A Natural alternative for Insomnia

It is known that many of medications used to treat insommnia are addictive, can make you drowsy the next day, or are simply ineffective.

A new study by Dr. Nofzinger from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine brings a fresh and interesting approach to this problem. Dr. Nofzinger has built a device designed to cool a specific area of the brain while a person sleeps. The device consisted of a cap with circulating water that cools the prefrontal cortex, the area just behind the forehead.

The idea behind this approach is that insommnia is caused by hyper-arousal of the prefronal cortex, as has been shown in previous studies. This hyper-arousal is experienced by the  insomniac as excessive rumination, worries and  incessant thoughts.  Cooling this area  slows the metabolism  and reduces brain activity.

According to the study, 75% of the subjects reported better sleep – a higher percentage than any medication could accomplish.

I wonder if one could use simply one of those ice packs or eye masks you can buy in any drugstore…

Adapted from Scientific American Mind, November 2011 p. 11.



The U of Happiness

Most people look at old age with dread. The common image is of failing health, failing cognitive ability, and general misery.

However, new studies point out that this is not the case. Actually, older adults tend to be happier than the middle aged. Curiously enough, this finding is true across many countries and cultures.

It appears  that happiness, measured in many different ways, is shaped like the letter “U” across life. People tend to be happy and hopeful starting their life as young adults, in their twenties. Than stress, and the disappointments of life take their toll. There is steady decline of happiness until middle age. Than something surprising happens: In spite of all the losses that age may bring, people start to feel happier. Even after controlling for income level, health and many other variables the distinctive U shape is maintained. The lower point of happiness, averaged across many people, is around the age of 46. Even more surprisingly, average happiness during old age surpasses that of early adulthood.

At first glance, a cynical observer may be excused for thinking that this is wishful thinking of a cohort of aging baby boomer researchers. Taking a closer look, the research appears valid and is worth understanding.

There are a number of explanations that may clarify this trend. One explanation is demographic. The stress of raising children passes as they leave the house and life becomes calmer. But this explanation is not enough by itself. It seem that the growing happiness is a result of inner transformation.

As young adults we feel the need to prove ourselves and we are constantly and restlessly striving. As middle age advances, we become more accepting of the point we have reached in life. We are able to enjoy what we have with less constant frustration over what we have not attained.

Maybe this is what is called wisdom.

At a later age, in spite off losses around them, people enjoy and value their time, in spite of difficulties that age imposes, precisely because they do not take the time they have for granted. Older people are less concerned over what others may think of them. They use skills they acquired over lifetime: They are better at managing their emotions. They are much less angry and judgmental. They are better at managing conflicts, so their support system is better.

Happiness is a valid goal in itself. It also has tangible benefits. Happiness has been shown to lead to  a healthier and more productive life.

The question is,  how can we accelerate our path along the happiness curve without having to wait for the passage of time.

adapted from an article published in the Economist, December 18th, 2010.


Mindfulness – Useful Tool for Stress Management

Recommended book:

Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life

This book is a valuable introduction to the concept of mindfulness. Dr. Zinn brought the concept of mindfulness from Buddhist meditation, and has shown how it can be applied as a basic technique for improved well being and stress relief. The practice of mindfulness has been shown to increase one’s quality of life.

Mindfulness means the ability to live in the present moment, to be absorbed completely, fully aware of each thought, feeling or sensation that arises. This awareness implies a nonjudgmental attitude towards our flow of thoughts, even unpleasant sensations or mental events.

The mere act of watching our mind,  allows us to distance ourselves from our emotions. This enables us to gain a better perspective on our challenges.  Through mindfulness  we realize that our emotions are just that, not the ultimate truth about reality. The common thought distortion “I feel, therefore it is reality” loses its hold on us.

Living in the present means that we do not dwell on the past, or think anxiously about the future . Many people believe that if they immerse themselves in painful emotions, it will provide them an insight and ultimately lead to inner transformation. Delving into the past must be done with care, as it may  strengthen and reinforce  the neural pathways of pain and depression.  This reinforcement may lead to further deepening of the depression and pain, as opposed to the hoped for alleviation. Mindfulness offers an additional method for dealing with one’s challenges.

Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness is a good tool for stress management, depression management, and  it leads to better quality of life, enhance creativity, and can  improve chronic pain and other medical conditions.


Defficiency in Vitamin D is Linked to Depression, Parkinson Disease, and Cognitive decline

Deficiency in vitamin D is linked to depression, Parkinson disease and to cognitive decline according to a new article in Scientific American. According to the article, about three quarters of the population in the USA suffer from vitamin D deficiency. Here, in Michigan, the percentage may be even higher because of the lack of sunlight.

If you suffer from depression, it would be prudent to ask for a blood test, to determine whether your blood levels are within normal limits. Do not take extra supplements of Vitamin D without consulting your primary care physician, as it can be toxic in large doses.



Cognitive Distortions of Depression

Depression contributes, and is maintained by common distorted thought patterns. It is a vicious circle, which keep us depressed.

This checklist is taken from the Wikipedia, “Feeling Good” book  and other sources, with some changes and additions. As you go through this list try to  identify these patterns that you tend to use. It may be an  eye opener: You will realize that what sounded like “the reality”,  is indeed very subjective. This is the first step to start controlling those thought patterns, and influence your mood. You may want to keep track of these thought patterns in a journal.

  1. Black and white thinking – No shades of grey. Thinking of things in absolute terms, like “always”, “every”, “never”.     If it is not perfect, it is a failure.
  2. Overgeneralization – Taking isolated cases and using them to make wide generalizations. Generalization from one detail , or aspect of a situation, to the whole situation.
  3. Mental filter – Focusing almost exclusively on  negative or upsetting aspects of an event while ignoring other positive aspects.
  4. Disqualifying the positive – Continually deemphasizing  positive experiences.
  5. Jumping to conclusions – Drawing negative conclusions  from little  evidence. Two specific subtypes:
    • Mind reading – Assuming you can read the feelings and thoughts of others. You know for sure what other people think of you, and of course is it negative.
    • Future reading –  Catastrophizing.  You expect the worst possible outcome, however unlikely. You ruminate about “What if”.
  6. Magnification and minimization – Distorting aspects of a memory or situation through magnifying or minimizing them such that they no longer correspond to objective reality.  If you are depressed, often the positive characteristics of other people are exaggerated and negative characteristics are understated. The reverse  happens when you think about yourself.
  7. Emotional reasoning – Accept your emotions as a valid evidence.  “I feel therfore it is true”. If you feel stupid , than you are  stupid.
  8. Should statements – You know the way things “should” be.  You have rigid rules which  always apply, no matter what the circumstances are. Using “should” statement  leaves you and others feeling preasured, guilty, and on the long run  jeopardizes any motivation for change. It does not allow you to be flexible and adapt to  changing circumstances.
  9. Labeling –  Rather than describing  a  specific behavior, you assign a negative  label to yourself.  it is not the action that was a mistake, you are the mistake. Frequntly, you judge others as harshly as you judge yourself.
  10. Personalization – Attribution of personal responsibility and guilt to yourself   for events over which you have no control.
  11. False expectations: Assuming that other people should be able to read your mind, without any need of your part to express your emotions and needs.  Assuming that your happiness depends on somebody else.

© Wikipedia
A depressed person


Breathing Exercises and Mental Health

The art of breathing exercises is an underutilized discipline that can contribute to your well being. From my clinical experience, breathing exercises are helpful in   decreasing symptoms of depression,  anxiety, panic attacks, and  improving concentration. They are a great tool for stress management in your life, if you go through tough times or life transitions.

Most breathing exercises come from Pranayama  – a fundamental part of Yoga. The basic book on this subject  is  Light on Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing by Ayengar, a renown Yoga teacher. From these exercises,  “Alternate breathing”  is   the most beneficial  one for people that suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, according to my professional experience.

Most Yoga teachers do not teach breathing exercises in regular yoga classes, so you may need to ask for a private lesson. If you have never done it before, It is  advisable to learn under guidance.  If you have any medical condition, you may want to consult your health practitioner.

I know that there are similar exercises in martial arts. but I have not explored those. You may want to check with a local martial art teacher.


Ingathering – a Portrait of Depression and Recovery

This little known book describes the inner experience of depression, in a very sensitive and authentic way. Its charm lies in the fact that in spite of the very real description of depression, It is full of hope.
In the beginning Lea, The main character, is in her deepest moment of despair. The world seemed bleak, senseless and cruel. She feels complete alienation. Her pain was so great, that she tried to jump from a bridge, in a futile attempt to commit suicide. An alien caught her and saved her life.
The first step to her recovery was numbing her emotional pain. The alien temporarily numbed Lea’s pain and locked her in a house, in order to protect her. (Fantasy equivalent to psychotropic medication? Hospitalization?) Lea felt better, though numbed. She knew that the numbness was a temporary relief, a crutch to support her during the process of recovery.

The alien brought her to a secret gathering of a community of aliens, the “people”. The people are human-like aliens endowed with psychic powers, who live in a deeply spiritual community. They were scattered around after crash landing on Earth. Some individuals were separated and had to cope by themselves, hiding their real identity a coping with their “otherness”. Lea participated in many night gatherings, During these night gatherings the participants told their life stories.
Hearing the stories, in the context of a community, was the beginning of her recovery process. Lea initially did not want to believe in the wonder of life. She was reluctant to relinquish her pain and loneliness. Those, at least, were familiar. It took time before she really committed herself to the recovery process, and started to fight depression on her own.
Henderson’s prescription for recovery is twofold. She sees community and faith as the two prescriptions of recovery and life.
Lea’s recovery took place in the context of a community. When Lea looked around and heard so many stories about suffering , she asked herself where their strength comes from. And she answered herself: “ When anyone of them cries out the others hear – and listen. Not just with their ears but with their hearts. No matter who cries out – someone listens-“
Henderson sees depression as lack of faith. The lack of faith makes the world so bleak. Only faith can restore meaning to so much suffering. Only faith can mitigate the sense of loneliness.
There are other traditions within the mental health realm that consider faith and community as central components of recovery, such as all the self help groups that are AA based. Faith and participation in community are considered a prerequisite for recovery.
Henderson’s prescriptions for recovery are challenging. As a therapist myself, Can I prescribe faith or community? I do not know. Is faith, or community, always beneficial? Probably not. However, I find her intuition, that probably stemmed from her own experience, very inspiring.
Ingathering: The Complete People Stories of Zenna Henderson


journal as a self help tool

Many people use a  journal to enhance their well being and cope with variety of mental health challenges.  A journal can have a wide variety of uses. The Journal can enhance a persons creativity. The Journal may also be helpful in managing the writer’s emotions. The Journal may be a useful tool in delving into, and coming to terms with one’s past.

One technique is recommended in  The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity [10th Anniversary Edition].

The instruction provided in the “Artists Way”   is  to write what ever comes to mind. You should let the written words pour out in a stream of consciousness with no regard or concern for literary value. The method is based on the assumption that no one will ever see your journal so you are free to write whatever comes to mind. In fact you are advised not to look back and reread what you wrote. It is the act of uninhibited writing that is therapeutic. This technique was initially developed to enhance creativity. Clinical experience shows that it support mental health as well.

People that are depressed should be cautious using this method. For some, it can be beneficial. Others may find that this method exacerbates their depression . They may use the free flowing journal to dwell on minor faults  and sorrows. These people may benefit more from a more structured way of journaling.

One of the simplest structured forms of writing a journal to help alleviate depression is, at the end of the day, to write down three things that you are grateful for.  It is important to persevere and to write down three real things that are unique; not to repeat oneself day after day. As simple as this may sound, studies have shown a beneficial effect of this method. It gradually alters the way we perceive our world.

journal as self help tool for mental health


Humor and Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy does not have to always be  a serious endeavor. Sometimes  laughter can be more effective than tears. Loretta Laroche is a clinical psychologist, and a stand up comedian; an unusual combination. Her CD’s and DVD’s teach the basics of cognitive behavioral therapy and existential therapy through a humorous examination of her own life. Very uplifting, lots of common sense, gives a great perspective on life. An effective audio antidepressant.

How to Be A Wild, Wise, and Witty Woman 4-CD: Making the Most Out of Life Before You Run Out of It

Life Is Short, Wear Your Party Pants


Social Anxiety (Social Phobia)

Managing Social Anxiety

Social anxiety can reduce you quality of life, not let you achieve your full potential, and ultimately lead to depression. What results is a vicious cycle – the more anxious you are, the more barriers you will encounter in your life, the more depressed you become, which ultimately contribute to your anxiety. I recommend this self-help book. It is part of a series published by Oxford University Press. All the books adhere to cognitive-behavioral approach. They come in pairs – one for the client, one for the therapists. All those I have seen so far, were excellent. If you read this book, and work along its guideline, you may not even need to see me. And if you do, it will shorten the treatment and make my work easier.