Tag: mental health

What Causes Intrusive Thoughts and How to Stop Them

Chances are, you’ve experienced intrusive thoughts. I’m talking about those odd or disturbing thoughts that pop into your head seemingly out of nowhere. Usually, they involve imagining yourself, just for a moment, doing something dangerous, harmful to others, or socially inappropriate. It’s not that you want or intend to do so, but you realize that you could stand up and yell obscenities in church, kiss a stranger on the bus, or ram your car into the car in front of you at the stoplight.

We don’t talk about intrusive thoughts all that much, probably because the content is often violent or sexual in nature. Yet, research suggests that intrusive thoughts are a near-universal human experience. More often than not, people simply dismiss them because they’re so “out there.” A particular thought may make you pause long enough to ask yourself, “Whoa, where did that come from?!” but then you move on.

For some folks, though, intrusive thoughts become incredibly disruptive because they arise with great frequency, or because the person finds them so disturbing that they have a hard time letting them go. Sometimes both.

People who struggle with intrusive thoughts can become sidelined by shame, guilt, or anxiety. They worry that these thoughts reflect who they “really are” deep down. They believe that friends and loved ones will reject them if they knew. When the same intrusive thoughts run on a loop in their heads, they may fear that they are willing those bad things to happen or creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

Often, these individuals are reluctant to seeking help despite their profound distress. Intrusive thoughts are incredibly normal, but they shouldn’t interfere with your quality of life. While banishing them is easier said than done, some techniques show promise for helping people deal with unwanted thoughts and the angst they cause.

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How to Really Bond with Your Family This Holiday Season

Let’s not beat around the holly bush: the holiday season just isn’t the same this year. You could get down in the dumps about it OR you could get creative about finding ways to celebrate with friends and family. Honestly, it’s ok to do both. Grieve the ambiguous losses we’re all experiencing this season while also looking for ways to make the best of what we have. We might be apart from loved ones, but we can still be together in spirit. One thing I’ve realized this year is how often physical closeness is used as a proxy for bonding. That is to say, people get together in the same physical space and call that “bonding,” when all they’re really doing is being near one another. Being in the same room is great—oh, how I miss it—but by itself, it doesn’t generate emotional closeness or deep connection. Nobody is making lasting memories simply by virtue of watching a football game and eating turkey together. This year, we have an opportunity to get out of old holiday ruts and try something different, maybe even start new traditions. Somebody needs to put the ho-ho-ho back in the holidays, and I nominate you. Here are some ideas you can put into action: Things You and Your Loved Ones Can Create Together Family members or friends all contribute, and the final project is something special to keep for years to come. You’ll learn more about your family members and end up with a record of special memories or family favorites. As a bonus, these ideas are all free! Shared photo album Set up a shared album in any of the many online photo album tools. Invite family members to submit their favorite family photos from years past, or ask for old holiday photos specifically. Level up: Optionally, arrange the photos chronologically. Do a family Zoom session and view the slideshow together, pausing to reminisce and tell stories about the scenes from the images. Family cookbook Everyone submits their favorite recipes. A shared Google doc will do the trick, but it’s even better if someone collects the recipes and arranges them in a pdf. Free tools like Canva make it simple to lay out a basic cookbook, which everyone then gets as a holiday gift. You could even have them spiral bound and sent to folks who prefer hard copies. Level up: Host a Zoom party where everyone cooks a special family recipe together or a virtual dinner party where everyone prepares recipes from the cookbook at home. Memory book Same idea as the cookbook, but everyone submits their favorite memories of holidays past or recounts the wildest family legends. Level up: Have one person collect the memories and put the stories in a slideshow to be shared during a virtual get-together. Music playlist Nominate an “emcee” to collect everyone’s favorite songs (holiday or otherwise) and create a family playlist in Spotify, for example. Level up: Everyone agrees to play the playlist at the same … Continue reading “How to Really Bond with Your Family This Holiday Season”

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12 Ways to Boost Your Serotonin

Serotonin is a funny one. Although the prevailing sentiment is that we want to “increase serotonin,” it’s not that simple. There’s no indication that more serotonin is necessarily better in every situation, or even generally. The link between serotonin and “happiness” or “mood” isn’t so clear-cut as the experts would have you believe, either. So while I am going to tell you how to “boost” serotonin levels because serotonin is a vital neurotransmitter, I plan on sticking to foods, supplements, and behaviors that promote physiological levels of serotonin. Boosting serotonin beyond what the body is designed for may not help you, and it may have unpleasant and unwanted effects. Is Serotonin a Mood Booster? Yes and no. For evidence, I submit two items. The first is clinical research and the second is pure anecdote, albeit personal anecdote. Everyone has heard of SSRIs, or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. The most common form of antidepressants, their purported mode of action is to reduce the re-absorption of serotonin by neurons which increases the circulating concentration of serotonin in the brain. They increase brain levels of serotonin so it’s able to act longer. The evidence in favor of SSRIs in treating depression is mixed. Not everyone benefits, and it often takes several months to take effect. But they do help some people. In recent years, depression studies have pitted SSRIs against another drug—tianeptine—that does the opposite: increases the absorption of serotonin by neurons and decreases the concentration of serotonin the brain. If the “serotonin=happy” hypothesis is correct, tianeptine shouldn’t improve depression. It should worsen it. But that’s not what happens. Both tianeptine, which lowers brain serotonin, and SSRIs, which increase it, have been shown to improve depression symptoms in patients with clinical depression. If anything, tianeptine might even be more effective. This doesn’t mean that serotonin has nothing to do with depression, or that it’s bad for depression. It just means that the story is a little more complicated than we thought. Now the anecdote. Back when I was doing some research for a new probiotic supplement, I tried one that had been shown to increase serotonin levels: B. infantis. This is how I do things usually. Most all my products are created to solve a problem in my own life. I figure that if something appeals to me or fixes an issue affecting me, it will help others too. So this time, I added the powder to a smoothie and down the hatch it went. About half an hour later, I got the distinct sense of what I can only describe as emotional numbness. There was just this big blank emptiness in my heart and mind. I felt robotic, except I was a robot who had memories of what it was like to feel. It was a very uncanny, unnerving feeling that I don’t ever want to feel again. Maybe the dosage was too high. Maybe I shouldn’t have been taking a probiotic strain meant for human infants (B. infantis is present in infant guts … Continue reading “12 Ways to Boost Your Serotonin”

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The Pandemic’s Toll on Mental Health and Relationships: What Can We Learn?

When Mark asked me to write a post about the toll the pandemic is taking on mental health and relationships, I didn’t want simply to detail the ways it’s hard to live through a pandemic. Nor did I want to throw a bunch of statistics at you about how many people are having a difficult time. You know that it’s like living in the world’s least entertaining Groundhog-Day-meets-dystopian-thriller film.

If you’re like me, you’re sick of kvetching about 2020. The fact is, though, that I don’t know anyone, myself included, who isn’t struggling in one way or another right now.

After a lot of reflection, I’ve concluded that a big reason why 2020 is so draining is that our usual coping strategies don’t work like we want or expect. Most are aimed at reducing the source of our distress or dealing with the emotional aftermath. This pandemic is ongoing. We’re stuck in the middle of it, with no end in sight, and no way to speed the process along.

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Making Distance Learning Work

Hi, everyone, Lindsay here. As a parent of school-aged kids, the upcoming school year is front and center in my mind. Like you, I’m trying to figure out how to make distance learning work for my family. Before starting today’s post, I want to acknowledge that everyone’s situation is different. Family structures, finances, support systems, living arrangements, access to technology, and employment all affect how we’ll approach this upcoming school year. Not to mention, our kids have unique needs, strengths, and challenges.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. A lot of parents are facing tough dilemmas. Their school districts’ solutions simply aren’t workable for them for various reasons, sometimes reflecting larger societal issues. While I’m going to offer some simple, concrete steps and encouragement, I also don’t want to minimize the challenges that some people are facing. I’d love for other parents/caregivers to join the discussion in the comments and let us know how you’re juggling everything.

The new school year is almost upon us, and I’m sure I’m not the only parent who feels like my head has been spinning for five months. After being thrown into distance learning in March, school districts are still scrambling to figure out what’s happening this fall. Teachers and parents are rightfully worried about how to balance seemingly un-balanceable interests: educating our kids, supporting working parents, making sure all kids have equal learning opportunities (always an issue), maintaining kids’ socioemotional wellbeing, and allowing schools to stay funded, all while protecting the health and safety of students, their families, teachers, and staff.

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Emotional Awareness and Processing Emotions Through Hard Times

There is so much about our current situation that is challenging. There’s the obvious: job loss, financial insecurity, fear about the virus itself, uncertainty about the future. We’re living in a state of limbo, waiting for (more) bad news while trying to figure out what, if anything, we can do to reassert control and order over our lives. If you’re feeling… well, like you don’t even know what you’re feeling, you’re not alone. All of us are experiencing this massive disruption to our lives, and the collective fear and uncertainty that go along with it, for the first time. We’re learning to navigate and adapt in real time to a world that feels foreign. It’s normal to feel adrift, to run the gamut of emotions, and experience conflicting emotions sometimes simultaneously. Emotional Awareness as a First Step Toward Working Through Emotions It feels like emotions just happen to us. Especially strong negative emotions can feel like they overtake us, inhabiting our body without our permission. To some extent that’s true. What we call “emotions” or “feelings” are our subjective experience of our brain and body’s reaction to a situation. We can’t control the initial physiological response. However, we can shape emotional experiences—how strongly we feel emotions, how the thoughts we have about why we’re feeling a certain way, and how we cope. This process is called emotion regulation. The first step in any kind of emotion regulation strategy is awareness. We must recognize that we are having an emotional experience and then discern what, exactly, we are feeling. Anger, frustration, and fear all feel bad, but they are very different emotions that should prompt different responses if we are trying to help ourselves feel better. Mental health professionals suggest that simply naming our emotions, bringing awareness to how we are feeling, can be a first step in coping with emotional upheaval. Putting words to our inner states is one of the goals of therapy. It’s also a tool you can use to help yourself in the moment. When you’re hit with strong feelings, and you don’t know what they mean or what to do about them, simply pausing to say, “I’m feeling _____” can offer a bit of relief. I’m not suggesting that naming your emotions will magically fix everything, of course. That’s not reasonable. However, it is a tool you can add to your coping toolbox. If you’re like me, you need all the tools you can get right now. Naming emotions, or affect labeling Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel has coined the phrase “name it to tame it.” He explains that emotions come from a region of the brain known as the limbic system. Using language to describe our emotions recruits a different part of the brain, the cortex, which is less stress-reactive. By naming the emotion, we actually “calm” the activity within the limbic system that is triggering such strong emotions. This is supported by fMRI research conducted by Matthew Lieberman and colleagues. They have shown that “affect labeling” … Continue reading “Emotional Awareness and Processing Emotions Through Hard Times”

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6 Mind-Body Approaches for Menopause

As we covered in Parts I and II of this series, during perimenopause and menopause women can experience a complex web of physical, psychological, and social symptoms.

The treatment usually prescribed by doctors, hormone therapy (HT), is controversial and not appropriate for some women. I won’t get into the HT debate here—Mark did a great job covering the pros and cons recently. Suffice it to say that HT isn’t the answer for everyone, and it’s not a panacea by any means.

Whether or not they choose to go the HT route, many women desire additional support during perimenopause and beyond. For the sake of keeping this post from becoming a novella, I’m going to focus on mind-body therapies today.

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Dear Mark: Synthetic Peptides

For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering one question from a reader. It’s all about synthetic peptides, small chains of amino acids with potentially huge effects on your health and physiological function. In most cases, these synthetic peptides are based on naturally-occurring compounds found in the human body. Scientists isolate the “active component” of the compound and whip it up in a lab by stringing together the right amino acids. Many of these peptides are available for purchase online, strictly “for research purposes.” But people are using them.

Are these safe for humans? Are they effective?

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4 Mushrooms You Need To Know

When you stop to think about it, mushrooms are remarkable.

They’re closer to animals than plants on the tree of life.

They can break down plastic and petroleum.

The single largest organism on the planet is an underground honey fungus spanning almost 3 miles in the the state of Oregon.

They carry messages along their underground fungal networks using neurotransmitters that are very similar to the ones our brains use.

They’re a kind of “forest internet” which plants and trees use to communicate with each other.

They’re delicious.

And, as it turns out, they possess and confer some very impressive health and therapeutic effects. Several years ago, I highlighted the culinary varieties and explored their considerable health benefits. Go read that, then come back here because I’m going to talk about the different types of adaptogenic mushrooms today. These are the real heavy hitters, the ones that appear to supercharge immune systems, stimulate neuronal growth, improve memory and focus, pacify the anxious mind, increase the libido, and enhance sleep quality.

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Dear Mark: CBD Edition

For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’ll be answering your CBD questions from the past few weeks. CBD, or cannabidiol, is exploding in popularity, but there are many unknowns. People have a lot of questions and there aren’t many definitive or comprehensive guides, so today I’ll do my best to make sense of it. We’re all piecing things together based on limited data—which, I suppose, is the fundamental human experience.

Let’s go:

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