But I’m normally a rational person …

She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, her uneasy hands fidgeting together, her eyes flitting around as she tried to focus on the wall across from her, unable to find a target for her empty gaze.

“But … I’m normally a rational person,” she said, finally putting words to the thought that had been evading her for half a minute.

She was a woman in her mid thirties, with a comfortable job, a family and a mortgage in the suburbs.  We were halfway through a standard GP consult, and we had already discussed and resolved something trivial before she finally plucked up the courage to change tack and reveal the hidden agenda she’d hoped to discuss all along.

“I’m anxious all the time.  I try so hard, but I can’t seem to stop thinking about all the things that could go wrong.”

I empathised.  I’ve been there too – I’ve lived through times when my anxiety disorder was so debilitating that I wouldn’t call someone on the phone for fear of dialling the wrong number.  Or when I was so depressed that I couldn’t see anything positive for the future, when nearly every thought I had was saturated with moribund darkness.

I was anxious as a teenager, but I was depressed as an adult.  I’d been through medical school and I had attained by GP fellowship when my depression took hold.  During the four years or so that I spent with the black dog, I was constantly haunted by the same narrative that now haunted my patient … “I’m a rational person, why am I thinking like this?”

The fact I had fellowship level medical training intensified my mental self-flagellation, “I know all about depression.  I understand CBT.  I know I’m ruminating on catastrophic thoughts.  So why can’t I stop them?  If only I could think more positively, I’d be so much better.”

I found myself in a self-defeating spiral, often called the struggle switch, where I thought I knew how to climb out of my psychological mire, but all I achieved in trying to climb out was to sink further in, making me feel more defeated, even more of a failure.  It was a very difficult time which I thought would never end.

Eventually it lifted, like a heavy fog thinning in the morning sunlight, but it certainly wasn’t the result of anything clever I did.  So why did my rational brain keep filling my mind with irrational thoughts?

The answer lay in a paradigm shift away from the long held beliefs that we were taught at medical school and in our general practice training.  We’ve been lead to believe for so many years that our thoughts were the key driver of our behaviour, but it turns out that it’s actually the other way around, our behaviour is but one of a number of key driver of our thoughts.

The foundation of CBT is the notion that challenging maladaptive thoughts helps to empower behavioural change.  Except that research suggests that cognitive therapy specifically targeting problem thoughts offers no extra improvement over behavioural therapy alone.

Herbert and Forman confirm this when they point out that, “proponents of behavioral activation point to the results of component control studies of CT, in which behavioral activation or exposure alone is compared to behavioral activation (or exposure) plus cognitive restructuring. The majority of these studies have failed to demonstrate incremental effects of cognitive restructuring strategies.” [1]

This fact has been further confirmed by a number of meta-analyses [2] and by a large randomised controlled trial comparing behavioural therapy and cognitive therapy side by side with medication for depression [3].

So therapies aimed at fixing thinking works equally as well as therapies aimed only at promoting therapeutic action.  However, when thinking therapies are added to behaviour therapies, they add no extra benefit over and above the behaviour therapies alone [2].  This suggests that action is the driver of the therapeutic effects of psychological therapy.  If thinking were the driving force of psychological change, the addition of cognitive therapy to behaviour therapy should have an incremental effect.

That cognitive therapy works equally well as behavioural therapy may be related to their fundamental similarities. Dobson et al explains, “Behavioural Activation is implemented in a manner that is intended to both teach coping skills and to reduce future risk. The same is true for Cognitive Therapy, which adds an emphasis on cognitive change, but otherwise takes a similar skills-training approach.” [3]  In other words, cognitive behavioural therapy is just behavioural therapy with bling.

Herbert and Forman summarise it nicely, “The ideas that thoughts and beliefs lead directly to feelings and behavior, and that to change one’s maladaptive behavior and subjective sense of well-being one must first change one’s cognitions, are central themes of Western folk psychology.  We encourage friends to ‘look on the bright side’ of difficult situations in order to improve their distress. We seek to cultivate ‘positive attitudes’ in our children in the belief that this will lead to better academic or athletic performance. Traditional cognitively-oriented models of CBT (e.g., CT, stress inoculation training, and rational emotive behavior therapy) build on these culturally sanctioned ideas by describing causal effects of cognitions on affect and behavior, and by interventions targeting distorted, dysfunctional, or otherwise maladaptive cognitions.” [1]

I understand this is going to ruffle some feathers, and not everyone is going to be keen to dispense with CBT just yet, but I hope this gets us thinking about thinking at the very least.

For me, coming to an understanding that my thoughts were just the dashboard and not the engine helped me to pay less attention to them and to focus my healing energies on what was really important, taking values based action rather than just fighting with my stream of thoughts.

And it’s helped me to empathise differently with my patients and reassure them that you can still be a rational person even if your thoughts don’t always seem to follow suit.

[1]       Herbert JD, Forman EM. The Evolution of Cognitive Behavior Therapy: The Rise of Psychological Acceptance and Mindfulness. Acceptance and Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011;1-25.
[2]       Longmore RJ, Worrell M. Do we need to challenge thoughts in cognitive behavior therapy? Clinical psychology review 2007 Mar;27(2):173-87.
[3]       Dobson KS, Hollon SD, Dimidjian S, et al. Randomized trial of behavioral activation, cognitive therapy, and antidepressant medication in the prevention of relapse and recurrence in major depression. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 2008 Jun;76(3):468-77.

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Dr Caroline Leaf and the 98 Percent Myth

Dr Caroline Leaf believes that nearly all our diseases come from our thoughts.

Dr Caroline Leaf believes that nearly all our diseases come from our thoughts.

In the hustle and bustle of daily life, most people wouldn’t stop to consider what makes people sick.  In my profession, I get a front row seat.

In the average week, I get to see a number of different things.  Mostly “coughs, colds and sore holes” as the saying goes, although there are some rarer things too.  And sometimes, people present with problems that aren’t for the faint of heart (or stomach – beware of nail guns is all I can say).

Normally, the statistics of who comes in with what doesn’t make it beyond the desk of the academic or health bureaucrat.  The numbers aren’t as important as the people they represent.

But to Dr Caroline Leaf, Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist, the numbers are all important.  To support her theory of toxic thoughts, Dr Leaf has stated that “75 to 98% of mental and physical (and behavioural) illness comes from one’s thought life” [1: p37-38].  She has repeated that statement on her website, on Facebook, and at seminars.

As someone with a front row seat to the illnesses people have, I found such a statement perplexing.  In the average week, I don’t see anywhere near that number.  In general practices around Australia, the number of presentations for psychological illnesses is only about eight percent [2].

But Australian general practice is a small portion of medicine compared to the world’s total health burden.  Perhaps the global picture might be different?  The World Health Organization, the global authority on global health, published statistics in November 2013 on the global DALY statistics [3] (a DALY is a Disability Adjusted Life Year).  According to the WHO, all Mental and Behavioural Disorders accounted for only 7.2% of the global disease burden.

You don’t need a statistics degree to know that seven percent is a long way from seventy-five percent (and even further from 98%).

Perhaps a large portion of the other ninety-three percent of disease that was classified as physical disease was really caused by toxic thoughts?  Is that possible?  In short: No.

When considered in the global and historical context, the vast majority of illness is related to preventable diseases that are so rare in the modern western world because of generations of high quality public health and medical care.

In a recent peer-reviewed publication, Mara et al state, “At any given time close to half of the urban populations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America have a disease associated with poor sanitation, hygiene, and water.” [4] Bartram and Cairncross write that “While rarely discussed alongside the ‘big three’ attention-seekers of the international public health community—HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria—one disease alone kills more young children each year than all three combined. It is diarrhoea, and the key to its control is hygiene, sanitation, and water.” [5] Hunter et al state that, “diarrhoeal disease is the second most common contributor to the disease burden in developing countries (as measured by disability-adjusted life years (DALYs)), and poor-quality drinking water is an important risk factor for diarrhoea.” [6]

Diarrhoeal disease in the developing world – the second most common contributor to disease in these countries, afflicting half of their population – has nothing to do with thought.  It’s related to the provision of toilets and clean running water.

We live in a society that prevents half of our illnesses because of internal plumbing.  Thoughts seem to significantly contribute to disease because most of our potential illness is prevented by our clean water and sewerage systems.  Remove those factors and thought would no longer appear to be so significant.

In the same manner, modern medicine has become so good at preventing diseases that thought may seem to be a major contributor, when in actual fact, most of the work in keeping us all alive has nothing to do with our own thought processes.  Like sanitation and clean water, the population wide practices of vaccination, and health screening such as pap smears, have also significantly reduced the impact of preventable disease.

Around the world, “Recent estimates of the global incidence of disease suggest that communicable diseases account for approximately 19% of global deaths” and that “2.5 million deaths of children annually (are) from vaccine-preventable diseases.” [7] Again, that’s a lot of deaths that are not related to thought life.

Since 1932, vaccinations in Australia have reduced the death rate from vaccine-preventable diseases by 99% [8].  Epidemiological evidence shows that when vaccine rates increase, sickness from communicable diseases decrease [9: Fig 2, p52 & Fig 8, p67].

Population based screening has also lead to a reduction in disease and death, especially in the case of population screening by pap smears for cervical cancer.  Canadian public health has some of the best historical figures on pap smear screening and cervical cancer. In Canada, as the population rate of pap smear screening increased, the death rate of women from cervical cancer decreased.  Overall, pap smear screening decreased the death rate from cervical cancer by 83%, from a peak of 13.5/100,000 in 1952 to only 2.2/100,000 in 2006, despite an increase in the population and at-risk behaviours for HPV infection (the major risk factor for cervical cancer) [10].

And around the world, the other major cause of preventable death is death in childbirth.  The risk of a woman dying in childbirth is a staggering one in six for countries like Afghanistan [11] which is the same as your odds playing Russian Roulette.  That’s compared to a maternal death rate of one in 30,000 in countries like Sweden.  The marked disparity is not related to the thought life of Afghani women in labour.  Countries that have a low maternal death rate all have professional midwifery care at birth.  Further improvements occur because of better access to hospital care, use of antibiotics, better surgical techniques, and universal access to the health system [11].  Again, unless one’s thought life directly changes the odds of a midwife appearing to help you deliver your baby, toxic thoughts are irrelevant as a cause of illness and death.

Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, her statement that “75 to 98 percent of mental, physical and behavioural illnesses come from toxic thoughts” is a myth, a gross exaggeration of the association of stress and illness.

In the global and historical context of human health, the majority of illness is caused by infectious disease, driven by a lack of infrastructure, public health programs and nursing and medical care.  To us in the wealthy, resource-rich western world, it may seem that our thought life has a significant effect on our health.  That’s only because we have midwives, hospitals, public health programs and internal plumbing, which stop the majority of death and disease before they have a chance to start.

Don’t worry about toxic thoughts.  Just be grateful for midwives and toilets.


1.         Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:

2.         FMRC. Public BEACH data. 2010  [cited 16JUL13]; Available from: <http://sydney.edu.au/medicine/fmrc/beach/data-reports/public%3E.

3.         World Health Organization, GLOBAL HEALTH ESTIMATES SUMMARY TABLES: DALYs by cause, age and sex, GHE_DALY_Global_2000_2011.xls, Editor 2013, World Health Organization,: Geneva, Switzerland.

4.         Mara, D., et al., Sanitation and health. PLoS Med, 2010. 7(11): e1000363 doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000363

5.         Bartram, J. and Cairncross, S., Hygiene, sanitation, and water: forgotten foundations of health. PLoS Med, 2010. 7(11): e1000367 doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000367

6.         Hunter, P.R., et al., Water supply and health. PLoS Med, 2010. 7(11): e1000361 doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000361

7.         De Cock, K.M., et al., The new global health. Emerg Infect Dis, 2013. 19(8): 1192-7 doi: 10.3201/eid1908.130121

8.         Burgess, M., Immunisation: A public health success. NSW Public Health Bulletin, 2003. 14(1-2): 1-5

9.         Immunise Australia, Myths and Realities. Responding to arguments against vaccination, A guide for providers. 5th ed. 2013, Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Health and Ageing, Canberra:

10.       Dickinson, J.A., et al., Reduced cervical cancer incidence and mortality in Canada: national data from 1932 to 2006. BMC Public Health, 2012. 12: 992 doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-12-992

11.       Ronsmans, C., et al., Maternal mortality: who, when, where, and why. Lancet, 2006. 368(9542): 1189-200 doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(06)69380-X