Category: Mental health

Young Men Who Endorse The Masculine Ideal of Success Enjoy Greater Psychological Wellbeing

By Christian Jarrett

Recently it’s been difficult to avoid the mantra that masculinity is toxic. There’s that viral Gillette advert encouraging men to be nicer (provoking a mix of praise, scorn and outrage); and the claim from the American Psychological Association (APA), in its promotion for its new guidelines on working with men and boys, that “traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful” – a message welcomed by some, but criticised by many others, including Steven Pinker who dubbed it “ludicrous” and the British clinical neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell, who described the campaign as “an amazing misfire“.

The APA report has been criticised on many grounds, including its oversight of the biological roots of masculinity, but the most frequently mentioned issue is with the overly simplistic, sweeping nature of the “masculinity is toxic” message. Traditional masculinity clearly reflects a host of values, beliefs and behaviours, some of which may indeed be harmful in certain circumstances, but some of which may also be beneficial, at least some of the time. Coincidentally, a paper in the January issue of the APA journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity captures just a little of this complexity.

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The physiological stress response is larger in the morning than evening

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The real-world implications are far from clear and the result needs to be replicated with larger samples

By Emma Young

When’s the best time of day to give someone bad news? First thing in the morning or early evening? Yes, if it’s in the morning, they have longer to work out what to do about it, but you might be better off plumping for the evening because according to a new study, published open-access in Neuropsychopharmacology, they’re likely to suffer less of a physiological stress response at this time. 

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A new review looks into the optimum exercise intensity, type and duration for boosting mood

By Christian Jarrett

It’s well-known that physical exercise is beneficial not just to physical health but also our mental health. Yet whereas most countries have detailed, evidence-backed guidelines on the type and intensity of exercise required for various physical health benefits, such guidelines do not yet exist for exercise and mood. This is partly due to a lack of necessary evidence. However, a new systematic review in The Journal of Psychology Interdisciplinary and Applied brings us usefully up-to-date on the current findings in this area, collating evidence from 38 relevant studies that examined the associations between exercise intensity, duration and modality and any effects on mood.

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New findings suggest post-traumatic growth may often be illusory

GettyImages-502659354.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

After a trauma many people have the sense it has changed them for the better, such as granting them a new appreciation for life or improving their relationships. This has given rise to the appealing notion that there is such a thing as “post-traumatic growth”. However, the majority of investigations into this phenomenon have relied on asking people whether they believe they have changed; very few have assessed people prior to a trauma and then re-assessed them afterwards to see if positive changes have actually occurred.

A new study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships is the first to apply this kind of “prospective design” in the context of relationship breakups in young adults, and – unfortunately for anyone who found comfort and inspiration in the principle of post-traumatic growth – the authors Meghan Owenz and Blaine Fowers say their findings are more consistent with the idea that such growth is mostly illusory, the result of a positive re-appraisal of the breakup and one’s current situation.

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For these people with depression, all treatment approaches had failed, but then they adopted a pet …

GettyImages-824538424.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

For people diagnosed with what’s known as “treatment-resistant major depressive disorder” the prognosis is not good – the low mood and emotional pain for these individuals has not lifted even though they are on a combination of antidepressant medications and may also have participated in psychotherapy. However a glimmer of hope comes via a research group in Portugal who reported recently in the Journal of Psychiatric Research that adopting a pet “enhanced” the effects of anti-depressant medication for a significant minority of their participants with previously treatment-resistant depression.

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Have you got a “self-actualised” personality? A new test brings Maslow’s ideas into the 21st century

By Christian Jarrett

Writing in the last century, Abraham Maslow (pictured left), one of the founders of Humanistic Psychology, proposed that the path to self-transcendence, and ultimately a greater compassion for all of humanity, requires “self-actualisation” – that is, fulfilling your true potential and becoming your authentic self.

Now Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist at Barnard College, Columbia University, believes it is time to revive the concept and link it with contemporary psychological theory. “We live in times of increasing divides, selfish concerns, and individualistic pursuits of power,” Kaufman wrote recently in Scientific American in a blog post introducing his new research. He hopes that rediscovering the principles of self-actualisation may be just the tonic that the modern world is crying out for. To this end, he’s used modern statistical methods to create a test of self-actualisation, or more specifically, of the 10 characteristics exhibited by self-actualised people, and it’s published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

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The mood-stabilising effect of taking the pill has “downstream benefits” for women’s relationships, claims new study

GettyImages-174544004.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

In western nations, the vast majority of sexually active women take the birth control pill at some point in their lives, usually to avoid becoming pregnant. Of increasing interest to some psychologists, the hormone-stabilising effects of the pill may have other important effects, including on the psyche and personal relationships, and these are the focus of a new study in Neurology, Psychiatry and Brain Research.

Some earlier studies found that women who take the pill report more emotional stability, in terms of experiencing fewer depressive symptoms, and fewer mental health problems more generally (of course this is not true of all women, in fact some women describe unwanted emotional effects from the pill). There also appear to be what Tenille Taggart at San Diego State University and her colleagues refer to as “downstream benefits” of taking the pill, including greater relationship stability and satisfaction.

However, before now, no study has measured these two outcomes (emotional stability and relationship satisfaction) simultaneously. Taggart’s team have done this and their results suggest that a key reason that women who take the pill (oral contraceptives; OCs) tend to enjoy more satisfying relationships is because they have more stable emotions.

“Our results support previous findings that OCs may confer positive psychological benefits, and that one of these, mood stability, may have diffuse effects on women’s broader wellbeing and functioning,” they write.

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Repeatedly watching a video of themselves touching a filthy bedpan reduced people’s OCD symptoms

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Another version of this new video-based smartphone intervention involved participants watching their own earlier hand washing

By Emma Young

Almost half of people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) have extreme fears about touching something they feel is “contaminated”. This can mean that after touching a doorknob, say, they then feel compelled to scrub their hands, in some cases even until they bleed.

Conventional treatments, which often involve a combination of a prescription drug (typically an “SSRI”, such as Prozac) plus cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), help only about 60 per cent of people with OCD, so there’s an urgent need for additional treatments. Now in Scientific Reports, Baland Jalal at the University of Cambridge and colleagues present initial data suggesting that a simple video intervention, delivered via a phone app, might help. 

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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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