I just came across this article about recent developments in the treatment of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is obviously a very severe and disturbing disorder both for those suffering from it and for those treating it. However, psychosis, like many things, falls on a spectrum and a disorder like schizophrenia is likely at the far end of the spectrum. But don't we all occasionally exhibit strange beliefs? Magical thinking? Difficulty screening what is salient from what is not (especially given the onslaught of digital information with which we're confronted every day!)? It seems to me that "brain training" could be a useful practice for all of us to have more successful and fulfilling lives...even if we don't suffer from hallucinations. One particular form of "brain training" is discussed in what's called Acceptance an Commitment Therapy (ACT) developed by Steven Hayes and (in its simplest form) teaches patients to accept unavoidable private events; to identify and focus on actions directed toward valued goals; and to defuse from odd cognition, just noticing thoughts rather than treating them as either true or false. This is proven to be a very powerful form of therapy for all kinds of people, but has also shown very robust results in helping those who suffer from psychotic disorders better manage their symptoms. So while not all of us fall on the far end of the psychotic spectrum, we most likely could all use some brain training to tune out distractions.
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This is easier said than done, I know. It's hard to imagine feeling at your absolute worst and also finding someway to be grateful...but, trust me, it works and there is plenty of research to prove it! Among one of the best known researchers on the effects of gratitude is Dr. Martin Seligman, Director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center and Zellerbach Family Professor in the Penn Department of Psychology. Dr. Seligman is the founder of positive psychology which, unlike traditional psychology's goal of relieving human suffering, aims to actually improve the human condition. So what about gratitude? Well, as it turns out, practicing gratitude on a regular basis is one such way to improve the human condition. In his book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Seligman offers a simple practice called the "Gratitude Visit" that promises to enhance your well-being and lower your depression (to see the exercise click here). Another exercise from Dr. Seligman, and one that I often encourage my clients to try to implement in their lives on a regular basis, is the "What-Went-Well-Exercise." The first part of the exercise involves identifying what went well that day, a practice Dr. Seligman says most of us have difficulty doing:
"We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well."
Once you've identified something that's gone well (and even the tiniest of things counts!) the second part of the practice is, in my opinion, the most powerful. In the second part of the practice, you answer why that thing went well, which helps you see that you do, indeed, have agency in what happens to you and that you can make good things happen! This alone is a powerful antidote to depression.
These exercises seem simple, but they are rooted in decades of rigorous research and highlight some of modern psychology's most important findings. So, if you have 5 minutes to spare at the end of the night (and we ALL can find 5 minutes) try incorporating a gratitude practice into your routine and increase your well being!
It is widely accepted that many of humanity's best and brightest minds also suffered with debilitating mental struggles from bipolar disorder to anxiety...Vincent Van Gogh, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Virginia Woolf, Buzz Aldrin, Ludwig Von Beethoven...the list goes on. In this article, Charles Darwin's struggle with anxiety and the many failed attempts at treatment are discussed...including an attempt in 1865 by a certain Dr. John Chapman that involved having Darwin spend several hours each day encased in ice. Not surprisingly this treatment, and all of the other treatments he received, failed. The one and only thing reported to have helped, was when Darwin stopped working and walked or rode in the Scottish Highlands or North Wales he found his health would be "restored." Unfortunately for Darwin, mental health treatment and the connection between physical and emotional health was little understood and rarely addressed. Had Darwin been alive today, he undoubtedly would have received a very different kind of treatment (therapy!) and very likely would have found some relief. There is plenty of rigorous research that demonstrates that therapy, particularly a form of psychotherapy known as "cognitive-behavioral therapy" (CBT) can be highly effective in treating anxiety disorders. It's clear that many people suffer from anxiety, including some of the most famous and influential people in history. If you suffer from anxiety, you may want to bypass packing your spine with ice for several hours a day and go for a walk or, better yet...find a therapist!