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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Does sadness make you sick?

LeafMeme20160107

We’ve all heard of being “homesick”, or “heartsick”, or “lovesick”.   Sometimes when we’re extremely sad, we feel the knot in our stomachs, the pressure in our chests, or the confusion and distraction in our minds as the waves of sadness wash over and discombobulate us.

But can being sad really make you physically ill as well as emotionally distraught?

Dr Caroline Leaf declared today on her social media platforms that “Feeling sad can alter levels of stress-related opioids in the brain and increase levels of inflammatory proteins in the blood that are linked to increased risk of comorbid diseases including heart disease, stroke and metabolic syndrome.”

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  She believes that our cognitive stream of thought determines our physical and mental health, and can even influence physical matter through the power of our minds.

She also added some further interpretation to her meme: “So this is more evidence that our thoughts do count: they have major epigenetic effects on the brain and body! We need to apply the principles in the Bible and listen to the Holy Spirit – no excuses this year!”

With all due respect to Dr Leaf, the study she quotes doesn’t prove anything of the sort.

Dr Leaf’s meme is a copy and paste of the opening paragraph of a news report published by the university’s PR people to promote their faculty.  This isn’t a scientific summary, it’s a hook to draw attention to an article which amounts to a PR puff piece.  If Dr Leaf had read further into the article, I don’t think she would have been quite so bold in claiming what she did.

The article discussed a study by Prossin and colleagues, published in Molecular Psychiatry [1].  You can read the original study here.  The study specifically measured the change in the level of the activity of the opioid neurotransmitter system and the amount of a pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-18 across two experimental mood states, and in two different groups of volunteers, people with depression, and those without.

For a start, it’s important to note that the study isn’t referring to normal day-to-day sadness.  This was an experimentally induced condition in which a sad memory was rehearsed so that the same feeling could be reproduced in a scanner, and the study was looking at the effect of this sad “mood” on people who were pathologically sad, that is, people diagnosed with major depression.

It’s well known that people with depression are at a higher risk of major illnesses, such as heart attacks, strokes and diabetes [2] The current study by Prossin et al looked experimentally at one possible link in the chain, a link between a neurotransmitter system that’s thought to change with emotional states, and one of the chemical mediators of inflammation.

They found that:

> Depressed people were much sadder to start with, and remained so throughout the different conditions.  The depressed people stayed sadder in the ‘neutral’ phase, and the healthy cohort couldn’t catch them in the ‘sad’ phase.
> Depressed people had a much higher level of the inflammatory marker to start with, and interestingly, this level dropped significantly with the induction of the neutral phase and the sad phase.  What was also interesting was that the level of the inflammatory marker was about the same in the baseline and the sad phase for the healthy volunteers.
> A completely different pattern of neurotransmitter release was seen in the two different groups.  People with depression had an increase in the neurotransmitter release over a large number of areas of the brain, whereas in the healthy controls with normal mood, the sad state actually resulted in a decreased amount of neurotransmitter release, and in a much smaller area within the brain.  This suggests that the opioid neurotransmitter system in the brains of depressed people is dysfunctional.

Affect/Sadness Scores - Prossin et al Molecular psychiatry 2015 Aug 18.

Affect/Sadness Scores – Prossin et al Molecular psychiatry 2015 Aug 18.

IL18 v Mood state/diagnosis - Prossin et al Molecular psychiatry 2015 Aug 18.

IL18 v Mood state/diagnosis – Prossin et al Molecular psychiatry 2015 Aug 18.

Effectively, the results of the study reflect what’s already known – the emotional dysregulation seen in people with depression is because of an underlying problem with the brain, not the other way around.  And, sadness in normal people is not associated with a significant change in the evil pro-inflammatory cytokine.

So, according to Prossin’s article,

  1. normal sadness in normal people is not associated with physical illnesses.
  2. sadness is abnormally processed in people who are depressed, which maybe related to an abnormal inflammatory response, which might explain the known link between depression and increased risk of illness

The article is not “more evidence that our thoughts do count.”  If anything, it shows that underlying biological processes are responsible for our thoughts and emotions and their downstream effects, not the thoughts and emotions themselves.

And unfortunately, it appears that Dr Leaf hasn’t got past the opening paragraph of a puff piece article before jumping to a conclusion which only fits her worldview, not the actual science.

References

[1]        Prossin AR, Koch AE, Campbell PL, Barichello T, Zalcman SS, Zubieta JK. Acute experimental changes in mood state regulate immune function in relation to central opioid neurotransmission: a model of human CNS-peripheral inflammatory interaction. Molecular psychiatry 2015 Aug 18.
[2]        Clarke DM, Currie KC. Depression, anxiety and their relationship with chronic diseases: a review of the epidemiology, risk and treatment evidence. Med J Aust 2009 Apr 6;190(7 Suppl):S54-60.

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.