Category: Mental health

Researchers Have Investigated “Derailment” (Feeling Disconnected From Your Past Self) As A Cause And Consequence Of Depression

GettyImages-1009629756.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

We move house, change jobs, begin new relationships, yet most of the time, most of us still experience a thread of inner continuity – a constant feeling of me-ness that transcends the various chapters of our lives. Indeed, there’s evidence that having a stable, constant sense of self and identity is important for psychological wellbeing. However, this thread can rupture, leading to an uncomfortable disconnect between who we feel we are today, and the person that we believe we used to be – a state that psychologists recently labelled “derailment”.

Now in a paper in Clinical Psychological Science a group led by Kaylin Ratner at Cornell University has explored the possibility that derailment both precipitates, and is a consequence of, depression. After all, people with depression often struggle with motivation, losing the will to pursue goals they previously held dear. They also frequently withdraw from their relationships and social roles. All of these changes could trigger sensations of derailment. Or perhaps derailment comes first, with the inner disorientation leaving one vulnerable to depression. Surprisingly these questions have been little studied before now. “We nominate derailment as a new feature of the depressive landscape and underscore the need for greater empirical and practical attention at the crossroads of mental health and human development,” Ratner and her team write.

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Link Between Teens’ Time On Digital Devices And Lower Wellbeing Is “Too Small To Merit Substantial Scientific Discussion”

GettyImages-649156752.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

My friends and I would often be so hooked on the latest Sega Mega Drive video game that we’d play all day long, breaking only for munchies or when nature called. Our parents would urge (plead with) us to get outside, especially when it was sunny. “The fresh air and exercise will do you good”, they would say, or similar. Fast forward to now, and the anxiety over all the time that children and young people spend in front of screens, be it playing video games, watching TV or using social media, has of course only intensified. Surely it can’t be mentally or physically healthy, can it?

As we look to psychologists to provide an answer, we find a field divided. At one extreme, some experts point to survey data throwing up apparently worrying correlations between increased screen time and increased mental health problems. Yet other experts are sceptical, in part because of what they see as the poor quality of much of the correlational evidence for harm.

In this latter camp are Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski at the University of Oxford, the authors of a recent paper in Psychological Science, which aims to set new standards for research in this area – including by using time-use diary-based reports of screen time (rather than relying on notoriously unreliable retrospective reports), and by pre-registering their methods and hypotheses, thus guarding against the kind of post-hoc data-mining that they say has plagued the field.

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People Who Self-Harm May Be Compensating For Their Difficulty Interpreting Bodily Signals of Emotion

GettyImages-896352582.jpgBy Emma Young

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel

From Hurt by Nine Inch Nails

Deliberate self-injury (without the intent to commit suicide) is widely thought to be a way that some people, especially teenagers and young adults, cope with or express feelings that they find overwhelming. However, a set of three studies published as a preprint at PsyArXiv by psychologists at Swansea University, reveals that difficulties with perceiving and interpreting the bodily signals of emotion may also play a role – a finding that could help inspire new treatment approaches. 

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New Insights Into Hikikomori – People Who Withdraw From Society For Months Or Years On End

GettyImages-1054361866.jpgBy Emma Young

Hikikomori is a dark term that describes people who stay holed up in their homes, or even just their bedrooms, isolated from everyone except their family, for many months or years. The phenomenon has captured the popular imagination with many articles appearing in the mainstream media in recent years, but, surprisingly, it isn’t well understood by psychologists. 

The condition was first described in Japan, but cases have since been reported in countries as far apart as Oman, Indian, the US and Brazil. No one knows how many hikikomori exist (the term refers both to the condition and the people with it), but surveys suggest that 1.79 per cent of Japanese people aged 15-39 meet the criteria. However, while some assumptions about risk factors have been made, based largely on reports of specific cases, there has been a lack of population-based research. A new study, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, plugs some of the knowledge gaps. 

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Study Finds Microdosing Psychedelics Can Be Beneficial, But Not In The Way That Users Most Expect

GettyImages-967113414.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

What if you could take a psychedelic drug regularly in such tiny quantities that the immediate effects were not discernible, yet over time it led to a range of psychological benefits, especially enhanced focus and heightened creativity? That’s the principle behind “microdosing” – a controversial technique that’s exploded in popularity ever since the publication of a 2011 book The Psychedelic Explorers Guide and a 2015 Rolling Stone article titled How LSD Microdosing Became The Hot New Business Trip. Large online communities of microdosing enthusiasts have since emerged on sites like Reddit, where dosing tips are shared and the supposed manifold benefits of the practice are espoused.

However, actual scientific investigations into the effects of microdosing can be counted on one hand. Earlier this year, PLOS One published one of the few systematic investigations ever conducted into the practice, by Vince Polito and Richard Stevenson at Macquarie University. Though exploratory and tentative due to “legal and bureaucratic” obstacles (meaning there was no placebo control or randomisation in this research), the results suggest that microdosing can be beneficial, although not in the ways that users most expect, and not necessarily for everyone.

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There Is Limited Evidence To Support The Widely Held Belief That Psychotherapy Changes The Body As Well As The Mind

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By guest blogger Tomasz Witkowski

Looking at the latest epidemiological data, it could be argued that we are in the midst of a pandemic of mental illness, of dimensions never before seen in human history. The WHO estimates that over 350 million people around the world are presently suffering from depression, which constitutes almost 5-6 per cent of the population. At its extreme, depression may lead to suicide, by which it is estimated that around 1 million people die every year. And the numbers continue growing. Faced with this rising tide of illness, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of hard facts and data indicating the paths researchers and clinicians may follow in search of ways to help. Sometimes, as suggested by a meta-analysis of 50 years of studies on indicators that help predict suicide attempts, we are entirely helpless. In other cases, like with the recent meta-analysis of the neural correlates of the changes brought about by psychotherapy in depressed brains, study results do bring us hope. 

The results of the first systematic review and meta-analysis of biological markers evaluated in randomized trials of psychological treatments for depression in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews are another attempt at understanding methods of treating this terrifying illness. The authors – Ioana A. Cristea, Eirini Karyotaki, Steven D. Hollon, Pim Cuijpers and Claudio Gentili – quite rightly point out that understanding how psychological interventions impact or are impacted by biological variables has important implications. For many people, their depression co-occurs with a bodily illness, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and immune system and neurological disorders, and at times is a consequence of that illness. Although we still know little about the reciprocal cause-and-effect mechanisms between psychic and somatic symptoms, some studies have suggested that psychological interventions not only change mood, but also normalise the functioning of the autonomic nervous system, with a therapeutic effect on physical conditions, such as heart disease. But is this really true?

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Exploratory Research Identifies A Novel Way To Beat Anxiety – Zapping The Vestibular System

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Anxiety scores before and after 38 or 76 mins stimulation of the vestibular system (and before/after “sham” treatment) via Pasquier et al, 2019

By Emma Young

When we think of ways to calm ourselves via our senses, the obvious is to listen to relaxing music, have a massage, or perhaps to gaze upon a rustic scene. However, evidence is growing for a far less obvious option involving the vestibular system (located in the inner ear), which detects the position and movement of the head. According to a recent study, gentle rocking helps adults to fall asleep for a nap, and to sleep more soundly during an entire night, with the researchers who conducted that research hypothesising that the effect is driven by the vestibular system. Now new exploratory work by a different team provides further hints that stimulating the vestibular system can help to calm the brain — in this case, apparently reducing anxiety. 

For the new study in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, led by Florane Pasquier at the University of Caen Normandy, the 22 healthy young adult participants weren’t physically rocked. Rather, electrodes, placed behind their ears, delivered a very mild, 1mA current to stimulate the nerves that carry signals from the individual components of the vestibular system to the brain. This technique is called galvanic vestibular stimulation (GVS). 

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“Skunk” Cannabis Disrupts Brain Networks – But Effects Are Blocked In Other Strains

Human head with marijuana leaf iconBy Matthew Warren

Over the past decade, neuroimaging studies have provided new insights into how psychoactive drugs alter the brain’s activity. Psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – has been found to reduce activity in brain regions involved in depression, for example, while MDMA seems to augment brain activity for positive memories.

Now a new study sheds some light into what’s going in the brain when people smoke cannabis – and it turns out that the effects can be quite different depending on the specific strain of the drug. The research, published recently in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, suggests that cannabis disrupts particular brain networks – but some strains can buffer against this disruption.

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Why Do People With Depression Like Listening To Sad Music?

By Christian Jarrett

We all know the powerful effect that music can have on mood. You might be feeling rather chirpy, but then a tear-jerker comes on the car radio and you arrive home feeling morose (conversely, of course, happy tunes can lift our spirits). For most of us, these effects are not a big deal. But what if you are living with depression? Now the implications become more serious. And, according to a provocative study published a few years ago, far from seeking out uplifting music, people diagnosed with depression are notably more inclined than healthy controls to choose to listen to sad music (and look at sad images). The controversial implication is that depressed people deliberately act in ways that are likely to maintain their low mood. Now a study in the journal Emotion has replicated this finding, but the researchers also present evidence suggesting depressed people are not seeking to maintain their negative feelings, but rather that they find sad music calming and even uplifting.

“The current study is the most definitive to date in probing depression-related preferences for sad music using different tasks, and the reasons for these preferences,” write the team at the University of South Florida, led by Sunkyung Yoon.

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To Boost Your Self-esteem, Write About Chapters Of Your Life

GettyImages-643844240.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity. Writing in the 1950s, the psychologist Erik Erikson put it this way:

To be adult means among other things to see one’s own life in continuous perspective, both in retrospect and in prospect … to selectively reconstruct his past in such a way that, step for step, it seems to have planned him, or better, he seems to have planned it.

Alongside your chosen values and goals in life, and your personality traits – how sociable you are, how much of a worrier and so on – your life story as you tell it makes up the final part of what in 2015 the personality psychologist Dan P McAdams at Northwestern University in Illinois called the “personological trinity”.

Of course, some of us tell these stories more explicitly than others – one person’s narrative identity might be a barely formed story at the edge of their consciousness, whereas another person might literally write out their past and future in a diary or memoir.

Intriguingly, there’s some evidence that prompting people to reflect on and tell their life stories – a process called “life review therapy” – could be psychologically beneficial. However, most of this work has been on older adults and people with pre-existing problems such as depression or chronic physical illnesses. It remains to be established through careful experimentation whether prompting otherwise healthy people to reflect on their lives will have any immediate benefits.

A relevant factor in this regard is the tone, complexity and mood of the stories that people tell themselves. For instance, it’s been shown that people who tell more positive stories, including referring to more instances of personal redemption, tend to enjoy higher self-esteem and greater “self-concept clarity” (the confidence and lucidity in how you see yourself). Perhaps engaging in writing or talking about one’s past will have immediate benefits only for people whose stories are more positive.

In a recent paper in the Journal of Personality, Kristina L Steiner at Denison University in Ohio and her colleagues looked into these questions and reported that writing about chapters in your life does indeed lead to a modest, temporary self-esteem boost, and that in fact this benefit arises regardless of how positive your stories are. However, there were no effects on self-concept clarity, and many questions on this topic remain for future study.

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