According to the World Health Organisation, someone takes their own life every 45 seconds. To help prevent future tragedies, we need to know more about the factors that make some people especially vulnerable to suicidal thoughts and acting on those thoughts. One candidate is perfectionism: the tendency some people have to hold themselves to consistently impossible standards and/or feeling the need to meet or surpass the lofty expectations of others.
In 1995 the late psychologist Sidney Blatt highlighted the apparent link between perfectionism and suicide in an influential article for American Psychologist titled “The Destructiveness of Perfectionism” in which he profiled three highly talented, ambitious but harshly self-critical individuals all of whom took their own lives: Vincent Foster, a deputy counsel to President Bill Clinton; writer, singer and broadcaster Alasdair Clayre; and athlete and scholar Roger D Hansen.
“Because of the need to maintain a personal and public image of strength and perfection, [perfectionists] are constantly trying to prove themselves, are always on trial, feel vulnerable to any possible implication of failure or criticism, and often are unable to turn to others, even the closest of confidants, for help or to share their anguish” Blatt wrote.
However, since Blatt’s paper, research progress on the topic has been slow, hampered in part by a confusing multitude of definitions of perfectionism and a paucity of studies with the longitudinal methodology needed to establish that perfectionist tendencies increase suicidal risk. But now, writing in Journal of Personality, a team led by Martin Smith at the University of Western Ontario say there is enough data to conduct a “meta-analysis”, which is what they’ve done, producing “the most comprehensive test of the perfectionism-suicidality link to date”.
I confess, I’ve tried having an alcoholic drink before giving a public speech, telling myself that it will take the edge off my nerves. But I’m going to think twice before doing so again: a new study in Behaviour Research and Therapy carefully monitored the effects of moderate alcohol intake on the speech-giving performance of socially anxious and control participants and while the alcohol made the nervous folk feel more relaxed, it actually harmed their performance.
“After decades of debate, a consensus is emerging about the way self-esteem develops across the lifespan.” So wrote a pair of psychologists – one from Kings College London, the other from the University of California Davis – in a paper published back in 2005. That “consensus” is that self-esteem is relatively high in childhood, drops during adolescence, rises gradually through adulthood before dropping sharply in old age. But a new paper suggests that there’s a major blip in this pattern for one huge part of the population. Becoming a mother triggers a decline in self-esteem and relationship satisfaction over at least the next three years, according to research on nearly 85,000 mothers in Norway, forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Heralded as a revolution in mental health care – a cost-effective way to deliver evidence-based psychological help to large numbers – low-intensity Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is recommended by NICE, the independent health advisory body in England and Wales, for mild to moderate depression and anxiety and is a key part of the “Improving Access to Psychological Therapies” programme in those countries. Prior studies into its effectiveness have been promising. However, little research has looked at whether the benefits last.
A new study in Behaviour Research and Therapy has done that, following a cohort of people with depression and anxiety over time. Disappointingly, the team led by Shehzad Ali at the University of York, found that after completing low-intensity CBT, more than one in two service users had relapsed within 12 months.
Your personality describes your behavioural tendencies, your habits of thought and ways of relating to the world. For instance, some of us find it a lot harder to keep our negative emotions in check, which is measured by the Big Five personality trait of neuroticism (or “emotional instability”). It seems logical that people with this kind of disposition might be more prone to developing mental health problems like anxiety and depression, and indeed many studies suggest this to be the case.
From a scientific perspective, however, it’s not clear which comes first: perhaps mental health problems contribute to a more neurotic personality, or maybe living through adversity contributes to a neurotic personality and mental health difficulties.
An important new study in European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience helps clarify the picture because it is the first, to the researchers’ knowledge, to look simultaneously at people’s personality, life events and mental health problems as they unfold over time. Though they come with important caveats, the findings suggest that some people have a personality profile that predisposes them to mental health problems, to more serious mental health problems when they occur, and even to more adverse life events.
You’ve just had a fight with your partner or a confrontation with a colleague. Now your heart’s racing, and you’re struggling to think straight. What should you do?
Psychologists are not short on ideas for how to calm yourself down after a stressful experience. Seek out a friend? Yes, there’s good evidence that can help. But what if there’s no friend to hand? You could try to alter your view of what just happened from “Disaster!” to “Not really so bad”.
But it can be difficult to engage in this kind of “cognitive reappraisal” when you’re in the immediate aftermath of a stressful event – perhaps because acute stress compromises the neural circuitry that’s involved in emotion regulation.
Your brain needs help if it’s to quickly regain control. And, according to a new study published in Nature Human Behaviour, you can provide it by thinking back over good times.
They say that if you can laugh at it, you can live with it. Is this true? Does the ability to see the funny side of things really act like a psychological shield against stress? A series of new studies in Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin provides some tentative support for the idea. But the research also illustrates why this is such a difficult topic to study – does humour really reduce stress or is it just easier to see the funny side when you are coping well? And it’s worth remembering the serious risk that if humour is shown to be protective by psychology research – and it’s a big if – that those who suffer most from stress will be put under social pressure to help themselves by cheering up, a situation only likely to intensify their distress.
At least one in four readers of this post will die of cancer. This is a simple statistic that leads rationally thinking people to treat the possibility as very likely. And this is what many do: they try to adopt a lifestyle that minimises the risk to some degree. But how do we know what minimises and what increases this risk? Of course, by listening to experts, the best of whom are scientists who research these things. However, whenever there is disquiet brought about by uncertainty, self-titled experts come out of the woodwork. Discussion of factors increasing the risk of cancer is today not only the domain of medical doctors and psycho-oncologists, but is also engaged in by some alternative medicine proponents, pseudopsychologists, and fringe psychotherapists, whose opinions are disseminated by journalists, some more thorough than others (see myth #26 in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology for more background).
Among these opinions is the common claim that negative thinking, pessimism, and stress create the conditions for the cells in our body to run amok, and for cancer to develop. Similar declarations accompany therapeutic propositions for changing our way of thinking into a more positive one that will protect us from cancer, or even cure us of the disease. Should you, therefore, begin to fear the possibility of cancer if you are not prone to optimism, or – even worse – have bouts of depression?
Already substantial evidence suggests that feeling lonely – regardless of whether we actually are socially isolated based on our number of relationships – is bad for our health, affecting our odds of developing heart disease and other chronic conditions. A new study in Health Psychology extends this literature by showing that feelings of loneliness, but not levels of social isolation, seem to increase the toll of acute illness, in this case by worsening the subjective experience of having a cold.
The researchers, led by Angie LeRoy at the University of Houston and Rice University, said their findings could be useful for helping doctors understand their patients’ different experiences of short-term illnesses. It also provides yet more evidence for why interventions aimed at reducing loneliness need to focus on quality not quantity of social interaction – after all, it’s perfectly possible to feel intensely alone in a crowded room.
Most people who undertake psychotherapy seem to benefit from it. How do we know? Arguably, the most important evidence comes from meta-analyses that combine the results from many – sometimes hundreds – of randomly controlled trials. Based on this, it’s been estimated that psychotherapy is effective for about 80 per cent of people (meanwhile, between five to 10 per cent of clients may suffer adverse effects).
But now the more concerning news: a team of researchers led by Evangelos Evangelou at the University of Ioannina, Greece has assessed the quality of 247 of these psychotherapy meta-analyses and they report in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica that many of them have serious methodological short-comings.
Coincidentally, a separate research group led by Brent Roberts at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign has just published in Journal of Personality some of the first observational data on how people’s personalities change after undertaking psychotherapy. In contrast to what’s been found in the clinical literature, they report that people who’ve been in therapy seem to show negative changes in personality and other psychological outcomes.