Category: Mental health

“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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Brazilian Researchers Say Smartphone Addiction Is Real, And That It’s Associated With Impaired Decision-making

GettyImages-525949841.jpgBy Emma Young

Smartphone addiction (SA) is a controversial concept that is not recognised by psychiatry as a formal diagnosis. Critics say that a problematic relationship with one’s phone is usually a symptom of deeper underlying issues and that it is inappropriate to apply the language of addiction to technology. Nonetheless, other mental health experts believe SA is real and they’ve accumulated evidence suggesting it is associated with reductions in academic and work performance, sleep disorders, symptoms of depression and loneliness, declines in wellbeing – and an increased risk of road traffic accidents. According to a group of psychiatry and psychology researchers at one of the largest universities in Brazil, to that list can now be added: poorer decision-making. 

Studies suggest that the numbers of people with notional SA (defined by difficulty in controlling use of the smartphone, constant preoccupation with the possibility of being without it, and poor mood when it is taken away) are high – about 25 per cent of the population in the US; 10 per cent of adolescents in the UK; and a massive 43 per cent of people in Brazil, where the new research, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, was conducted. 

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First Study To Explore What It’s Like To Live With Avoidant Personality Disorder: “Safe When Alone, Yet Lost In Their Aloneness”

By Christian Jarrett

In the first study of its kind, researchers have asked people to describe in their own words what it’s like to live with Avoidant Personality Disorder (AVPD) – a diagnosis defined by psychiatrists as “a pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation”. Like all personality disorder diagnoses, AVPD is controversial, with some critics questioning whether it is anything other than an extreme form of social phobia.

To shed new light on the issue, lead author Kristine D. Sørensen, a psychologist, twice interviewed 15 people receiving outpatient treatment for AVPD: 9 women, 6 men, with an average age of 33, and none of them in work. Writing in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, Sørensen and her colleagues said the overarching theme to emerge from the in-depth interviews was the participants’ struggle to be a person. “They felt safe when alone yet lost in their aloneness,” the researchers said. They “longed to connect with others yet feared to get close.” In the researchers’ opinion, the participants’ profound difficulties with their “core self” and in their dealings with others do indeed correspond to “a personality disorder diagnosis”.

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There Are Sex Differences In The Trajectory Of Depression Symptoms Through Adolescence, With Implications For Treatment And Prevention

By Matthew Warren

It’s well known that teenagers’ moods go through drastic changes. In particular, depressive symptoms – like feelings of low mood or self-loathing – tend to increase as they grow older. Now researchers have plotted out the exact trajectory of these depressive symptoms. In their recent paper in Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Alex Kwong and colleagues from the University of Bristol report for the first time the points during teen development when symptoms increase most rapidly, on average – and they find that these timings differ between young men and women.

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A New Study Has Investigated Who Watched The ISIS Beheading Videos, Why, And What Effect It Had On Them

GettyImages-458984485.jpgBy Emma Young

In the summer of 2014, two videos were released that shocked the world. They showed the beheadings, by ISIS, of two American journalists – first, James Foley and then Steven Sotloff. Though the videos were widely discussed on TV, print and online news, most outlets did not show the full footage. However, it was not difficult to find links to the videos online. At the time, Sarah Redmond at the University of California, Irvine and her colleagues were already a year into a longitudinal study to assess psychological responses to the Boston Marathon Bombing, which happened in April 2013. They realised that they could use the same nationally representative sample of US adults to investigate what kind of person chooses to watch an ISIS beheading – and why. Their findings now appear in a paper published in American Psychologist. 

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This Diary Study Just Happened To Be Taking Place When Disaster Struck, Providing A Rare Insight Into Vicarious Experience Of Traumatic Events

GettyImages-452721474.jpgBy Matthew Warren

Major disasters clearly take a toll on the survivors who had the misfortune to go through them. But there is another group of people who can suffer mental and physical distress from disasters: those who experience them second-hand, through media coverage and conversation. After 9/11, for example, researchers found an increase in symptoms of depression and stress among Americans who hadn’t directly experienced the terrorist attacks. 

But there have always been doubts about studies purporting to show evidence of vicarious distress. Because disasters occur randomly researchers are usually unable to gather data until weeks after the event, and they often have no record of people’s baseline mood before the disaster.

By chance a new study was able to overcome these limitations. When tragedy struck the Netherlands in 2014, there was a ready-made group of participants who were already recording their daily experiences. In May of that year, Bertus Jeronimus and colleagues at the University of Groningen had begun a crowd-sourced diary study called “HowNutsAreTheDutch” to examine mental health in the Netherlands. Three times per day for 30 days, participants completed questionnaires on their phones that measured their mood and recent activities. 

Two months into the project, on 17 July 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down over Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists, killing all 298 on board. One hundred and ninety-six of the victims were Dutch and the disaster received widespread attention in the Dutch media.

For their study published recently in the British Journal of Psychology, Jeronimus and colleagues took advantage of this tragic twist of fate and examined the data gathered from 141 participants who were taking part around the time of the MH17 crash, to see how they were affected by their vicarious experience of the disaster.

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Different Kinds Of Loneliness – Having Poor Quality Relationships Is Associated With Greater Distress Than Having Too Few

By Emma Young

Loneliness not only feels bad, experts have characterised it as a disease that increases the risk of a range of physical and psychological disorders. Some national prevalence estimates for loneliness are alarming. Although they can be as low as 4.4 per cent (in Azerbaijan), in other countries (such as Denmark) as many as 20 per cent of adults report being either moderately or severely lonely. 

However, there’s no established way of identifying loneliness. Most diagnostic methods treat it as a one-dimensional construct: though it can vary in degrees, someone is either “lonely”, or they’re not. A new approach, outlined in a paper published recently in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, suggests that loneliness should in fact be divided into three sub-types, two of which are associated with poor mental health. 

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There Are Some Intriguing Differences Between The USA And Japan In How Emotions Influence Health

By Emma Young

Feeling good in an emotional sense helps to foster better physical health – at least that’s what’s been found in studies in the West. But “feeling good” doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in all cultures. In the US, people tend to report that being excited and experiencing other so-called “high arousal positive (HAP) states” is what makes them feel good. Many people in Japan, however, place greater value on the opposite extreme, viewing calm, quiet “low arousal positive (LAP) states” as more pleasant and desirable. So, does this mean that engaging more often in stimulating activities – like a fitness work-out or a party – will make for better health in US citizens, while for people in Japan, engaging in more calming activities – like taking frequent baths – will have more of a beneficial effect? A new paper, published in Emotion, which explores this question, reveals some clear cultural variations – though not all of them are as the researchers predicted.  

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