Student depression

University terms are starting all over the country. When I was an undergraduate, the Cambridge term started late, in early October, and our terms were only eight weeks long. That first one was seven weeks six days too long for me.

I have had several responses from students to my blog on dysthymia – low-level persistent depression, or what is now called persistent depressive disorder. The people who contacted me are just the tip of the iceberg. In your class of a hundred fellow students it could be that as many as nearly twenty of them are mentally ill, to some degree, right now. That’s a lot of sick people; imagine a class where twenty people were sneezing and coughing non-stop. Who are these people? Can you tell? Are you perhaps one of them? And a couple of lecturers are probably depressed right now, too.

What’s the leading cause of death for young people aged 20-35 in the UK? Those risky boys speeding round blind bends in their sporty cars? Drugs? Falling under a bus blind drunk? Being mugged and murdered? No, by some way, it’s suicide. Suicide is also the leading cause of death for men under 50. And most people kill themselves because they can’t take the hopelessness and pain of depression any longer. And if suicide doesn’t kill you, depression is associated with a host of disorders, such as heart disease, cancer,  and dementia, which might get you later.

Depression and anxiety are closely related, and usually go together. Epidemiological studies show that anxiety and mood disorders are remarkably common: it’s estimated that one in three people will suffer in their lifetime, and between one in six and one in ten are ill now. The reporting of mental illness has increased, but whether that’s because of better understanding of the disease, better diagnosis, reduced stigmatisation of the ill, increased pressure of contemporary life, or, most likely, all of these, is unclear.

When I was young (under twenty, say), I didn’t know what depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder were, although in retrospect I suffered from all of them. I was aware of something my relatives talked about in rather hushed tones called “a nervous breakdown”. I’m still not entirely sure what one of these was, but I think it was a sudden mental illness requiring some kind of treatment, and even incarceration in an “asylum”. Treatments were very limited back in the 70s; remember that chlorpromazine wasn’t released to the market until 1953, the first benzodiazepine, Librium, in 1960; and the first antidepressants in 1957 (iproniazid, a MAO inhibitor) and 1958 (imipramine, a tricyclic), although these drugs have many serious side-effects. The relatively more benign Prozac (fluoxetine) wasn’t available until 1987. I don’t think I knew about these drugs until I switched as a student from Natural Sciences Physical to Psychology. Indeed when I was a teenager, I thought of treatment as shock treatment; that’s about all there was.

Attitudes started to change when Prozac became widely available; perhaps that’s generally true – diseases only begin to lose their stigma when there is some hope. When I was young “cancer” was another dirty word, sometimes just called the “c word”. Don’t ask my younger self about swearing though; when I was ten, I thought the filthiest word in English was “pub” (where my father went Sunday lunchtime).

I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I had no idea what was involved, no idea really what a degree was (although I knew students “read” for it on University Challenge), no idea how to manage money (fortunately credit cards weren’t available then), no idea how to manage my time, no idea how to study independently, no idea how to live, no idea how to make use of what was available, no idea what a girl was, and no idea of how to cope when I was a raving loony without realising it. I was extraordinarily shy, which didn’t help. I wasn’t lazy; I tried my best, but I had no idea how to organise my time. I expected university to be like school, which of course it isn’t.

I stuck out the first year, mostly because I drift through things and staying was the easiest thing to do, and I was just clever enough to get by in spite of my deficits. The turning point was joining a society where I met other people. I still can’t say that I felt at home, and at the end of the first year I got a summer job where I did. I was earning good money, I had friends of sorts, I seemed to have some purpose, I felt like I was part of a community, and I wondered why go back to Cambridge. At that point I nearly gave up.

I don’t really know why I didn’t; it was easier to stay than not. And when I went back to Cambridge I discovered psychology, and things started to look up.

If I knew then what I know now I would have got professional help. I would have started with meta learning rather than learning. I would have been bolder about asking questions. Mostly I would have realised that I was ill, I wasn’t alone, and that I should talk to people.

What is “normal” for a depressed person?

“Dysthymia, now known as persistent depressive disorder (PDD), is a mood disorder consisting of the same cognitive and physical problems as depression, with less severe but longer-lasting symptoms … dysthymia is a serious state of chronic depression”. Wikipedia.

As part of my mental maintenance, I keep a mood diary. I’ve experimented with several kinds, including apps, but now just use the very simple system of noting one number at the end of each day, on a scale of 1 (extremely, suicidally depressed) to 7 (ecstatically happy), with 4 being “average”. Here is my chart for the last 18 months or so.

moodgraph

The first point to note is that this graph is by no means representative of my life. It begins in April 2016, when I had already been in weekly therapy for well over a year and had at last found the medication that worked (to some extent) for me. I’ve shown the trend line (a guess at the average) which shows a continuing slight improvement over time, although I think this is line is affected by a prolonged and severe relapse I had in the summer of last year. To complete the statistical background, my scores do seem to follow an approximate Gaussian (“normal”) distribution, with my mean score in the middle of the range, at about 4. (Actually it’s very slightly beneath, at 3.8.)

It’s the word “normal” that causes me trouble. What is normal? How can I gauge my mood and experience against what other people feel? And is it reasonable to expect mood scores to follow a Gaussian distribution, and if so what will the mean be?

To give a concrete example, consider someone with PDD (persistent depressive disorder). Their daily mood ratings will presumably be low every day, for long periods of time. Hence compared with people without PDD you would expect their mood rating, if they were comparing themselves with the rest of the population, to be low (as they’re not severely depressed, probably in the 2 to 3 range).

But how do people give ratings of their behaviour? Maybe, completely reasonably, people compare their mood with what they think other people experience – so the moods are relative to the population rather than the individual. But how do we know what others feel?

I use a strategy between the two. And I’m not happy about treating a rating in this inconsistent if not incoherent way. I think a 7 should be “extremely, unusually happy”, although no one should expect to be ecstatic all day long. A 4 should be average for me but not too bad. When I rate a day as “average” I mean I’ve been a bit depressed that today, but no more so than average for me

If you have PDD, your normal is low. I don’t know how other people feel most of the time, but I suspect it must be better than I do. Do you wake up looking forward to the day? Does a day pass without you thinking about suicide and death? Does your day bounce along when you’d say you feel happy? Does your life have meaning? Can you sleep naturally? Do you feel like you have the energy to do everything you want to do? Does the thought of emptying the dishwasher or taking a shower fill you with despair? If so I envy you. Your 4 is not my 4.

The opposite is also presumably true: someone who isn’t depressed has no idea how those of us who are feel. So please keep your comments about “when I’m down I always find going for a good run sorts me out” to yourself.

As I have said before, being depressed steals your life.

Does a psychiatric diagnosis mean anything?

I have a new psychiatrist and a new tentative diagnosis. Or rather, a new additional diagnosis. So at the moment I have been diagnosed at some time by somebody with: severe depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsiveness disorder, obsessive thinking, anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, dissociative disorder, autistic spectrum disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and now adult attention deficit disorder. I have might forgotten one or two. Although I am certain I have depression and a batch of severe anxiety disorders, parts of all these diagnoses seem right, but none of them alone fits perfectly. I don’t think I’m special in feeling confused, even frustrated, about the problems in getting a clear diagnosis.

When you have a problem with your gallbladder or spleen, the diagnosis and treatment are comparatively obvious. Your just look at the spleen and you can usually see what’s wrong with it, and if that doesn’t work (I’m no spleen specialist) you run a few simple tests, like a blood test, and look at those results. But looking at the brain won’t help for mental illness. You can see a brain tumour easily enough, but you can’t see depression or anxiety. (I admit that this claim isn’t quite true, as there are some correlations between some structural changes to the brain and some mental illnesses some of the time, but the correlations are complex and not perfect predictors – yet – so I think my statement is essentially true.)

And then there is the pathologising of the extremes of normal behaviour. It is perfectly normal to grieve when a loved one dies, or to be upset when something important goes wrong. When does grief edge over into depression? It isn’t easy to say. When is a child abnormally hyperactive and not just rather boisterous? When is a person manic and bipolar rather than just lively and extraverted?

So at the moment mental illness is different from physical illness. Things might change in the future, with more sophisticated imaging and the means of visualising neural circuits and neurotransmitter system in real-time action. But even then we are left with the fact that the brain is a hugely complicated organ and the relation between what it does and its structure is also extremely complicated, and mental illness results from the interaction of developmental, situational, and genetic structures to the whole brain. Although we obviously have many working hypotheses, we don’t have any good complete models of mental illnesses and how exactly they arise, and how changes to the brain and its neurochemistry changes behaviour. I think this difficulty in seeing what is wrong contributes to the stigma of mental illness: with a physical illness, you can see, and therefore point to, your problem – look at my swollen spleen! – but people with mental illness look the same on the outside and on the inside.

Simple diagnoses make life easier for clinicians. You have a label, and then you also have a range of possible treatments: the label will determine that treatment. If you are diagnosed with depression and are given anti-depressants, and you respond to anti-depressants, then you must have had depression. Everything else, like poor concentration, tiredness, anger, lack of empathy, and inability to sit still, or whatever, must have been caused by the depression. But why should disorders of a very complex organ that we barely understand map nicely on to simple linguistic categories devised by clinicians in order to enable them to classify and treat people? I doubt if they do.

I don’t see that for mental illness we are in any better situation than physicians at the time of the Black Death who thought that the plague was caused by a miasma rising from the ground. But at least they could see the buboes. Just look at the mess the idea that depression is caused by a lack of serotonin is in.

In practice there is no point going in to see your doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist, saying that their diagnosis is rubbish and unscientific. They have busy, difficult lives and can’t know everything. Do though make sure that every symptom that troubles you is taken seriously, and that you receive appropriate treatment for these symptoms. And if after a while things don’t get better you need more or a different sort of help. If your mood improves a lot but your concentration doesn’t, then you shouldn’t feel bad about trying to find out why. Good luck.

Dream a little dream

I’ve been experimenting with lucid dreaming by taking supplements last thing at night, including lecithin, choline, huperzine A (an alkaloid found in some plants that’s been investigated for treating Alzheimer’s disease), GPC (l-alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine), and galantamine (found in snowdrops), They’re all available from retailers such as Amazon and pretty harmless in terms of side effects, at least, it seems, for me. All of them in some way or another increase the amount of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. I’ve tried taking them in isolation and in combination, and in combination is the only thing that has had any effect on me. My sleep and dreaming appears to be remarkably robust.

I still haven’t had a proper lucid dream, which as I understand it is an awareness that you are dreaming, and therefore you have an ability to influence your dream. I have though on many occasions had the curious sensation that I can only describe as that I am dreaming that I am having a lucid dream, or dreaming that I know I am dreaming, but lack any ability to influence my dream. These supplements reliably promote this “dreaming of lucid dreaming” state in me.

I also on two occasions have dreamt of what others call “the shadow” – a shadowy hostile figure who lurks threateningly close by (see here and here for examples from others). On both occasions this dream has started with a feeling that someone is in the room or outside, or outside the bedroom window. If I catch a glimpse of them, they are grey and featureless. I’ve had them for years; I remember very clearly being terrified as a young child by a grey shadow figure standing like a statue beside the bed. In my case they are not accompanied by sleep paralysis. Figures of this sort are widely described across time and cultures (in olden times it might have been called an incubus), so clearly are some fundamental, but poorly understood, feature of dreaming.

Most people love to talk about their dreams, and once you tell someone that you’re a psychologist, you’re in trouble. I have always been fascinated by my dreams – those strange images that arise unbidden with sleep, sometimes with frightful clarity, that follow complex and often bizarre storylines, and surely, surely must tell us something important about ourselves? And if you could have a lucid dream, could you not systematically manipulate some of the variables of dreams to find out more?

There are many theories about the origins of dreams, and they are covered in detail in my forthcoming book, The Science of Consciousness, to be published by Cambridge University Press (hopefully next year). Many people are familiar with Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical theory that dreams disguise repressed and unwelcome thoughts so that they do not wake us; hence for Freudian psychoanalysis dream interpretation is a question of interpreting the surface of the dream, particularly its symbolic nature. Hence for psychoanalysts dreams are the most important method of treating mental illness. Other depth psychologists think that dreams serve different functions (e.g. Jung thought they addressed issues to do with individuation and spiritual growth), but all these approaches share the idea that dreams have some meaning, and that interpreting dreams is a means to recovery and growth. Revonsuo views dreams as an evolutionary adaptation to dealing with threat; we can safely rehearse methods of escaping threats in dreams. Many researchers link dreams with creativity, and there are several accounts of ideas being generated and problems being solved in dreams (see here for a discussion of Kekulé’s famous account of dreaming of a worm swallowing its tail seen in flames in a dream). And then there is Allan Hobson’s idea that dreams are essentially random constructed by the cortex from random activation of thoughts and ideas by subcortical input.

I kept a detailed dream diary for a year, and still record as much of my dreams as I can. I don’t think there is any one correct theory of why we dream; I am sure all of the above are true at times. (Another thing I am sure about is that there is little merit in dictionaries of dream symbols.) I never cease to be amazed at the bizarreness, complexity, and creativity shown in my dreams, but I doubt if I am alone in this regard. The activation-synthesis hypothesis has a great deal to commend it, but I don’t think internal activity is random: some memories are stronger than others, some anxieties occupy us more than others; we desire some things more than others; and some threats are more worrying than others. The mind is always bubbling away, and some bubbles sometimes come to the surface. Dreams are the default mode network, the system that generates daydreams, running without control or censorship.

But can we learn from our dreams, and can recording and interpreting dreams help us on the path to spiritual growth and healing mental illness? I was slightly surprised that during my therapy my therapist seemed totally uninterested in my dreams (and this is in the context of that therapy being one of the most useful experiences of my life). If the idea that dream content is the interpretation of randomly generated but largely prominent memories, ideas, and emotionds is correct, you might expect an analysis to be revealing. However, when I analyse the dreams in my collection, I find there is little obvious to learn from them. They show recurring thoughts and concerns, but I am aware of them from everyday life. I dream of death, dying, and nuclear war most nights. We can’t learn much from dreams because we already know most of what they tell us.

The one surprise is how often I dream about my father, when I think about him so little in waking life – or at least did. He left when I was aged ten, and I barely saw him again afterwards. He died, alone, in 2004, 15 years after I had last seen him. This persistent dreaming makes me realise that I wish I had tried to contact him, if only to ask him why he had co up my life.

A warning though: some dreams take on a life of their own. I have for decades dreamed about watching a plane fall out of the sky, I think this idea has just become a very highly activated idea, one likely to bubble to the surface some nights. That’s why we get recurring dreams. So perhaps my dreams of my father are no more than a simple recurring dream, and reveal nothing deeper.

Note that I am giving a talk on the meaning of dreams in London on 4 July 2017. Please come along. I promise to try and answer every question I get.

Stay well, and dream on.

 

Loneliness

Lonely people tend to die younger. They have more health problems when they’re still alive, and tend to be more anxious than average. They tend to suffer more from high blood pressure. They have weaker imune systems. And I’m lonely.

Lonely people tend to die younger. They have more health problems when they’re still alive, and tend to be more anxious than average. They tend to suffer more from high blood pressure. They have weaker imune systems. Bummer.

Of course as with all findings about mental health, you must be careful talking about causes when all you have are correlations (feeling unwell might prevent you going to social events, for example), but it does seem likely that being lonely is bad news. The findings on the positive effect of social support – people with plenty of good friends and a strong social network tend to be happier and healthier – are after all just the other side of the coin.

We can distinguish acute loneliness (loneliness that persists for a relatively short period of time and that arises as a result of loss or transition, such as the death of a partner, change of job, or a geographical move) from chronic loneliness (loneliness that goes on and on and is part of a person’s life over some years). I’m currently reading Emily White’s book Lonely, about her chronic loneliness, and enjoying (or identifying with it perhaps) very much.

I think there is now more of a stigma attached to being lonely than there is to being mentally ill. Most people now accept that mental illness is a result of many factors, and that the ill person is not to blame. However, many people appear to believe that if you’re lonely, it’s your fault. You should just try a bit harder: join a club, do volunteering work, or take a dancing lesson. Or perhaps, they think, you’ve got no friends because you’re not a very nice person.

I admit it: I am chronically lonely – and I’m a very nice person.

Being chronically lonely (just lonely from now on) is related to many other things. White clearly thinks that being lonely and being depressed are very different; the main evidence for this claim is that many people report average levels of depression. I’m a bit sceptical that people have good insight into their mental states (we know from cognitive psychology that our insight is limited), but loneliness does seem to be related to social anxiety and personality factors independently of depression. I can feel lonely at a crazy party. In fact I sometime feel loneliest at a crazy party, where everyone else is obviously enjoying themselves, playing party games and singing songs. I have been in a packed football stadium where everyone else is singing and chanting and cheering and I just can’t join in; it feels false, wrong. I’m not looking down on the people who join in – although it must often look that way to other people – I just can’t make myself feel like other people. I’m an outsider (or as my mother used to say, “weird”, the irony being that she also is a lonely outsider).

I do wonder if people who think of themselves as very lonely mean “lonely” in the same way as others do. I think most people have acute loneliness in mind, whereas I think people like White and me are struggling for a word to capture a sense of alienation and otherness that pervades our lives even when others are present. A lot of what White talks about in Lonely makes me wonder if she just means “single”: a lack of intimacy, having somewhere there, the sound of voices and feet padding on the carpet at home, havint someone to touch, having someone with whom to share everything. But then I have felt lonely when with other people, including partners. Perhaps some of us are just destined to feel different. And for me it is entwined with depression.

But these are simple labels for complex experiences. I have no advice for others in the same party. I don’t want to go to a party or start dancing. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy the gym so much: I can be with other people, who vaguely share the same aim, but who don’t expect anything of me.

 

 

How to lose weight (continued)

I posted some time ago about my great success in applying science to losing weight. At one point I had lost about 30 pounds in 6 months. Most people who lose weight go on to regain it, sometimes even eventually weighing more than they had when they started, so after six months I thought it was time to revisit my diet – or more precisely, my lifestyle.

The news is mixed.

I posted some time ago about my great success in applying science to losing weight. At one point I had lost about 30 pounds in 6 months. Most people who lose weight go on to regain it, sometimes even eventually weighing more than they had when they started, so after six months I thought it was time to revisit my diet – or more precisely, my lifestyle.

The news is mixed. I have regained a bit of weight, but I am now fitter than ever before, as measured by endurance capability, maximum weight I can lift, resting pulse, and blood pressure. Most of the weight I have put back on (about 12 pounds) is muscle, not fat. My visceral fat is down to 11%, and my body fat 17%. I still feel flabby around the middle though, and would like to lose more weight there. Some of the weight gain – a few pounds – is fat, so it is a work in progress with many gains and a few losses.

So I think overall the verdict is that a version of this “diet” works, at least for me.

As with most things, life gets in the way sometimes. It’s difficult to stick to a particular lifestyle  when there are events such as Christmas come along, or when you’re travelling. I try, but relax things a bit. After all one of my greatest pleasures is eating out, and one has to have some fun. I nearly always pass on the dessert though.

I have also had time to consider what were the essential aspects of my original diet. I still think for me then the big thing was obsessively weighing and measuring food, and calculating the nutritional content of what I ate. This monitoring enabled to stick to a diet of around 2000 Calories a day, with about 75 g protein, 25 g fibre, and 50 g or less of carbohydrate (and often less than 1 g of salt a day). (I didn’t and still don’t care about the fat/oil content because I am convinced by the data showing that fat does good rather than harm.) Note again that this intake is the inverse of the traditional food “pyramid” with a large carb intake at the base. I also aimed for as wide a variety of micronutrients as possible, by supplementation and by eating as many different vegetables, and some fruit, as possible.

I stick by these things although I have relaxed the carb limit a bit. In particular I enjoy baking, and make my own gluten-free bread, which is largely seed rather than grain-based, containing walnut pieces, linseed, flaxseed, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and pumpkin seeds. It tastes good (others say that too), but doesn’t keep well. I still try and avoid sucrose (sugar) like the plague.

I think the increased carb intake, especially bread, makes it more difficult to lose more weight. My main struggle however has been finding a way of eating that enables me to continue gaining muscle while losing fat. I don’t yet have an answer. When you work out six times a week for 45-60 minutes a day you’re going to need more calories, but what is the ideal proportion of fat, carbohydrate, and protein? How many times should you eat a day, and when, relative to the workout? I have scoured websites and books on exercise physiology without finding any answers that convince me. It is also difficult to work out how many calories you need when you have a complex exercise regime with many different types of exercise. I’m pretty certain the answer is more than 2000 though!

I recently saw a television programme that monitored someone trying to lose weight rapidly by calorie restriction over a week. At the end he had lost weight – but it was all fluid and muscle, and muscle is the last thing I want to use. On the other hand this was a television programme not a scientific study (although the measurements appeared to be taken under laboratory conditions), his diet was extreme, and he was very fit and lean in the first place.

I am sure that the principles of my diet work if you want to lose weight and become healthier. Restrict your carbohydrate intake, watch the total calorie intake, drink plenty of water, and exercise – the more and the more different sorts the better. But to become super-fit and super-lean is a further challenge. If you know anything about the science of doing so, please let me know.

The other issue outstanding is why so many people who start to diet do well at first and then go downhill. There are of course several possible reasons.

  • You don’t really like the food in your diet. I am lucky in that I don’t like the taste of sugar that much and love blueberries and fish. It would be much more difficult if it were the other way round. So you have to include as much good food that you like and also re-educate your palate.
  • You’re not really too bothered about your current weight and appearance. That’s fine, it’s your life – just remember if you’re obese it might be quite a short life.
  • Not giving yourself enough rewards. Rewards work! If you find the going tough, decide on a reward programme. You’re doing something important so the rewards should be reasonable: stay on the diet for a week and you deserve that new book you thought was a bit of a luxury. I’m not a great fan of “treats” in the diet as rewards: after all a diet with two days of cake treats is really just dieting for five days. Similarly all these points-based systems are over-complicated for many people (like me) and it’s easier just avoid the cake than working out if you can have it, and buy a trip to California instead.
  • Lack of support. It’s difficult if everyone around you is gorging all the time. It’s difficult if you’re trying to diet alone. One of the reasons diet clubs work better than other things isn’t because of the system, but because they provide social support to encourage you.
  • Yo-yo dieting. Going on a diet and then stopping and starting again, perhaps with a new system, and your weight oscillating as you diet – and don’t. You have to ask yourself why do you stop after a while. Perhaps you don’t like the food. Perhaps there is no support around. Perhaps you haven’t rewarded yourself sufficiently.
  • Thinking of it as a diet rather than a lifestyle. I know I’ve used the word diet, but that’s just a shorthand. You should realise that you’re not just eating fewer cases, but embracing a new, better way of living. You’re not going just going to lose a few pounds, but you’re going to become a healthier, happier person, with a longer life expectancy and better quality of life. And a healthy body is important for a healthy mind.

Now pass the blueberries.

Getting the words out

I’ve been silent because I’ve been busy. I have found that writing my “great work”, The Science of Consciousness, is good for my mental health – although whether I’d be able to write at all without a certain level of mental health is a moot point. Writing gives my life direction and purpose, and structures my day. The amount of work involved makes a mockery of any notion of being “retired”; writing is fulltime job. Consciousness is the most difficult subject I’ve ever written about: to paraphrase the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland “an awful lot has been written on consciousness, mot of it rubbish”; why do I think what I’m writing isn’t rubbish too? I suppose you can only do your best and then just hope. I’m not going to fall into the trap that many psychologists fall into, of equating consciousness with attention, or even just visual attention. I recognise it’s a big, difficult topic.

I have been reflecting about why I have found this writing so enjoyable and so therapeutic. Perhaps it’s obvious, but it’s because I really want to do it. I would probably write it even if I didn’t have a publisher and a contract. The only downside of a contract is often a fairly tough deadline – but if I didn’t have a deadline I almost certainly would work more casually, so it’s an advantage as well as a curse. (And usually the deadline wouldn’t be so bad if only I had started earlier.)

In the odd spare moment that I have, I wonder if my mood would be as good without this purpose. As ever there is circularity: doing stuff makes your mood better, but you have to be well enough to be able to do any stuff in the first place.

Of course in the end I will die (unless I decide to have my head frozen, and even then I expect eventually to die regardless) and eventually my books will go out of print, and I will be forgotten. At this point I envy people with children; they will live on through their genes. As others have observed, our lives are like stones thrown into a pool, causing ripples to spread out. Eventually the ripples fade and it is, for most of us, as though our stone was never thrown into the pool.

When writing a book I try not to think about it too much. I have 150,000 words to deliver before the summer. If I think of it in that way, the task is an enormous one. So I break the task down into 1000 words a day (number of words left divided by number of days left, allowing Sunday off – or rather do those jobs that have accumulated in the week) come what may. I think deciding to miss one day is a slippery slope; of course choosing to miss one day wouldn’t make much difference, but it’s easy for that one day to become two, and before I knew it, a month would have gone, and a 1000 words a day has become 1250. And then there’s reading, researching, and checking. You have to treat it like a job, or any other job I suppose, and just get on with it. I know there’s no point putting off starting to write every day because I know that it has to be done regardless, and starting at 5 pm is much more miserable and difficult than starting at 9 am. I still procrastinate a bit first thing, but I gather many writers do. I think it was Derren Brown who said something like “all self-help books just boil down to – just do it”. If you’re writing a book, writing an essay, or just have to mow the lawn – get on with it now.

Also on the positive side, I have had three outputs this week, and nothing lifts my heart more than seeing my name somewhere.

First, the second edition of my book, Talking the talk: Language, psychology, and science has just been published by Psychology Press. See:

 

 

This book is a gentle introduction to psycholinguistics, the science of how we produce and understand language. I still think the first edition was the best thing I have ever written (so far).

Second, I had a letter in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday about futurology, robots, AI, and the implications for the economy. I’m a pessimist about these things:

 

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Rather to my surprise, it generated a great deal of interest. There were letters in reply (none of which really addressed the problem, I thought) and offers to write about the subject elsewhere. I think the future is a pretty scary place, and although I would have loved a laptop with fast internet connection when growing up, it could be that I have lived in the best of times – a rather optimistic conclusion for someone as usually as negative as me.

And third, finally, I gave a talk at Durham University on How to be successful in academia, particularly if you’re suffering from mental illness. I’m told it was very successful.

So a good few weeks. Success and achievements lift the spirits – just as you would expect. If you can, do something. But there will be times when you are too depressed to do anything. My advice, based on my experience, is to sit it out. Things will get better eventually, because they always have in the past. I promise.

 

Big baby: Taking responsibility for our lives

It’s not my fault my blood pressure is too high, manufacturers put too much salt in processed food. Let’s sue the food multinationals! It’s not my fault I tripped up, the council should have put more effort into levelling the pavement. Let’s sue the council! It’s not my fault that I’m fat because I stuff my face with chips, it’s the shops for selling them. Let’s sue the shops! Let’s appoint a government chip tsar to tell me to eat fewer chips! And a salt tsar, and a council tsar, and chip tsar, and a tsar tsar to look after them! And when anything goes wrong, let’s sue the tsar tsar!

I’ve read a lot of life coaching sites and books, and there’s a strong belief that taking responsibility for your life, mistakes, and happiness is essential for personal growth and mental health. It certainly sounds plausible, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence, but I’ve found experimental data hard to come by. It’s the sort of idea that would be very difficult to test in practice. We do know from the work of Victor Frankl that the people who found purpose and meaning in their lives, who accepted their situation and who took responsibility for their lives, were those who were most likely to survive in concentration camps. So taking responsibility and accepting the situation can save our lives.

Then there is the well-known related result that when we are successful, we think that it is due to our efforts, and when we fail in some way, we have been unlucky; but when other people  are successful, they’re lucky, and when they fail, it’s because they didn’t try hard enough. [If you want to find out more, the original source is Jones and Nisbett’s (1971) work on the actor-observer bias. In terms of attribution theory we generally prefer external attribution to facing the possibility that we are at fault (that is, internal attribution); this work dates back to Fritz Heider in the late fifties. The fundamental attribution error is the name given to the cognitive bias that we overestimate internal factors in explaining the behaviour of others, while underestimating their role in our own behaviour.]

The other side of responsibility is blame. It is YOUR fault that I didn’t succeed at doing this or never even tried doing that in the first place. The UK is now starting to resemble the USA in being a blame culture, full of lawyers and ambulance chasers and people taking out insurance without reading the small print and then blaming the banks, and people eating too much and blaming the food manufacturers and supermarkets and advertisers. In researching this blog I came across the following, unattributed, quotation: “When you blame others, you give up your power to change”. That rings very true to me.

It’s not a healthy situation, either for society or for ourselves.

Self-employed creatives have it harder than most. Although being self-employed as a writer (or retired, depending on your perspective) is liberating, it is also frightening. Writers are wholly responsible for their own work. If anything goes wrong, they only have themselves to blame. Employees do as they’re told, however high-level their job: in the end they have tasks they have to do, and places they have to be – and if they don’t do them, or if they’re not there, ultimately they get fired. But if I don’t write my two thousand words today I can’t fire myself or sue the council. Being responsible for your own time is also dangerous because it’s so easy to misuse it. Procrastination must surely be the writer’s biggest enemy – why do today what can be put off until tomorrow? Writers must take responsibility for their time.

When however we apply the idea of responsibility to mental illness the issues are less clear. I’m not saying we should blame ourselves for our illness. Why am I mad? The reasons are complex; it’s not one’s person’s fault, it’s just the way it is. But there’s no point feeling sorry for ourselves either – in fact wallowing will just make things worse. If we can’t blame others for our predicament, we can at least take responsibility for our mental health and trying to get better. Yes, I know there are times when you’re unable to get out of bed, or move from the chair – I’ve been there. But most of us have some better days, and then we can make a plan to live by.

The first step, which surprisingly many don’t take, is to acknowledge to yourself that you’re ill. Or, if you’d rather, that you have a particular set of problems. Life isn’t going to be as easy for you as the cheery soul at the next desk who is never faced by self doubt, never wants to spend a week in bed in tears, and who has never thought about suicide. We are, I’m afraid, different. We have it harder.

The second step is to implement the plan. I’ve talked in another blog about what we can do to improve our mental health, and how physical health is an important part of mental health.

The final step, which even fewer take, is to come out; perhaps we don’t quite have to go so dare as  to say we’re glad to be mad, but we can at least announce that we’re mad.

How are we ever going to remove the stigma of mental illness if we ourselves are embarrassed about it, or if we try to hide our problems from others? Would you hide cancer or a heart attack? Are people ashamed about having arthritis? Of course not. Unless we decide there is no shame in being depressed, or obsessive-compulsive, or schizophrenic, how can we expect other people to think anydifferently?

 

References

Jones, E. & Nisbett, R. (1971). The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. New York: General Learning Press.

Note: The title of this blog is a nod to Michael Bywater’s excellent book Big babies, arguing that that is what we’ve all turned into.

Oh to be an optimist

There are a number of ways of dividing up the spectrum of personality types; the Big Five model is the most popular, but there are others. Some people are born lucky: they’re optimists. How I envy them! Their glass is half full rather than half empty – when I look at my glass, I’ve just had a sip and it is already a third empty.
Although optimism-pessimism is an important personality construct in its own right, it’s unsurprising that optimism correlates with other aspects of personality. I consult my favourite book on individual differences, Maltby et al.’s (2013) text Personality, Individual Differences and Intelligence, to confirm what we might have expected: that in terms of the “Big Five” personality factors, optimism is significantly positively correlated with extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, and negatively correlated with neuroticism (see in particular Sharp et al., 2011). I’m surprised there isn’t a negative correlation with openness; how can you be open to new experiences if you expect everything to turn out badly? Better the devil you know.
Needless to say optimism is correlated with good health and well-being. Continue reading “Oh to be an optimist”

Obsession

Depression alone is bad enough, but unfortunately it is rarely a pure affliction: people with mental health issues are usually doomed to suffer many versions of misery. Depression and anxiety go together, so much so that many researchers believe that there is a deep relationship between the two. Unsurprisingly then, both benefit from the same sorts of pharmaceutical treatment (SSRIs).

Anxiety comes in many forms, and many of us suffer from more than one. At different times I’ve had my share of social anxiety, generalised anxiety, panic attacks, agoraphobia, and other phobias. I have found that one of the most striking – I want to avoid the word distressing because all forms of anxiety are distressing to those who suffer from them – is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). When I was a young teenager my life was blighted by OCD, often in florid forms. In the night I would go down the stairs dozens of times to check that the front door was shut; I would get up multiple times throughout the night to check that my bus pass was still in my school jacket pocket; I would repeat things in multiples of three. I was afraid of contamination, the idea that germs and disease could spread by touching something that touched something that touched something, or even by having seen someone with a disease. I would then wash my hands several times (in multiples of three of course). I was afraid other people could read my thoughts, or would misinterpret an innocent gesture as an offensive one, so would apologise inwardly to them (in powers of three; twenty seven sorries is bad enough, but just try eighty one).

All classic stuff. I didn’t know what OCD was then, and I just suffered, alone, in misery. OCD is, to use a cliché, living hell, and it’s even worse if you think you are alone and have no idea what’s going on. In retrospect something should have been done about it, but I just grew out of it. Mostly – I still have a tendency to overcheck things, usually three times, but no more, and only occasionally, so it doesn’t bother me. We can live with some pathology. Being obsessive even has its advantages as an academic; there’s nothing wrong with checking your data a few times, or being careful about proof reading and checking your facts are right. Being a writer is sometimes obsessive; we often feel a pressure to write. I think you need to be a bit obsessive just to overcome all the negative feedback writers get. The boundary between OCD and having an obsessive personality isn’t always clear – as ever the problems start when what we do makes us unhappy, or interferes with our lives. We also have a problem if our behaviour doesn’t make us unhappy, but affects those around us.

As with all mental illness, the precise causes are unknown, but as with depression there is almost certainly there’s both a genetic and environmental component. The brains of people with OCD look different, but again whether that’s a result or cause of the illness, or whether both result from something else, is not know.

But not all obsessions involve an obvious compulsion other than one to keep the obsession going.  We all have things we worry about from time to time. Most of us are familiar with “ear worms”, tunes that get stuck in your head. I suffer very badly from these (I speculate it’s to do with my psychopathology). It can drive me mad – or more precisely even madder than I already am. They’re the strangest tunes too – I once endured a week of John Denver singing “Annie’s song” non-stop. Worst of all though are obsessive thoughts, the rumination on particular events, ideas, or people that takes over our minds. It is horrible. The compulsion, in as much as there is one, is to continue the obsession. The thoughts – bad thoughts – involve regret, guilt, and fear. When I was in my OCD phase as a teenager at the end of every school term I would struck by the idea that I had done something wrong, and the school holiday would then be ruined by the fear of punishment that would await me on my return at the start of the next term. Of course I never had done anything, and was never punished; it was all in my head. It’s impossible to reason yourself out of OCD.

I think obsessive thinking is verging on psychosis, because things really are out of control. We might refuse to accept that the obsession is irrational, and some people might even act upon their obsessions – I assume that is how people become stalkers. I just suffer though.

Obsessions without compulsion is called “primarily obsessional OCD”. I was encouraged to see that the Wikipedia entry on OCD says that “Primarily obsessional OCD has been called one of the most distressing and challenging forms of OCD”; it’s more than distressing, it’s mental agony. I almost envy people with OCD because at least enacting the compulsion provides a little relief, no matter how short.

However illogical and crazy the behaviour might seem to someone who has never experience OCD, it is impossible to reason your way out of the illness. You can’t tell yourself that it’s irrational to wash your hands so many times. First, the compulsion is stronger than our belief system. And second, there is always a grain of truth we can cling to – it is just possible that a disease might be passed on by touching something that was touched by someone who touched someone with a disease, for example. There is though a clear treatment plan for OCD that involves breaking the link between obsession and compulsion. One of the best books I have read on OCD is Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior, by Jeffrey M. Schwartz. He identifies four stages in treatment: relabel (you must recognise what is obsessive and clearly label it as such); reattribute (this thought is not me – it’s my OCD); refocus (the really hard bit, where you have to shift attention, at least for a while); and revalue (to take the whole cycle as something not to be taken as face value, and to adapt the view of a more impartial observer – being mindful). He suggests gradually building up a delay between having the compulsion and having to do it – you might only be able to manage a few seconds at first, but you increase it, perhaps very slowly.

Such treatments, while effective for dealing with the compulsive actions, don’t immediately help us in being able to stop the bad thoughts coming in the first place. In a recent bout, ruminating on a mistake I had made, I tried saying internal loudly and firmly, “It was my choice”, which I eventually simplified to a loud “STOP!” in my inner speech. This approach eventually worked – or the bout blew itself out. A friend told me that a common technique is to visualise a STOP road sign, and I have since tried combining visualising the sign with thinking STOP! It is exhausting work though; bloody exhausting. At least my obsessions appear to have a natural life span, and eventually, after much pain, they eventually peter out.

The intrusiveness of thoughts is one reason why I find meditation so difficult. My thoughts just won’t go away. Even when counting breaths the thoughts overwhelm my inner voice counting. There is a paradox here because if I could just be mindful and live in the present, I wouldn’t be so obsessed by Bad Thoughts, but the Bad Thoughts stop me being able to attend to the present. Coming back to the now and trying to be present does help me when I’m being obsessive, and I think it’s a skill at which one can get better with practice.

I am grateful to and encouraged by everyone who has written to me about my blog. So many people suffer alone; it is time to stop the stigma of mental illness. For a long time I thought I was alone in suffering from obsessional thinking; if we all shared more we would be less isolated, less frightened, and maybe just a little better off. Please feel free to share this blog with whoever you might think would benefit from it.