The first step to dealing with a negative emotion is to identify it. If you’re feeling irritated, restless or guilty, the most effective way to start feeling better will be different in each case. The trouble is, if your sense of your own emotions is not that fine-grained – if you feel just “bad” or “upset” – you may struggle to identify the cause of your distress, making it tricky to self-regulate your emotions.
Plenty of studies have linked a poor ability to differentiate between negative emotions (known as “low Negative Emotion Differentiation” or “low NED” for short) to depression. But this work has mostly been conducted at a single point in time (i.e. having a “cross-sectional” design), making it impossible to tell whether difficulties with emotional differentiation cause depression or vice versa. The research has also overwhelmingly involved adults, and yet it is adolescence that is most marked by low NED (even more than in early childhood) and depression. This mismatch in the literature motivated Lisa Starr at the University of Rochester and her colleagues to conduct a longitudinal study on adolescents, published recently in Emotion. They looked not only at teenagers’ NED and depressive symptoms over time, but also their experience of minor daily hassles and more serious stressful life events.
You may be best advised not to read this article late at night or before you eat. Psychologists at the National Institute of Mental Health and Charles University in the Czech Republic have surveyed a large sample of non-clinical volunteers to gauge their reaction to 24 creatures that are commonly the source of specific animal phobias.
The results, published in the British Journal of Psychology, not only contribute to our understanding of animal phobias, but could prove incredibly useful to horror writers. Among the key findings is that spiders were unique in being both intensely fear- and disgust-inducing in equal measure. The researchers said this may be due to their mix of disgusting properties – including their “quirky ‘too-many-legs’ body plan” – combined with the fact they are “…omnipresent in our homes, often lurking in the hidden dark places and capable of fast unpredictable movement.” In other words, the intense fear arises in part from the prospect of coming into physical contact with a creature perceived by many to be revolting.
Hearing voices that don’t exist in the outside world is the most common form of hallucination experienced by people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia or related conditions and it can be very distressing. However, there is a growing recognition that hearing voices is not always pathological. Many mentally well people hear voices (or “auditory verbal hallucinations”) – in fact, around 6-7 per cent of adults in the general population report having had such experiences at some point in their lives.
This has led some experts to propose a “continuum model” in which the same fundamental underlying mechanism leads to hearing voices in healthy people and in patients with a clinical diagnosis, but that for various reasons, such as a traumatic past, the experience is more troublesome and distressing for the patients. However, a new open-access paper in Schizophrenia Bulletin challenges the continuum model, finding an important brain difference between patients who hear voices and voice-hearing healthy controls.
Loneliness is a “disease”, associated with an increased risk of death equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Strides have been made in understanding what form of loneliness is damaging(a lack of close relationships with other people, rather than a lack of relationships per se), but ways to tackle loneliness are badly needed. Now a new study, available as a preprint on PsyArXiv, reveals a way in which loneliness seems to be maintained and, therefore, a potential route to an intervention.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?