Category: Mental health

This is how psychotherapy for depression changes the brain

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Participants with major depression showed increased activity in left rostral anterior cingulate cortex following psychological therapy – see main text for details. Image via Sankar et al, 2018

By Alex Fradera

In recent years, researchers have sought to look under the hood to understand the neural correlates of the changes brought about by psychotherapy. Not only can such understanding help us hone in on the precise processes that are being acted upon in therapy, thus helping us focus on these gains, they could also show where pharmacological interventions might be complementary, and where they could directly obstruct the therapeutic work. Now a systematic review and meta-analysis in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging has outlined all we know so far about how therapy changes the depressed brain, and it suggests key changes occur in emotional processing areas.

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Deliberately scaring ourselves can calm the brain, leading to a “recalibration” of our emotions

GettyImages-1023185208.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Among the many paradoxes of human nature is this: while many of us spend great time and energy trying to avoid negative emotions, like fear and disgust, there are others who, in an apparent act of emotional masochism, pay good money deliberately seeking out those same unpleasant feelings. Like the visitors to the Basement immersive theatre attraction at the ScareHouse in Pittsburgh, who spend $31 to “enjoy” being hooded, mildly electrocuted, stabbed (in a simulated fashion), and locked in a coffin, among other delights.

A team of researchers, led by Margee Kerr at the University of Pittsburgh, believe they may have resolved the paradox, although they caution that their findings are exploratory. For their new paper in Emotion, they set up a temporary EEG (electroencephalography) lab in a closet in the Basement attraction and found evidence that for many people who willingly submit themselves to an intensely frightening experience, the reward is a boost to their mood and energy, accompanied by a reduction in their neural reactivity. Taken together these effects could be indicative of a beneficial recalibration of their emotions – after you have been scared witless, the mundane travails of life are a breeze.

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The public “deserve to know” that there is an overlooked subset of people who thrive after major depression

GettyImages-523561713.jpgBy Emma Young

Depression is a chronic, recurrent, lifelong condition. Well, that’s the current orthodox view – but it is overstated, argues a team of psychologists led by Jonathan Rottenberg at the University of South Florida. “A significant subset of people recover and thrive after depression, yet research on such individuals has been rare,” they write in their recent paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science. They propose a definition for “high functioning after depression” (HFAD); argue that the advice given to people with depression need not be so gloomy; and lay out key areas for future research.

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Researchers find the most plausible cause of wellbeing decline in youth is increased screen time

A new paper analyses wellbeing and lifestyle data from over a million US youth

By Alex Fradera

Have young people never had it so good, or do they face more challenges than any generation? Our current era in the West is one of high wealth and relatively free of deprivation, meaning minors enjoy material benefits and legal protections that would be the envy of those living in the past. But there is an increasing suspicion that all is not well for our youth, and one of the most popular explanations, among some experts and the popular media, is that excessive “screen time” is to blame (all the attention young people devote to their phones, tablets and laptops). However, this is a contentious theory and such claims have been treated sceptically by some scholars based on their reading of the relevant data. 

Now a study in the journal Emotion has provided another contribution to the debate, uncovering strong evidence that adolescent wellbeing in the USA really is experiencing a decline, and arguing that the most likely culprit is the electronic riches we have given them. 

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Are emos, goths and rockers at increased risk of self-harm and suicide?

GettyImages-106549410.jpgBy Alex Fradera

Every year three quarters of a million people take their own lives, and suicide is the leading cause of death in adolescents. Non-lethal self-harm is also prolific, leading annually to around 300,000 UK hospital visits, with even more going unreported. Knowing who is at most risk can inform support and prevention efforts. The higher rates of self-harm in LGBT and minority groups are well-established, and now a new review article in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology identifies other groups, including goths, emos and metalheads, who may also be at increased risk.

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Can attachment theory help explain the relationship some people have with their “anorexia voice”?

GettyImages-507801456.jpgBy Alex Fradera

A new paper in Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice argues that the relationship a person has with their eating disorder is shaped by that person’s understanding of what meaningful relationships should look like – and, in turn, this can have important consequences for the severity of their disorder.

In particular, Emma Forsén Mantilla and her team from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden wanted to better understand eating disorders through “attachment theory”. This is the idea that relationships with primary caregivers become scripts that we lean on to tell us how relationships “work”. 

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Can hallucinations lead to post-traumatic growth?

GettyImages-586368522.jpgBy Alex Fradera

If you contemplate how a person’s life would be changed by starting to hear or see things others can’t, can you imagine it could offer anything good? A research team from Hull university and the surrounding NHS trusts suggest that among the tumult, hallucinations can also offer opportunities for growth. Writing in the Journal of Psychology and Psychotherapy, lead author Lily Dixon and her team detail the experiences of seven people who have lived with verbal or auditory hallucinations and how, amid the struggles, their journeys have taken them to some positive places.

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“Act more like an extravert” intervention has “wholly positive” benefits for many, but there are drawbacks for introverts

GettyImages-865386082.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

For decades, personality psychologists have noticed a striking, consistent pattern: extraverts are happier more of the time than introverts. For anyone interested in promoting wellbeing, this has raised the question of whether it might be beneficial to encourage people to act more extraverted. Evidence to date has suggested it might.

For example, regardless of their usual disposition, people tend to report feeling happier and more authentic whenever they are behaving more like an extravert (that is, more sociable, active and assertive). That’s a mere correlation that could be interpreted in different ways. But lab studies have similarly found that prompting people, including introverts, to act more like an extravert makes them feel happier and truer to themselves.

Before we all start doing our best extravert impressions in pursuit of greater happiness, though, a team of researchers led by Rowan Jacques-Hamilton at the University of Melbourne urge caution, writing in their new pre-print at PsyArXiv :

“Until we have a well-rounded understanding of both the positive and negative consequences of extraverted behaviour, advocating any real-world applications of acting extraverted could be premature and potentially hazardous.”

To help, these researchers have conducted the first ever randomised-controlled trial of an “act more extraverted” intervention, and unlike in previous research, they looked beyond the lab at the positive and negative effects of such an intervention on people’s feelings in daily life.

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For some, experiencing trauma may act as a form of cognitive training that increases their mental control

By Emma Young

That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger… It’s an adage that’s backed up in part by studies of people who’ve been through a trauma, such as a car accident or a robbery. While it’s true that around 7-8 per cent of trauma survivors develop chronic PTSD and experience persistent intrusive, unwanted memories of the event, most people recover quickly, and some even report better mental health than they had before (generally when the trauma has been moderate, rather than severe). But what underpins so-called “post-traumatic growth?” A new paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, argues that it has to do with trauma triggering a form of mental training that increases some survivors’ control over their own minds. 

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Preliminary evidence suggests women may be better role jugglers than men

Women took only the positive from work into the home (and vice versa), while for men it was the stress that spilt over

By Emma Young

Juggling home and work commitments is never easy, and yet there’s been surprisingly little research into how either demands – or support – at home or work may spillover into the other context. Does a frustrating or combative workday negatively affect family life that evening, for instance? Or if your partner is emotionally supportive when you both get home, will you “pass it on”, and be more supportive of colleagues the next day? And, are men and women affected in the same ways? A new paper, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, provides some provocative answers. 

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