options. Intervention is helpful at any age, but early diagnosis and intervention is the most helpful to improve behavior, skills and language development. While children don’t usually outgrow autism spectrum disorder symptoms, with work, they may learn to function well within their environment.
Diagnosis of ASD
Your child’s doctor will look for signs of developmental delays at regular checkups. If your child shows any symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, you’ll likely be referred for an evaluation to a specialist who treats children with autism spectrum disorder, such as a child psychiatrist/ psychologist, pediatric neurologist or developmental pediatrician.
Because autism spectrum disorder varies widely in symptoms and severity, making a diagnosis may be difficult. There isn’t a specific medical test to definitively diagnose the disorder. Instead, a specialist will make observations. These may include:
Observing your child’s development, social interactions, communication skills and behavior; done over time to determine if there have been changes.
Give your child tests which will cover hearing, speech, language, developmental level, and social and behavioral issues.
Score your child’s social and communication interactions.
Include other specialists in order to definitively determine a diagnosis.
Recommend genetic testing to determine if your child also has a genetic disorder such as Rett syndrome or fragile X syndrome.
Treatment for ASD
While there is no cure for autism spectrum disorder, early and intensive treatment can make a big difference in the lives of most children with ASD. The goal of treatment is to maximize your child’s ability to function by reducing ASD symptoms while also supporting development and learning. Early intervention during the preschool years can help your child learn critical social, communication, functional, and behavioral skills that will make a huge impact on their adult lives.
The range of ASD “therapies” you’ll find on an internet search can be very overwhelming. If your child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, talk to experts about creating a treatment strategy and build a team of professionals to meet your child’s needs.
Some ASD treatment options may include:
Behavioral and communication therapies: Many programs address the range of social, language, and behavioral difficulties associated with ASD. Some programs focus on reducing problem behaviors and teaching new skills. Other programs focus on teaching children how to act in social situations or how to communicate better with others. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) can help children learn new skills and apply these skills through a reward-based motivation system.
Educational therapies: Children with ASD often respond well to very structured educational programs. Successful programs typically include a team of specialists and a variety of activities to improve social skills, communication and behavior. Earlier intervention is better, and preschool children who receive intensive one on one behavioral intervention show more progress.
Family therapies: Parents and other family members can learn how to play and interact with their children in ways that promote social skills, manage problem behaviors, and teach communication and other daily living skills.
Other therapies: Depending on your child’s needs, they can have speech therapy to improve communication skills, occupational therapy to teach activities of daily living, and physical therapy to improve movement and balance. Any and all of these may be beneficial. Adding a psychologist to address problem behavior is also beneficial.
Medications: There are no specific medications to improve the core signs of autism spectrum disorder, but some medications can help control specific symptoms, including hyperactivity, behavioral issues, and anxiety. Always keep all health care providers updated on all medications or supplements your child is taking, as some can interact and cause dangerous side effects.
Some ASD takeaways
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder that causes problems with communication and social interactions. There are no specific tests for autism spectrum disorder, the diagnosis is made by observation and process of elimination. There are no one-size-fits-all therapies for autism spectrum disorder. Early detection and intervention are of utmost importance and make a greal deal of difference in determining the person’s likely functional level in adulthood. If your child exhibits some of the characteristics defined above, it is best to see your pediatrician for an evaluation.
For information on other psychiatric diagnoses and patient stories and experiences, please check out my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com.Learn More
Ambien, generic name zolpidem, is the most commonly prescribed sleep aid, accounting for 85% of prescribed sleeping pills. It also ranks in the top 15 on the list of most frequently prescribed drugs in the country. Its popularity is clearly due to its efficacy. Zolpidem works as a hypnotic drug, meaning that it induces a state of unconsciousness, similar to what occurs during natural sleep. How does it do that? Zolpidem affects chemical messengers in the brain called neurotransmitters, specifically a neurotransmitter called GABA. By affecting GABA, it calms the activity of specific parts of the brain. One of the areas in the brain that is affected is the hippocampus. Along with other regions of the brain, the hippocampus is important in the formation of memory. Because of this hippocampal involvement,
zolpidem can cause memory loss, especially at higher doses, an effect colloquially referred to as “Ambien Amnesia.” If you take it and do not go to bed immediately as recommended, this is more likely to occur. When you get right in bed after taking it, a loss of memory is inconsequential…it doesn’t matter if you can’t remember lying awake for a few minutes before falling asleep. But there are many reports of people taking it and remaining awake and out of bed, and they commonly experience an inability to recall subsequent events shortly after taking it. Because of its effects on memory, there is some concern that zolpidem could affect long-term memory and contribute to the development of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, though there has been no research to prove or disprove these possible associations. Zolpidem comes with a host of known side effects that range from weird and wacky to illegal and downright dangerous behaviors. Included are hallucinations, decreased awareness, disinhibition, and changes in behavior. Very serious problems may occur when someone who has taken zolpidem gets up during the night. They may exhibit very complex sleep-related behaviors while under the influence of zolpidem. These might include relatively innocuous sleeptalking, sleepwalking, sleep cleaning and sleep eating, to more disturbing behaviors like sleep cooking and sleep sex, to potentially deadly sleep driving. While in a confused state, a person on zolpidem may act in a way that is different from their normal waking behavior. This can lead to legal consequences, such as driving under the influence (DUI) or potentially even sexual assault charges stemming from disinhibited sexually charged behavior.
I have a long time patient named Deanna that takes zolpidem and regularly sleepwalks, also known as somnambulation for the Scrabble set. It happens that she has been a sleepwalker ever since she had the ability to walk, so being on the zolpidem now makes her nocturnal activities and behaviors really way out there. Just flipping back through her chart, I see she mentions: taking apart electronics and trying to put them back together with no success. Dumping all of her shoes out of their boxes onto her closet floor. Taking all of her clothes off their hangers and throwing them over her dining room chairs. Gathering all sorts of disparate items together, evidently whatever catches her eye at the time, and putting them in her oven. She said she learned that particular lesson the hard way. This one is whacked. She started “painting” a wall in her house….with a purple sharpie. She showed me a picture of that. She once found several pages of her stationery scrawled in words she knew she didn’t consciously write in a letter to someone, she didn’t know who. She brought that in. She said she would evidently clean in her sleep; she put shower gel all over the tile in her shower and “put things away” in odd places they didn’t belong in. She also sleep eats. Cereal, bread, ice cream, whatever she sees that looks good I guess. She regularly wakes up to a mess in the kitchen and destruction in the house. It used to really freak her out to see the evidence of activities she didn’t remember, but now she just feels unsettled as she surveys the damage from her night time escapades. But since it hasn’t ever been anything dangerous and because zolpidem works well for her, she doesn’t want to change it.
How is it that a person on zolpidem can achieve these complex behaviors while unconscious and asleep? It’s because the parts of the brain that control movement still function, but inhibition, consciousness, and the ability to create memory is turned off. Because of this, the person is disinhibited, and that can lead to unintentional actions and behaviors as discussed above.
Beyond zolpidem’s effects on memory, awareness, and behavior, there may be additional issues associated with its use. Some other common side effects include:
– “Hangover” or carry-over sedation, especially in women
– Loss of appetite
– Impaired vision
– Slow breathing rates
– Muscle cramps
– Allergic reactions
– Memory loss
– Inability to concentrate
– Emotional blunting
– Depression and/or suicidal thoughts
– Back pain
– Diarrhea or constipation
– Sinusitis (sinus infection)
– Pharyngitis (sore throat)
– Dry mouth
– Flu-like symptoms
– Breathing difficulties
– Palpitations (irregular heartbeat)
– Rebound insomnia
Any of these side effects could be bothersome and may interfere with the continued use of the medication. Sometimes the benefits of zolpidem outweigh the risks and/or side effects. If a symptom is particularly bothersome, discuss this with your prescribing doctor to see if an alternative treatment may be a better option for you.
If you take zolpidem, use it exactly as prescribed and get in bed immediately after taking it. It’s best to allow yourself at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep to help ensure avoidance of morning hangover effects. Keeping a regular sleep-wake schedule will also help. Taking zolpidem with other drugs that depress the central nervous system such as alcohol, opioid pain medications, or tranquilizers intensifies the sedative effects of zolpidem and increases the risk of overdose as a result of respiratory depression. Zolpidem is an abusable drug. Individuals who take it for non-medical reasons or at more than prescribed doses are at risk of experiencing intensification of adverse side effects, including the following:
– Excessive sedation
– Confusion and disorientation
– Lack of motor coordination
– Slow response times
– Delayed reflex reactions
– Impaired judgment
Men and women don’t metabolize zolpidem in the same way. Women metabolize it much more slowly, so they often wake up with a zolpidem hang over and feel cloudy in the morning. So an important note for women taking zolpidem is to be extra cautious about allowing at least 8 hours of sleep after taking it and to take lower doses of it due to the potential effects on morning function, especially driving.
Actor Roseanne Barr had probably taken a little too much when she “Ambien tweeted” a racist statement comparing an Obama aid to an ape. She admitted that she had taken zolpidem shortly before the 2am tweet that caused her eponymous show to be cancelled. Elon Musk, Mr. Tesla, can feel her pain. He shocked investors when he tweeted he was considering taking Tesla private at $420 a share and that funding was secured. He said he sometimes takes zolpidem because it’s either that or no sleep. Good thing he has people to protect him from himself when he’s in a zolpidem daze.
Zolpidem can be a safe and effective medication to treat insomnia, but if it affects your memory or causes sleep behaviors or other adverse side effects, you should probably consider alternative treatments for your insomnia. Hello Roseanne and Elon…that means you!!
I talk more about drugs for sleep like zolpidem and a host of other psychoactive drugs in my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com.Learn More
A woman named Marianne messaged me wanting to know how to get off of Klonopin, which is a benzodiazepine, or benzo for short. She has been taking them regularly for more than twenty years, which is a very long time to be on a benzo. That will certainly complicate things. Before I go into how to stop taking benzos, I want to tell you what they are and what they do.
What are they?
Benzos are medications designed to treat anxiety, panic disorders, seizures, muscle tension, and insomnia. Some of the most commonly prescribed benzos include: Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam),Valium (diazepam), Restoril (temazepam),
Librium (chlordiazepoxide), and Ativan (lorazepam). A 2013 survey found that Xanax and its generic form alprazolam is one of the most prescribed psychiatric drugs in the United States, with approximately 50 million prescriptions written that year. Unfortunately, this class of drug is also highly abused. Another 2013 survey found that 1.7 million Americans aged 12 and older were considered current abusers of tranquilizer medications like benzos. When abused, benzos produce a high in addition to the calm and relaxed sensations individuals feel when they take them.
How do they work?
Benzos increase the levels of a chemical in the brain called GABA. Meaningless trivia: GABA stands for gamma amino-butyric acid. GABA works as a kind of naturally occurring tranquilizer, and it calms down the nerve firings related to stress and the stress reaction. Benzos also work to enhance levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the feel good chemical, the chemical messenger involved in reward and pleasure in the brain. In simple terms, benzos slow down nerve activity in the brain and central nervous system, which decreases stress and its physical and emotional side effects.
Why can using them be problematic?
Benzos have multiple side effects that are both physical and psychological in nature, and these can cause harm with both short-term and extended usage. Some potential short-term side effects of benzos include, but are not limited to: drowsiness, mental confusion, trouble concentrating, short-term memory loss, blurred vision, slurred speech, lack of motor control, slow breathing, and muscle weakness. Long-term use of benzos also causes all of the above, but can also cause changes to the brain as well as mental health symptoms like mood swings, hallucinations, and depression. Fortunately, some of the changes made by benzos to the different regions of the brain after prolonged use may be reversible after being free from benzos for an extended period of time. On the scarier flip side of that coin, benzos may in fact predispose you to memory and cognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s. They’re many studies currently focusing on these predispositions. A recent study published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found a definitive link between benzo usage and Alzheimer’s disease. People taking benzos for more than six months had an 84% higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s dementia, versus those who didn’t take benzos. Long-acting benzos like Valium were more likely to increase these risks than shorter-acting benzos like Ativan or Xanax. Further, they found that these changes may not be reversible, and that the risk increased with age. Speaking of age, there are increased concerns in the elderly population when it comes to benzo usage. Benzos are increasingly being prescribed to the elderly population, many of which are used long-term, which increases the potential for cognitive and memory deficits. As people age, metabolism slows down. Since benzos are stored in fat cells, they remain active in an older person’s body for longer than in a younger person’s body, which increases the drug effects and risks due to the higher drug concentrations, like falls and car accidents. For all of these reasons, benzos should be used with caution in the elderly population.
A big problem with taking benzos for an extended period is tolerance and dependency. Benzos are widely considered to be highly addictive. Remember that benzos work by increasing GABA and dopamine in the central nervous system, calming and pleasing the brain, giving it the feel goods. After even just a few weeks of taking benzos regularly, the brain may learn to expect the regular dose of benzos and stop working to produce these feel good chemicals on its own without them. Your brain figures, “why do the work if it’s done for me?” You really can’t blame the brain for that! It has become dependent on the benzo. But as you continue to use benzos, you develop higher and higher tolerance, meaning that it takes more and more of the drug to produce the regular desired effect. This tolerance and dependence stuff really ticks off your brain. It’s screaming “why aren’t these pills working anymore?!” The answer is that it has become dependent and tolerant, so it needs more. Just to prove its point, it makes you feel anxious, restless, and irritable as it screams “gimme gimme more more more!!!” The problem is that the body is metabolizing the benzo more quickly, essentially causing withdrawl symptoms, and a higher dose is needed. The longer you’re on a benzo, the more you’ll need. It’s a vicious cycle and it’s sometimes tough to manage clinically.
The most severe form of physical harm caused by benzos is overdose. This occurs when a person takes too much of the drug at once and overloads the brain and body. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites drug overdose as the number one cause of injury death in the United States. A 2013 survey reported that nearly 7,000 people died from a benzo overdose in that year. Since benzos are tranquilizers and sedatives, they depress the central nervous system, lowering heart rate, core body temperature, blood pressure, and respiration. Generally, in the case of an overdose, these vital life functions simply get too low.
When combining other drugs with benzos, obviously the risk of overdose or other negative outcome increases exponentially. But mixing benzos with alcohol is a special case, deserving of a strong warning as it is life-threatening. BENZOS + ALCOHOL = DEAD. One of the most common and successful unintentional and intentional suicide acts in my patient population is mixing benzos with alcohol. The combo is lethal, plain and simple. The body actually forgets to breathe. People pass out and just never wake up. If you’re reading this and you take benzos with alcohol and you’re thinking that you don’t know what the big deal is, you do it all the time and have never had a problem, then my response to you is that you’re living on borrowed time, and I strongly suggest you stop one of the two, the booze or the benzos, take your pick.
What about withdrawl from benzos?
Benzo withdrawal can be notoriously difficult. It is actually about the hardest group of drugs to get off of. The level of difficulty is based on what benzo you’ve been taking, how much you’ve been taking, and how long you’ve been taking it. Obviously, if you’ve been on benzos for 25 years, it’s not going to be a walk in the park. To be honest, it’s going to be a rough road. Sorry Marianne. But it can be done. The first and most important thing is that you should never just stop benzos on your own, as it can be very dangerous and can include long or multiple grand mal seizures. Withdrawal from benzos should be done slowly through medical detox with a professional. It is best done with an addiction specialist like myself, because a specialist has the most current knowledge and experience. This is the safest way to purge the drugs from the brain and body while decreasing and managing withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings. As for the symptoms of withdrawl, these can include mood swings, short-term memory loss, seizure, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, depression, suppressed appetite, hallucinations, and cognitive difficulties. Stopping benzos after dependency may also lead to a rebound effect. This is a sort of overexcitement of the nerves that have been suppressed for so long by the benzos, and symptoms can include an elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. There may also be a return of the issues that lead you to take the benzos in the first place, insomnia, anxiety, and panic symptoms, and they can possibly be even worse than before.
I’m sure that just about everyone currently taking benzos is thinking “I’m NEVER stopping!” right about now. It is not easy to do, but there is a way to manage all of this, to come off of the benzo and deal with all of the physical and cognitive aspects of withdrawl. I do it everyday. I set up a tapering schedule to lessen the specific benzo dosage over time, sometimes over a period of months. I will also often add or switch to a long acting benzo, which can be very helpful. I use several drugs to deal with the withdrawl symptoms: clonidine for tremor and high blood pressure, neurontin for pain and to help prevent seizures, anti-psychotic like seroquel for sleep, and an anti-depressant for depression, thank you Captain Obvious. The drug regimen varies from patient to patient. I also utilize psychotherapy to help work out the psychological kinks associated with withdrawl and rebound effect symptoms. Another trick I strongly recommend to many of my patients, not just those withdrawing from alcohol or any drugs, is transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS. This is a non-invasive procedure done in the office that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, and I’ve found that it seems to calm the nerves and offer relief to some people in withdrawl. Electrodes are placed on the forehead and behind the ears and painless stimuli are passed into certain regions of the brain for 40 minutes in each daily session for about a month. Many patients say it’s the best 40 minutes of their day.
I’d like to wish Marianne good luck. Please feel free to call me at the office at 561-842-9950 if you have any questions.
To everyone else: If you can avoid ever having to take benzos, I strongly suggest that you do. If you’re currently taking them, give some serious thought to finding an alternative medication. I can help with that. For more information and stories about benzos, other drugs, and the process of medical detox, check out my book Tales from the Couch on Amazon.com.Learn More
Attention Deficit Disorder
ADD, Attention Defecit Disorder is a chronic condition marked by issues with attention. It is most often seen in childhood, but can persist into adulthood, and there are 3 million US cases per year. Due to it’s high prevalence, I want to take the opportunity to discuss the diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment of ADD.
ADD has a sister disorder called ADHD, Attention Defecit Hyperactivity Disorder. What’s the difference between them? It’s pretty simple. ADHD includes the symptom of physical hyperactivity or excessive restlessness. That’s what the “H” is for. In ADD, the symptom of hyperactivity is absent.
What are the hallmarks of this disorder? Basically, it is a disorder of concentration, marked by problems concentrating and the inability to stay on task. These individuals are easily distracted and readily bored. They move from project to project without finishing and start projects without all of the appropriate tools needed to complete them. This all leaves them very anxious. In cases of ADHD, they are also impulsive, intrusive, disruptive, and hyperactive, often constantly fidgeting.
What percent on the population are we dealing with here? Roughly 20% of boys and 11% of girls have some type of attention deficit disorder.
What are the causes of attention deficit disorder? While we don’t know exactly, there are several suspects. Maternal use of alcohol or cocaine while in utero is an extremely common finding. Brain infections when pregnant or during early childhood, head trauma, and any birth defects that affect child development are also suspected. Exposure to enviromental toxins and pesticides are suspect. Excessive video games alter brain chemistry, as does a diet of processed foods and sugar, and these are also suspected causes for attention deficit disorder. I would say the number one cause of ADD is most likely genetic, inherited from mother or father.
What is the result of having attention deficit disorder? How does it affect one’s life? It results in having problems fitting into the academic world or the job world. People with attention deficit disorder don’t fit into a regimented or organized educational or work environment. They can be very intelligent and productive people, but they don’t fit into what we would consider the stereotypical or standard type of academic setting or work setting. Also, due to their impulsivity and their disorderly conduct, they can wind up getting in trouble in school and in trouble with the law. They can be unsuccessful at work, not because they aren’t smart enough, but because they cannot stay focused. In terms of lifestyle, they also have a much higher rate of obesity. This is likely due to lack of impulse control, causing them to overeat. They have problems in relationships, and their divorce rates are much higher. Their propensity toward domestic violence may also be higher. They may also be more prone to Alzheimer’s disease. Because of all of these failures and shortcomings in the stereotypical organized worlds of education and career, they have much lower self-esteem. There are studies that report that up to 52% of people with attention deficit disorder have drug or alcohol problems.
So how can we help these people? How do we treat these illnesses? The number one treatment is behavioral training with a mental health professional. The gist of that is educating them to focus on one thing at a time. They are not able to handle instructions with multiple levels at once, but they can focus on one thing at a time and have success with that. Pharmacologically, ADD and ADHD are generally treated with amphetamine stimulants. Some antidepressantants may also benefit people with attention deficit disorder. Essentially, a combination of behavioral therapies, special education programs and medications show the most promise in the treatment of attention deficit disorder. But a diagnosis of ADD or ADHD isn’t all future doom and gloom. Eventually, people find their niche in the world and can become successful. The actor Ryan Gosling takes medication for his ADD and says that it may take him longer to read his scrips than other actors, but he manages to get the job done. Uber successful comedian Howie Mandel has successfully done just about all there is to do in Hollywood. I have met a lot of CEO’s with ADD, and they function well because they have people around them to take care of all the boring mundane tasks, giving them the chance to think freely and create business opportunities. They are creative and capable people. They are another example of why you can’t judge a book by it’s cover…you can’t assume that someone with a psych diagnosis will never make it in the world. Ask Richard Branson. I think he’s done pretty well for himself in the corporate world despite his ADD. Justin Bieber has ADHD and has managed to record a few hit songs. Olympian Michael Phelps has ADD, depression and anxiety, and that hasn’t stopped him.These are some examples of people that have adapted and overcome their diagnoses rather than be labeled by them. If you have ADD or any psych diagnosis, I’d suggest you follow their lead.
For more patient stories, check out my book Tales from the Couch, on Amazon.com.Learn More
Rather than just introducing you to today’s topic, I want to play a little game of ‘Who am I?’ I’ll give you ten clues and let’s see if you can guess who I am. And no looking down below and cheating!
1. Everyone has me, either intermittently or constantly.
2. I am an unwelcome guest.
3. Some people deal with me better than others do.
4. I keep lots of people up at night.
5. I make some people physically ill.
6. I can shrink your brain.
7. Some people take drugs to deal with me.
8. I can make some people binge, purge, or starve themselves.
9. I can cause a whole host of medical problems.
10. I have a good side, but nobody ever gives me credit for it!
I am defined as “a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension.”
So who am I?
I am STRESS!
I see so many stressed out people every day that I thought I’d do a little educational primer on stress.
Stress is a normal psychological and physical reaction to life’s everyday demands. A small amount of stress can be good. Positive stress is officially called eustress, and it can motivate you to perform well. But multiple challenges throughout the day such as sitting in traffic, meeting deadlines, managing children, and paying bills can push you beyond your ability to cope.
What’s going on in your brain when you feel stress? Your brain comes hard-wired with an alarm system for your protection. When your brain perceives a threat or a stressor, it signals your body to release a burst of hormones, especially cortisol, that increase your heart rate and raise your blood pressure. This is part of the fight or flight mechanism. But once the threat or stressor is gone, your body is meant to return to a normal, relaxed state. Unfortunately,some people’s alarm systems rarely shut off, causing chronic stress. When chronic stress is experienced, the body makes more cortisol than it has a chance to release. This has been shown to kill brain cells and even reduce the size of the brain. Chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. So it’s very important to find effective ways to deal with stress. Stress management gives you a range of tools to reset your brain’s alarm system. Without managing stress, your body might always be on high alert, and over time, this can lead to serious health problems and contribute to mental disorders such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. So don’t wait until stress damages your health, relationships, or quality of life…start practicing some stress management techniques.
To help combat the negative effects of stress and anxiety, here are five tips to help manage stress in your daily life…
1. Follow a Regular Sleep Routine
It may seem like simple advice, but often the simplest advice is the best advice. Following a regular sleep routine can help you decompress, recharge, and rejuvenate your body and mind after a stressful day. Try going to bed at the same time every night and aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep. Resist the urge to stay up late watching TV. In fact, avoid screen time altogether before bed, including tablets and smart phones. Studies have proven that reading on a backlit device before bed interrupts the body’s natural process of falling asleep. These devices also impact how sleepy and alert you are the following day.
2. Use Exercise to Combat Stress
Exercising regularly can have an enormous impact on how your body deals with stress, and it is one of the most recommended ways doctors instruct patients to reduce stress. The endorphins released while exercising can help improve your overall health, reduce stress levels, regulate sleep pattern, and improve mood. The key to exercising is to choose something that you truly enjoy. Whether it’s going for a walk, taking an exercise class at the gym, going for a swim, or lifting weights, exercise keeps us healthy. Make sure to mix up your exercise routine to prevent boredom and stay motivated.
3. Learn How to Meditate
One of the simplest ways to help alleviate stress is to practice deep breathing and meditation. There’s no secret to this, and you don’t have to chant and burn incense or any of that. It’s just about finding a quiet space without distractions. It only takes a few minutes every day, either before bed or first thing in the morning. Breathe in through your nose, letting your abdomen expand. Hold your breath for a count of three, then breathe out slowly through your mouth. Repeat this three times. Focus on your breathing and your heart beat to prevent thinking about everything that you need to do. If doing it in the morning allows stressful thoughts of the upcoming day to intrude, try it at night. Deep breathing is especially important when your stress levels are high. Aim for meditating for at least 15 to 20 minutes, but if you’re feeling pressured during the day, a quick 5-minute meditation session can help you chill out.
4. Take Care of Your Skin
It may not seem like skin care and stress prevention are linked, but they are. Have you ever noticed that your skin is more prone to break out when you’re stressed out? How many times have you gotten up for work all stressed out about a presentation and looked in the mirror only to see a big zit on your nose? For crying out loud…why the heck is that?!!? How does your skin know you have a big presentation? Well, stress causes a chemical response that makes your skin more sensitive. And as we discussed, your body produces more cortisol when stressed, which causes your sebaceous glands to produce more oil. More oil means oily skin that is prone to acne. So it’s important not to neglect your skin care routine, especially when you’re stressed out. This goes for both guys and girls. You may be exhausted at night and want to go straight to bed, but taking an extra few minutes to wash your face and remove daily dirt and any facial products or makeup you’ve worn during the day will make a world of difference. And if you’re prone to oily or dry skin, always choose skin care products that are specifically designed for your skin type. Your skin will thank you for it by surprising you with big red zits less often.
5. Ask For Help When You Need it
Asking for help may not always be easy, but when you need a shoulder to cry on or someone to listen, it can help put things into perspective. Seeking support from family and friends or a professional isn’t a sign of weakness. In fact, it takes courage to admit you need help. Many patients that I see for the first time have been needlessly suffering for so long. I feel terrible for them. There is no reason not to seek help for any ailment affecting your health, especially your mental health. Patients who wait until they start to develop multiple physical and psychiatric issues before seeking help have a much harder time recovering than those who seek help sooner. Remember that friends and family are great support, but if you develop any signs of anxiety or depression or other mental health issues, get help from a licensed mental health professional immediately. In my experience, some patients may need medication, but some do not, they find relief through simple talk therapy with me. It’s very much an individualized assessment. While not a replacement for professional help, you can also look for online support groups for stress management. You’re not the only person who’s ever dealt with a specific stressful situation, so why not discover how other people managed their stress and overcame a potentially frustrating situation.
Hopefully after reading this you have a better understanding of what stress is, how it can impact your physical and mental health, and what you can do to start dealing with it effectively to minimize its role in your life. If you feel you need help, call my office for an appointment. I can help you. For more mental health topics and stories, check out my book Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com or for purchase in my Palm Beach office.Learn More