Dr Caroline Leaf – Inside Out and Back-to-Front

Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, put this up on her social media pages this morning:

“Never feel bad for being sad. Emotions should not be kept inside because that will only make things worse. Talk to someone, cry, scream… whatever helps you feel better. One of my favorite movies is Inside Out because it really highlights the importance of letting yourself feel sad as part of the healing process. I really encourage all of you to not keep emotions bottled up. Let it out!”

Inside Out is one of my favourite movies too.  It is a rich layering of some complex psychology, told through a wonderfully relatable narrative that is beautifully told.

Inside Out is about the emotions that live inside us. Riley, an 11-year-old girl, moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, and the movie tells the story of her emotions as they deal with all of the conflicts and chaos that comes with adapting to such a big change.

The main characters are Joy and Sadness, which share “headquarters” with Anger, Fear and Disgust.  Each character has its own role to play, which Joy, as the main narrator of the movie, explains:

“That’s Fear.  He’s really good at keeping Riley safe.”
“This is Disgust. She basically keeps Riley from being poisoned, physically and socially.”
“That’s Anger. He … cares very deeply about things being fair.”

And Sadness?  “And you’ve met Sadness.  She … well, she … I’m not actually sure what she does …”

Dr Leaf explained that Inside Out, “… really highlights the importance of letting yourself feel sad as part of the healing process.”

Well, that’s one way of putting it, but Inside Out is actually much much deeper.  The story of Inside Out demonstrates that all of our emotions are needed in order to be a healthy human being.

Joy thinks of herself as the primary emotion, and does her best to keep Sadness away from the control panel.  Over the arc of the story, Joy learns that Riley needs Sadness too – that some problems can’t be solved with distraction or a pop-psychology pep-talk and positive attitude.

By the end of the movie, Joy allows Sadness to take over, helping Riley to process all of the things she had been struggling with after the major life change of her move to San Francisco.

This is what Dr Leaf was referring to, I think.  Yes, sadness is part of healing from any major life change including grief.

What Dr Leaf didn’t discuss was the role of the other emotions in Riley’s life.  Yes, Joy and Sadness are important, but the movie demonstrated all the way through that Fear, Anger and Disgust were all just as important, and the end of the movie showed that Riley’s core memories, which each formed a different aspect of her personality, were various combinations of all of the emotions.

But that’s not what Dr Leaf teaches.  For decades, her teaching has been back-to-front, claiming that emotions like anger and fear are toxic, and that toxic emotions cause damage to your brain and damage to your health.  She tells her followers not to think toxic thoughts or to have toxic emotions, but to take control of your thought life.

“Toxic thoughts are thoughts that trigger negative and anxious emotions, which produce biochemicals that cause the body stress.” [1] (p19)

“Hostility and rage are at the top of the list of toxic emotions; they can produce real physiological reactions in the body and cause serious mental and physical illness.” [1] (p30)

“There are two groups of emotions that are polar opposites: positive, faith-based emotions and negative, fear-based emotions. Each has its own set of molecules and performs as spiritual forces with chemical and electrical representation in the body. Faith-based emotions are love, joy, peace, happiness, kindness, gentleness, self-control, forgiveness and patience.  These produce good attitudes and thoughts.  Fear-based emotions include hate, anxiety, anger, hostility, resentment, frustration, impatience and irritation. These produce toxic attitudes and create a chemical reaction in the body that can alter behavior.” http://tkr-onfire4him.blogspot.com.au/2009/01/controlling-toxic-thoughts-and-emotions.html

“When you think a toxic thought, or make a bad choice, or you hang on to anything that is negative—anger, bitterness, hurt, irritation, or frustration—it impacts the production of those chemicals.”
“Through an uncontrolled thought life, we create the conditions for illness; we make ourselves sick! Research shows that fear, all on its own, triggers more than 1,400 known physical and chemical responses and activates more than 30 different hormones. There are INTELLECTUAL and MEDICAL reasons to FORGIVE! Toxic waste generated by toxic thoughts causes the following illnesses: diabetes, cancer, asthma, skin problems and allergies to name just a few. Consciously control your thought life and start to detox your brain!” https://drleaf.com/about/toxic-thoughts/

So it’s really interesting to see Dr Leaf discuss a movie that promotes the exact opposite of her teaching.  Perhaps she’s finally coming around to what real neuroscientists and researchers have been saying for ages, that “adaptive coping does not rely exclusively on positive emotions nor on constant dampening of an emotional reaction … Adaptive coping profits from flexible access to a range of genuine emotions as well as the ongoing cooperation of emotions with other components of the action system.” [2]

If Dr Leaf is finally coming around to real science, then that’s great, but she can’t have it both ways … she can’t promote expressing your emotions on one hand and then suppressing them on the other.  If she wants to come back to the fold of real science, then she’s going to have to renounce her previous teaching, and take it down from her website.  Otherwise it ends up being conflicting and hypocritical as well as being downright confusing.

So, Dr Leaf, you’re welcome to use movies like Inside Out to illustrate good psychological principles, but if you want credibility, you should work on some consistency.

References
[1]       Leaf CM. Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2013.
[2]       Skinner EA, Zimmer-Gembeck MJ. The development of coping. Annual review of psychology 2007;58:119-44.

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The Prospering Soul – Just what is mental health?

When Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica a couple of thousands years ago, he said, “May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23 -The Message)

The modern western church has two out of three. As modern Christians, we have the fitness of the Spirit pretty well down, and we’re not too shabby on our physical fitness either. Unfortunately, we still have a way to go on the Soul thing.

In 2013, Rick Warren stood in front of his church after the suicide of his son, and promised he would work to reduce the stigma of mental illness in the Christian church (http://swampland.time.com/2013/07/28/rick-warren-preaches-first-sermon-since-his-sons-suicide/). Rick Warren experienced the stigma and destruction of poor mental health first hand. So have many others in the church, as have I.

It’s my passion to help the Christian church prosper, our bodies, our spirits, AND our souls.   Over the next few months, I’ll be doing a series of blogs on mental health, to encourage and help those in the church battling mental illness, and everyone else in the church to know how to assist them in their battle.

Together, we can help to eliminate the stigma and destruction that mental health can bring into the lives of Christians, and that we may prosper in all things and be in health, just as our soul prospers (3 John 1:2).

To start with, it would help if we knew what it meant to be in good mental health, and what separates mental health from mental illness. The distinction isn’t always so obvious. There are a few ways to define or conceptualise mental health and illness, but to cut through the thousands of words of medical and scientific jargon, the difference between good mental health and bad mental health is often to do with changes to our thinking, mood, or behaviour, combined with distress and/or impaired functioning. [1] Our mental health is intimately linked with our physical health, and often physical illness will lead to changes to our thinking, mood, or behaviour, combined with distress and/or impaired functioning too, although strictly speaking, that’s not a pure mental health disorder.

What IS important for the average church goer to understand is that we all experience some changes to our mental health at different times in our lives. For example, we all experience grief and loss at some time in our lives, and at that time, it’s normal to experience extreme sadness, sleeplessness, anger, or guilt. What differentiates grief from depression is the trigger, and the time the symptoms take to resolve. In general, how we perceive our thoughts and behaviours, and how much any signs and symptoms affect our daily activities can help determine what’s normal for us.

There are some common signs that can help in knowing if professional help may be needed. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but if you or a loved one experiences:

  • Marked change in personality, eating or sleeping patterns
  • Inability to cope with problems or daily activities
  • Strange or grandiose ideas
  • Excessive anxiety
  • Prolonged depression or apathy
  • Thinking or talking about suicide
  • Drinking alcohol to excess or taking illicit drugs
  • Extreme mood swings or excessive anger, hostility or violent behaviour

then consult your family doctor or psychologist, or encourage your loved one to seek help. With appropriate support, you can identify mental health conditions and explore treatment options, such as medications or counselling.

Many people who have mental health conditions consider their signs and symptoms a normal part of life or avoid treatment out of shame or fear. If you’re concerned about your mental health or a loved one’s mental health, don’t hesitate to seek advice.

If you or a loved one have, or still struggle with, mental illness, I welcome your comments.

I can’t give specific counselling or advice in this forum, but if you are suffering from mental health problems and need help, see your GP or a psychologist, or if you’re in Australia, 24 hour telephone counselling is available through:

Lifeline = 13 11 14 – or – Beyond Blue = 1300 22 4636

References

  1. National Institute of Mental Health, Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Editor 1999, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services: Rockville, MD.

The pain and gain of grief

Floral tribute to the Sydney siege victims, at Martin Place, Sydney

Floral tribute to the Sydney siege victims, at Martin Place, Sydney

In many ways, 2014 hasn’t been the best of years, unless you’re a florist.

A dear friend of mine recently went through an unimaginable personal loss, but politely requested that no one send her flowers, because the unintentional metaphor of receiving something beautiful that soon withered and died simply reminded her of what she had lost. Not that I could have given her flowers anyway – it seems like all of Australia’s bouquets have been laid in Martin Place.

The siege in the Lindt Cafe was an assault on Australia’s national psyche as much as it was an attack on a small café in the CBD of Sydney, and marks a highpoint of suffering in the midst of several tragedies back to back. Soon after the tragic events in Martin Place, news came of the murder of eight children from the one family in Cairns. Two weeks before, we were rocked by the sudden death of cricketer, Phil Hughes.

Like many, many others in the last few weeks, I’ve felt that discombobulating mix of sadness, compassion, anxiety, and numbness (and many other feelings) that accompanies loss. I was grieving.

Grief is not fun. There are a wide variety of ways in which people grieve, of course, though grief is rarely described as joyous. Rather than being the five stages of grief that used to be dutifully learned by every medical and psychology student, grief is now considered a mish-mash of nearly every different emotion that a human can experience, for different lengths of time, at different intensities, in different patterns. Like your fingerprint, your emotional pattern of adapting to loss is as individual as you are. I felt helpless at the news from my close friend, shock at the death of Phil Hughes, and anxious when thinking about the Lindt Café. Each tragedy was also accompanied by a deep sadness.

As well as being emotionally draining, the process of grieving can have physical effects as well, associated with high levels of pro-inflammatory cytokine release and the changes that are associated with that (O’Connor, Irwin & Wellisch, 2009). Pro-inflammatory cytokines are also released because of physical stress or infection, so grief would physically feel like you have the flu, which is probably why grieving makes you feel physically awful as well as mentally distraught.

As awful as these feelings are, they are important to our healing and restoration. Grief functions as a way of helping us adjust to life on the other side of our loss. Like our body has to heal and adapt to physical wounds, grief helps us heal and adapt emotionally. Grief is not a disease, but a normal process that everyone experiences at one point or another.

Some authors teach that negative feelings and emotions are toxic, or that the outcome of different stresses in our life is dependent on our personal choices. If there was ever a case-in-point of the benefit of “negative” emotions, and why the outcome of stressful events is not entirely under our control, it’s grief. Grieving is a process which, by definition, is distressing. The storms of painful emotion roll through us, triggered and controlled by our subconscious brain, with our conscious mind along for the ride. As distressing as those emotions can be, they are not ‘negative’ emotions, but the process of healing,

At times of intense sorrow, we can try and ‘help’ those who are grieving by telling them how they should feel, or what they should do, but during times of grief, being too directional is usually not helpful. The blog today is more general in nature because I don’t want to try and push one particular way of grieving over another. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.

My Physical Education teacher often used to say, “No pain, no gain.” Actually, it was more barking through his megaphone, trying to make me run faster in my cross-country race. It may seem an odd match, but the principle applies here too. If you are feeling the sadness and loss over the Lindt Café, Phil Hughes, Robin Williams, or any other personal loss you may have experienced, it’s ok to feel the distress. The pain is hard. The feelings are raw, and they are real. But you will get through them, and they will help you to experience the joy in life again.

I am coming to terms with each of these different tragedies in my own way. Lets pray that 2015 is a much better year.

If you are struggling and don’t know where to go to talk or find assistance, see your GP or psychologist, visit BeyondBlue (http://www.beyondblue.org.au), or the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement (http://www.grief.org.au).

If you want to donate to the funds or foundations set up in honour of the Sydney siege victims, please go to http://www.beyondblue.org.au/get-involved/make-a-donation or http://thekatrinadawsonfoundation.org.

References

O’Connor, M.-F., Irwin, M. R., & Wellisch, D. K. (2009). When grief heats up: Proinflammatory cytokines predict regional brain activation. NeuroImage, 47(3), 891–896. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.05.049