The soul, stress, sugar and spin

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Stress and sugar.  In our post-modern society’s orthorexic narrative, these are two of the biggest villains.  So combining them into a diabolical duo reinforces their evil even more.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist, self-titled cognitive neuroscientist and Christian life coach.  In her latest newsletter to her adoring fans, Dr Leaf has accused sugar and stress of mass murder, with our soul’s approach to stress as their accomplice.

I’m sure Dr Leaf means well, but just because she’s not trying to frighten sales out of the gullible and vulnerable doesn’t mean she gets a free pass on the accuracy of her information.

To boil it down, Dr Leaf’s argument goes something like this:

Our choices turn good stress into bad stress
Bad stress releases excess cortisol which leads to disease and death
Therefore our choices to stress causes disease and death

We control our choices through our minds
Therefore, our mind is the key to stress illness
(oh, and sugar …)

The arguments seem plausible on the surface.  Most people have heard enough about stress to know about ‘good’ stress and ‘bad’ stress.  It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to say that ‘bad’ stress is a significant cause of disease and death.  In the middle of her essay, Dr Leaf jumps from stress to sugar with no preceding link, but again, most people have heard that sugar is unhealthy, so they would probably just accept that statement too.

Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, her article has several critical errors which turn her well-meaning educational essay into a science-fiction short story.

To start with, her essay is built on the dysfunctional premise that the mind controls the brain, so each higher argument or premise is fundamentally skewed from the outset, and in doing so, Dr Leaf simply creates a circular argument of distorted factoids.

For example, her opening sentence: “The hypothalamus is a central player in how the mind (soul) controls the body’s reaction to stress and foods.”  The hypothalamus is a part of the limbic system deep in the brain.  It’s the main pathway from the brain to the endocrine system as Dr Leaf goes on to correctly assert, but essentially it runs on auto-pilot, responding automatically to information already being processed at a level beyond the reach of our conscious awareness and control.  For example, the hypothalamus regulates our body temperature, but it does so without our conscious control.  We can not consciously will our body temperature up or down just with our minds.

It’s the same with the stress response – there are many times where people have a subconscious stress response, where their mind feels like there’s nothing to be afraid of, but their hypothalamus is still priming their system for fight or flight.  White coat hypertension is a prime example.  White coat hypertension, or “White Coat Syndrome” is the phenomenon of people having high blood pressure in their doctor’s office but not at home.  Patients will say to me all the time, “I don’t know why my blood pressure is so high in here.  I feel fine.  I know there’s nothing to be afraid of here.”  But while their conscious mind is relaxed, their deeper subconscious brain remembers those injections that hurt, or that one time a doctor stuck the tongue depressor too far down their throat and they felt like they choked on it, and their hypothalamus is preparing them for whatever nastiness the doctor has for them this time.

Dr Leaf’s statement fails because she wrongly equates our brain with our mind, a subtle perversion which doesn’t just invalidate her premise, but significantly skews the essay as a whole.

As a quick aside, Dr Leaf also says that the hypothalamus “integrates signals from the mind and body, sending them throughout our bodies so that we can react in an appropriate and functional manner, ‘so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love’ (Eph. 4:16 NLT)”.  Ephesians 4:16 isn’t talking about the physical body, but about the body of Christ.  You don’t need to be a Biblical scholar to know this, you just have to be able to read.  Here is what the Bible says, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ — from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” (Ephesians 4:11-16, emphasis added).

There’s no subtlety about this misuse of scripture.  Even non-Christians would be able to figure out that this verse has nothing to do with the physical body.  Dr Leaf has demonstrated that she either doesn’t read the Bible or doesn’t understand it.  Either way, this is a shameful indictment on Dr Leaf’s claim that she’s a “Biblical expert”, and should be ringing alarm bells for every pastor that is considering letting her get behind the pulpit of their church.

Dr Leaf rolls on with her list of medical misinformation.  Some of it is subtle (the “stages of stress”, also termed the General Adaptation Model, is an outdated model of the stress response [1], and CRF and ACTH are released during all stages of stress, not just stage 1).  Some of it is outlandish, like her claim that high levels of stress leads to Cushing’s Syndrome (see http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/2233083-overview#a4 for a list of the causes of Cushing’s Syndrome and note that stress isn’t on the list).

Dr Leaf’s also suggested that it was solely our perception of stress that was the key factor in the outcome of stress, making reference to “a study” showing a 43% increase in mortality if you thought stress was bad.  This is an example of cherry-picking at it’s finest, where one study’s findings are misrepresented to try and support one’s pre-existing position.  Dr Leaf didn’t bother to list her references at the end of the article, instead expecting people to find it for themselves, but I’ve previously seen the study she’s referring to.  Keller and colleagues published the study in 2012 [2].  Their survey suggested a correlation between overall mortality and the combination of lots of stress and the belief that stress is bad.  But remember, correlation does not equal causation, a golden rule which Dr Leaf is quick to ignore when the correlation suits her argument.  The Keller study, while interesting, did not control for the impact of neuroticism, the “negative” personality type which is largely genetically determined and is independently associated with a higher mortality [3-9].  It does not prove that thinking about your stress in a better way makes you live longer.

Dr Leaf went on to claim that “the researchers estimated that the 18,200 people who died, died from the belief that stress is bad for you—that is more than two thousand deaths a year.”  Even here, Dr Leaf manages to get her facts wrong.  The authors actually wrote, “Using these cumulative hazards at the end of the study follow-up period under the assumption of causality, it was estimated that the excess deaths attributable to this combination of stress measures over the study period was 182,079 (controlling for all other covariates), or about 20,231 deaths per year (over 9 years).”

Dr Leaf can’t even get her vexatious arguments right.  Not that the number really matters, because notice how the authors described the magic number as an “assumption of causality”.  Basically the authors said, ‘Well, IF this was the cause of death, then these would be the numbers of deaths attributable.’  They NEVER said that anyone actually died because of their beliefs about stress.  Indeed, the results showed that just believing that stress was bad didn’t make any difference to the mortality rate as Dr Leaf suggested – it was the interaction of high stress AND the belief it was bad that was associated with a higher mortality.  But why let pesky issues like methodological rigour get in the way of sensationalist hyperbole.

Then in the penultimate paragraph, Dr Leaf suddenly decides to throw sugar into the mix.  Somehow without justification, stress is bad and therefore sugar is also bad, and they both throw the hypothalamus and the rest of the body into toxicity.

Dr Caroline Leaf is promoted, by herself and by many in the Christian church, as a Biblical and scientific expert, but in one short promotional essay, Dr Leaf makes multiple critical scientific and exegetical errors.  In other words, her errors in discussing scientific findings and basic Biblical text are so massive that they are incongruent with her claim to be an expert.

Something needs to change – either Dr Leaf revises her knowledge and improves her accuracy, or she needs to stop misleading people from pulpits, both virtual and real.

References

[1]        McEwen BS. Stressed or stressed out: what is the difference? Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN 2005 Sep;30(5):315-8.
[2]        Keller A, Litzelman K, Wisk LE, et al. Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychol 2012 Sep;31(5):677-84
[3]        Okbay A, Baselmans BM, De Neve JE, et al. Genetic variants associated with subjective well-being, depressive symptoms, and neuroticism identified through genome-wide analyses. Nature genetics 2016 Apr 18.
[4]        Servaas MN, Riese H, Renken RJ, et al. The effect of criticism on functional brain connectivity and associations with neuroticism. PloS one 2013;8(7):e69606.
[5]        Hansell NK, Wright MJ, Medland SE, et al. Genetic co-morbidity between neuroticism, anxiety/depression and somatic distress in a population sample of adolescent and young adult twins. Psychological medicine 2012 Jun;42(6):1249-60.
[6]        Koelsch S, Enge J, Jentschke S. Cardiac signatures of personality. PloS one 2012;7(2):e31441.
[7]        Vinkhuyzen AA, Pedersen NL, Yang J, et al. Common SNPs explain some of the variation in the personality dimensions of neuroticism and extraversion. Translational psychiatry 2012;2:e102.
[8]        Gonda X, Fountoulakis KN, Juhasz G, et al. Association of the s allele of the 5-HTTLPR with neuroticism-related traits and temperaments in a psychiatrically healthy population. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci 2009 Mar;259(2):106-13.
[9]        Lahey BB. Public health significance of neuroticism. Am Psychol 2009 May-Jun;64(4):241-56.

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60 seconds – Dr Leaf and Anxiety

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Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, says that “A chaotic mind filled with rogue thoughts of anxiety and worry sends out the wrong signals and affects you right down to the level of your DNA!” She also says that “Toxic thinking destroys the brain!”

In other words:

Anxiety → Toxic thought → DNA changes +  Brain damage

But that’s not what science says. According to modern research, anxiety disorders are the result of a genetic predisposition to increased vulnerability to early life stress, and to chronic stress [1]. The other way of looking at it is that people who don’t suffer from anxiety disorders have a fully functional capacity for resilience [2,3].

In other words:

DNA changes + External stress → Anxiety

Dr Leaf’s teaching is backwards. Perhaps it’s time she turned it around.

References

[1] Duman EA, Canli T. Influence of life stress, 5-HTTLPR genotype, and SLC6A4 methylation on gene expression and stress response in healthy Caucasian males. Biol Mood Anxiety Disord 2015;5:2
[2] Wu G, Feder A, Cohen H, et al. Understanding resilience. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience 2013;7:10
[3] Russo SJ, Murrough JW, Han M-H, Charney DS, Nestler EJ. Neurobiology of resilience. Nature neuroscience 2012 November;15(11):1475-84

Dr Leaf and Anxiety

MIND CHANGES BRAIN? READ THIS …

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They say that if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen … you just have to believe in it to make it work.  Wish upon a star, believe in yourself, speak positively, think things into being … it’s the sort of magical thinking that forms the backbone of Hollywood scripts and self-help books everywhere.

But that’s not how science works.  In the real world, believing in something doesn’t make it magically happen.  Holding onto a belief and trying to make it work leads to bias and error.  Instead of finding the truth, you end up fooling yourself into believing a lie.

This is the trap that Dr Leaf has fallen into as she continually tries to perpetuate the unscientific notion that the mind changes the brain.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  Her philosophical assumptions start with the concept that the mind is separate from and controls the physical brain, and continue to unravel from there.

The problem is that Dr Leaf can’t (or won’t) take a hint.  I’ve discussed the mind-brain link in other blogs in recent times (here and here), but yet Dr Leaf continues to insist that the mind can change the brain.  It’s as if she believes that if she says it for long enough it might actually come true.

Today, Dr Leaf claimed that “newly published” research from Yale claimed that, “Individuals who hold negative beliefs about aging are more likely to have brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”  Except that this research is not really new since it was published last year, and Dr Leaf tried to draw the same tenuous conclusions then as she’s doing now.

She quoted from the interview that one of the authors did for the PR puff piece that promoted the scientific article:

“We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalize from society that can result in pathological brain changes,” said Levy. “Although the findings are concerning, it is encouraging to realize that these negative beliefs about aging can be mitigated and positive beliefs about aging can be reinforced, so that the adverse impact is not inevitable”.

Well, the issue is clearly settled then, all over bar the shouting.  Except that the promotional article doesn’t go through all of the flaws in the methodology of the study or the alternative explanations to their findings.  Like that the study by Levy, “A Culture-Brain Link: Negative Age Stereotypes Predict Alzheimer’s Disease Biomarkers” [1], only showed a weak correlation between a single historical sample of attitude towards aging and some changes in the brain that are known to be markers for Alzheimer Dementia some three decades later.

They certainly didn’t show that stress, or a person’s attitude to aging, in anyway causes Alzheimer Dementia.  And they didn’t correct for genetics in this study which is the major contributor to the risk of developing Alzheimer’s [2].  So no matter what Dr Leaf or the Yale PR department thinks, the results of the study mean very little.

But why let the lack of ACTUAL EVIDENCE get in the way of a good story.

It’s sad to see someone of the standing of Dr Leaf’s shamelessly demoralise themselves, scrambling to defend the indefensible, hoping beyond hope that what they believe will become the truth if they try hard enough.  It doesn’t matter how much Dr Leaf wants to believe that the mind changes the brain, that’s not what science says, and clutching at straws citing weak single studies and tangential press releases isn’t going to alter that.

References
[1]        Levy BR, Slade MD, Ferrucci L, Zonderman AB, Troncoso J, Resnick SM. A Culture-Brain Link: Negative Age Stereotypes Predict Alzheimer’s Disease Biomarkers. Psychology and Aging 2015;30(4).
[2]        Reitz C, Brayne C, Mayeux R. Epidemiology of Alzheimer disease. Nat Rev Neurol 2011 Mar;7(3):137-52.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the mind-brain revisited again

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Dr Leaf’s theme for the week is the mind-brain link. In the last few days, Dr Leaf has posted memes claiming that the brain is seperate from, and subservient to, the mind. Despite evidence to the contrary, she continued the same theme today.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Her teaching is strongly influenced by one of her foundational philosophical positions; that the mind (the intellect, will and emotions) controls the body, which includes the brain. While this idea may be popular with philosophers, it’s not with neuroscientists.

Not that this bothers Dr Leaf, of course, since she’s not really a neuroscientist.

Today’s meme is more or less exactly the same as what she claimed over the previous couple of days, except today’s version is more verbose.

She said,

“Mind directs what the brain does, with the mind being our intellect, will and emotions (our soul realm). This is an interesting concept posing huge challenges and implications for our lives because what we do with our mind impacts our spirit and our body. We use our mind to pretty much do everything.”

At this point, I’m having a strong and nauseating sense of deja vu.

I know I’m going to be repeating myself, but to reinforce the message, lets go through Dr Leaf’s meme to show that it hasn’t gotten any righter with repetition.

“(The) Mind directs what the brain does” … The relationship of the mind to the brain is like the relationship of music and a musical instrument. Without a musical instrument, there is no music. In the same way, the mind is a product of the brain. It’s not independent from the brain. Without the brain, there is no mind. Indeed, changes to the structure or function of the brain often results in changes to the mind. Yesterday I used the example of medications. Caffeine makes us more alert, alcohol makes us sleepy or disinhibited. Marijuana makes it’s users relaxed and hungry, and sometimes paranoid. Pathological gambling, hypersexuality, and compulsive shopping together sound like a party weekend in Las Vegas, but they’re all side effects linked with Dopamine Agonist Drugs, which are used to treat Parkinson’s disease. If a pill affecting the brain can change the function of the mind, then it’s clear that the mind does not direct what the brain does.

“This is an interesting concept posing huge challenges and implications for our lives because what we do with our mind impacts our spirit and our body” … The relationship between our body, mind and spirit is interesting. I’ve written about this before in an essay on the triune being and dualism. But there are no great challenges here or implications here. If anything, knowing that our thoughts don’t have any real power over us is incredibly freeing. Rather than increasing our psychological distress in trying to suppress or control our thoughts, we can step back and focus on committed actions based on our values.

“We use our mind to pretty much do everything” … Actually, we don’t. Much of what we do, say, and even perceive, is related to functions of our brain that are entirely subconscious. This idea is summed up very nicely by Dr David Eagleman, best-selling author and a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas;

” … take the vast, unconscious, automated processes that run under the hood of conscious awareness. We have discovered that the large majority of the brain’s activity takes place at this low level: the conscious part – the “me” that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning – is only a tiny bit of the operations. This understanding has given us a better understanding of the complex multiplicity that makes a person. A person is not a single entity of a single mind: a human is built of several parts, all of which compete to steer the ship of state. As a consequence, people are nuanced, complicated, contradictory. We act in ways that are sometimes difficult to detect by simple introspection. To know ourselves increasingly requires careful studies of the neural substrate of which we are composed.” https://goo.gl/uFKF47

So no matter which way Dr Leaf says it, it simply isn’t true that the mind controls the brain. As I said in my previous post, this is a fatal flaw for Dr Leaf’s teaching. That she keeps using this trope is entirely her choice and her right, but it certainly doesn’t aid her reputation as a credible neuroscientist.

Running of the Elephants – Why thought suppression doesn’t work

Have you ever found yourself about to give a speech or sit an exam, and one of your friends tries to calm you down by saying, “Stop worrying … just don’t think about it!”  Does that ever work?  Not usually!  The more you try to intentionally block it from your mind, the more it wants to pop up again.

Why is that?  It seems intuitive that if you don’t want to think about something, all you need to do is to take control and block it out of your mind, right?

One of Hollywood’s better movies in recent times was “Inception”.  In one of the key early scenes, Arthur is explaining to Saito why inception is impossible,

Saito: If you can steal an idea, why can’t you plant one there instead?
Arthur: Okay, this is me, planting an idea in your mind. I say: don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about?
Saito: Elephants?”

This is a great little dialogue about thought suppression.  Thought suppression is the process of consciously trying to avoid certain thoughts, either by trying to replace the unwanted thought with another thought, or simply trying to repress the unwanted thought.

Our minds tend to focus on the content of a subject.  If the subject is elephants, no matter what words I put in front of it, your mind will think about elephants.  Like if I say, “I love elephants, or I say “Don’t think about elephants”, your brain hears, “blah blah blah elephants.”  And having been sensitized to the idea of not thinking about elephants, when your mind inevitably brings it up again, you’re primed to pay even more attention to it, “D’oh, I’ve just thought about elephants again … stop thinking about elephants …”.

This phenomenon is even more pronounced if your mind has already been focusing on the subject.  If you’re mind is going over and over a speech you have to give and I say, “Oh, don’t worry about that speech”, all your mind registers is, “blah blah blah SPEECH”.

Although it’s been discussed in the psychological sciences for decades, it’s only been since the late 1980’s that considerable attention has been given to the concept of thought suppression.  Despite our natural tendencies to try it or recommend it to people, the conclusion of nearly all the research is the same: thought suppression doesn’t work.

Wenzlaff and Wegner, two American psychology researchers, looked at all of the different research on thought suppression and came to the following conclusion,

“What has compelled the interest of the scientific and clinical communities is that suppression is not simply an ineffective tactic of mental control; it is counterproductive, helping assure the very state of mind one had hoped to avoid. The problem of thought suppression is aggravated by its intuitive appeal and apparent simplicity, which help mask its false promises.” [1]

I’m not really sure why we naturally gravitate to thought suppression.  Perhaps it’s part of our natural delusion of control.  Perhaps it’s a throwback from the pop-psychology assumptions that we can control our destiny, or the common myth that our mind is in control of our brain.

Whatever the reason, as time has passed, researchers are coming to understand why thought suppression is so unhelpful.  This quote from Magee and his colleagues helps to explain why:

“This shift in focus parallels advances in cognitive theories of intrusive thoughts, which suggest that having intrusive thoughts is a normative phenomenon; instead, the way an individual interprets those thoughts is expected to lead to benign versus serious outcomes … Similarly, having difficulties with thought suppression is a common experience … it is the way an individual interprets that experience that may be key. Previous discussions of thought suppression have frequently implied that people having difficulties with thought suppression often ascribe negative meaning to their difficulties.” [2]

We naturally struggle to suppress intrusive thoughts because intrusive thoughts are normal.  Trying to suppress them is like trying to suppress any other normal biological process.  Try to stop breathing for any length of time and you’ll see what I mean – it’s impossible, and trying is simply counterproductive.

The key is how we react to or feel about our thoughts.  If we feel like our thoughts might be somehow causing us harm, then our failure to stop them from bubbling up to the surface of our consciousness is going to cause us distress.  It’s a double whammy – we’re stressed because we’re expecting the negative consequences of our thoughts, and we’re distressed by our ‘failure’ to stop them.

Since it first started more than a century ago, the death toll from the famous Pamplona event, “Running of the Bulls” currently stands at 13.  Countless others have been gored and trampled.  Who are the people who get injured during the event?  Certainly not the smart ones standing behind the barriers on the edge of the streets, or the ones watching it broadcast on TV?  Only the morons who try to outrun the pack of foot-long bony skewers attached to the half-ton lumps of very cranky steak.

Similarly, the best way to manage our thoughts is to learn not to fight with them in the first place.  By non-judgmentally observing them, we can simply observe our thoughts for what they are … just thoughts.  By stepping back from our thoughts and giving them room, we find that they don’t have any real power over us.  Stepping back away from our thoughts and letting them be is the skill of defusion, one part of the process of psychological acceptance.  It’s the first step in living a life abundant in meaning and significance.

So just remember: don’t try to suppress an unwelcome thought.  Having intrusive thoughts is actually a normal process, not a sign of disease or mental weakness.  They’re not toxic or harmful, they’re just thoughts.  Give them space, like you would a charging angry bull (or elephant!)

References

[1]        Wenzlaff RM, Wegner DM. Thought suppression. Annual review of psychology 2000;51(1):59-91.
[2]        Magee JC, Harden KP, Teachman BA. Psychopathology and thought suppression: a quantitative review. Clinical psychology review 2012 Apr;32(3):189-201.

Does helping others help you?

John Holmes wrote “There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.”

We all know that exercise is good for us, but is the exercise of the heart, “reaching down and lifting people up” just as good for us?

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  Her meme of the day today was a claim that “Helping others can increase your lifespan.”  She explained that “Researchers found a link between serving others, improved health and decreased mortality! See more at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3780662/pdf/AJPH.2012.300876.pdf”.

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The journal she referenced was a 2013 article by Poulin et al in the American Journal of Public Health [1].  Poulin and his colleagues examined data from nearly 850 people in the Detroit area.  At the start of their study, they asked their participants about stressful life events in the last year and whether they provided tangible assistance to friends or family members.  They then followed their participants for five years and analysed the characteristics of who died in that time.

According to the study by Poulin, those who helped others were younger, healthier, more likely to be White, of higher socioeconomic status, and higher in social support and social contact than those who didn’t help, all factors that have been shown to influence mortality.  They also noted that 70% of their cohort didn’t experience any stressful life events.  While they adjusted for these variables, their statistics would still be affected by them.  As it turns out, while their results were significant, their numbers had broad confidence intervals, so the effect they found is very weak.

What about other studies looking at the same question but in a different way?  Well, there are mixed findings.  Roth and colleagues published a study in 2013 in the American Journal of Epidemiology which also showed that care-givers had better life expectancy than matched controls [1] but then a number of other studies show the opposite.  The Caregiver Health Effects Study found that those who were providing care to a disabled spouse and who reported some strain associated with that care had a 63% elevated risk of death compared with non-caregiving spouses [2]. Other studies suggest that caregivers have poorer mental and physical health status than non-caregivers [3], and caregiving has been widely portrayed as a serious public health problem in the professional literature [4, 5].

So while Poulin found a loose association between helping others and decreased mortality, Dr Leaf has taken that a step too far:

> Firstly, correlation does not equal causation.  Just because a study found those who helped others had a decreased mortality doesn’t mean that the reverse, helping others increases your lifespan, necessarily holds.  There may be other explanations.
> Secondly, other studies show conflicting results, so Poulin’s study may be a statistical hiccough.

It’s not clear that helping others is actually good for our health.  That doesn’t mean to say we shouldn’t help others. I think we should, if for no other reason than the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  But we can’t definitively say that helping others will help us directly by making us live longer.  That’s scientifically still up in the air.

References

[1]        Poulin MJ, Brown SL, Dillard AJ, Smith DM. Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. Am J Public Health 2013 Sep;103(9):1649-55.
[2]        Schulz R, Beach SR. Caregiving as a risk factor for mortality: the Caregiver Health Effects Study. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association 1999 Dec 15;282(23):2215-9.
[3]        Pinquart M, Sorensen S. Differences between caregivers and noncaregivers in psychological health and physical health: a meta-analysis. Psychol Aging 2003 Jun;18(2):250-67.
[4]        Talley RC, Crews JE. Framing the public health of caregiving. Am J Public Health 2007 Feb;97(2):224-8.
[5]        Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. Caregiving, A Public Health Priority.  2010, 7 Dec 2010 [cited 2016 Jan 16]; Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/aging/caregiving/index.htm

The Prospering Soul – Christians and Anxiety

When you say the word “anxiety”, it can mean different things to different people. To a lot of people, anxiety is the same as being a little frightened. To others, it’s being really scared, but with good reason (like if you have to give a speech and you’re afraid of public speaking).

Medically speaking, anxiety isn’t just being frightened or stressed. After all, it’s normal to be frightened or stressed. God made us so that we could experience fear, because a little bit of fear is actually protective. There are dangers all around us, and if we had no fear at all, we’d end up becoming lunch for a wild animal, or road-kill. So there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of anxiety – in the right amount, for the right reason.

But anxiety in the wrong amount or for the wrong reason, can disrupt our day-to-day tasks and make it hard to live a rich and fulfilling life. That’s the anxiety that we’ll be talking about today.

The official description of anxiety reflects this idea of the wrong amount of anxiety about the wrong things: “… marked symptoms of anxiety accompanied by either general apprehension (i.e. ‘free-floating anxiety’) or worry focused on multiple everyday events, most often concerning family, health, finances, and school or work, together with additional symptoms such as muscular tension or motor restlessness, sympathetic autonomic over-activity, subjective experience of nervousness, difficulty maintaining concentration, irritability, or sleep disturbance. The symptoms are present more days than not for at least several months and result in significant distress or significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” (This is taken from the beta-version of the latest WHO diagnostic guidelines, the ICD-11, but has yet to be formally ratified).

There are six main disorders that come under the “anxiety disorders” umbrella, reflecting either an abnormal focus of anxiety or an abnormal intensity:
1. Panic Disorder (abnormally intense anxiety episodes)
2. Social Anxiety Disorder (abnormal anxiety of social interactions)
3. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (abnormally intense episodes of anxiety following trauma)
4. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (abnormally intense and abnormally focussed anxiety resulting in compulsive behaviours)
5. Specific phobias (abnormally focussed anxiety on one particular trigger), and
6. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (abnormal anxiety of everything)

The common underlying theme of anxiety is uncertainty. Grupe and Nitschke wrote, “Anxiety is a future-orientated emotion, and anticipating or ‘pre-viewing’ the future induces anxiety largely because the future is intrinsically uncertain.” [1]

The dysfunctional approach to uncertainty that underlies anxiety is in turn related to genetic changes which affect the structure and function of the brain, primarily in the regions of the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex, which then alters the processing of our brain in five different areas:
> Inflated estimates of threat cost and probability
> Hypervigilance
> Deficient safety learning
> Behavioural and cognitive avoidance
> Heightened reactivity to threat uncertainty

In simpler language:
> the brain thinks that threats are more likely and will be worse than they are
> the brain spends more time looking for possible threats
> the brain fails to learn what conditions are safe, which is aggravated by
> the brain over-using avoidance as a coping mechanism, and
> the brain assumes that unavoidable uncertainty is more likely to be bad.

It’s important to understand at this point that anxiety disorders aren’t the result of poor personal choices. They are the result of a genetic predisposition to increased vulnerability to early life stress, and to chronic stress [2].

The other way of looking at it is that some people are blessed with amazing tools for resilience [3, 4].

It’s not to say that our choices have no impact at all, but we need to be realistic about this. Everyone will experience stressful situations at some point in their lives, and everyone will also make dumb choices in their lives. Some people are naturally better equipped to handle this, whereas some people have genes that make them more vulnerable. It’s wrong to blame yourself, or allow other people to blame you, for experiencing anxiety, just as it’s wrong for other people to assume that if one person can cope with the same level of stress, then everyone else should too.

It’s not to say that you shouldn’t fight back though. Just because your facing a mountain doesn’t mean to say you can’t climb it. It will be hard work, and you’ll need good training and support, but you can still climb that mountain.

Managing anxiety is very similar to managing depression like we discussed in a previous post. Following the tap model, there’s overflow when there is too much going into the system, the system is too small to handle it, and the processing of the input is too slow. So managing anxiety involves reducing the amount of stress going into the system, increasing the systems capacity through learning resilience and coping skills, and sometimes by improving the systems processing power with medications.

Reducing the input – stress management

Sometimes the best way of coping with anxiety is to reduce the stress that’s fanning the flames. It mightn’t seem to come naturally, but as we discussed in the last chapter, there are a few basic skills that are common to all stress management techniques that can form the platform of ongoing better skills in this area.

Engaging the “vagal brake” as proposed by the “Polyvagal Theory” [5] is as important in anxiety as it is in depression. By performing these techniques, the activity of the vagus nerve on the heart via the parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” nervous system is increased, which not only slows down the heart, but enhances the activity of other automatic parts of our metabolism. Some of the techniques allow a relaxed body to have a relaxed brain which can cope better with whatever is confronting it. The full list will be a blog for another time, but the simplest technique is to breathe!

It’s really simple. Sit in a comfortable position. Take slow, deep breaths, right to the bottom of your lungs and expanding your chest forward through the central “heart” area. Count to five as you breathe in (five seconds, not one to five as quickly as possible) and then count to five as you breathe out. Keep doing this, slowly, deeply and rhythmically, in and out. Pretty simple! This will help to improve the efficiency of your heart and lungs, and reduce your stress levels.

Remember, B.R.E.A.T.H.E. = Breathe Rhythmically Evenly And Through the Heart Everyday.

Increasing capacity – coping and resilience

Like with depression, anxiety responds well to psychological therapies which help to increase coping skills and enhance our innate capacity for resilience. And like depression, anxiety improves with CBT and ACT [6, 7], which enhance the activity of the pre-frontal regions of the brain [8]. For anxiety, CBT teaches new skills to handle uncertain situations, and to re-evaluate the chances of bad things happening and what would happen if they do. ACT puts the train of anxious thoughts and feelings in their place, and teaches engagement with the present moment, and a future focusing on values, and accepting the discomfort of uncertainty by removing the distress associated with it.

Practicing each of these skill sets is like practicing any other skill. Eventually, with enough practice, they start to become more like a reflex, and we start to cope with stress and anxiety better automatically.

Increased processing – Medications

Sometimes, to achieve long-term successful management of anxiety, a little extras help is needed in the form of medication. Like depression, the main group of medications used are the Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (or SSRI’s for short). Medications appear to reduce the over-activity of a number of brain regions collectively called the limbic system [8], which are involved with many innate and automatic functions, but in its simplest form, the limbic system controls many of our emotions and motivations, including fear, anger and certain aspects of pleasure-seeking [9]. So essentially, SSRI’s help the anxious brain to make better sense of the incoming signals.

There are other medications commonly used for anxiety treatment, collectively called benzodiazepines. Most people wouldn’t have heard that term before, but would have heard of the most famous member of the benzo family, Valium. Benzos are like having a bit too much alcohol – they slow down the activity of the brain, and induce a feeling of relaxation. When used appropriately (i.e.: in low doses and in the short term), they can be helpful in taking the edge off quite distressing feelings of anxiety or panic. But benzos are not a cure, and after a while, the body builds a tolerance to them, where a higher dose is required to achieve the same effect. Continued long term use eventually creates dependence where a person finds it difficult to cope without them.

The final way to help manage anxiety is prayer. Like for depression, there is limited scientific information on the effects of prayer on, although a small randomised controlled trial did show that prayer with a prayer counsellor over a period of a number of weeks was more effective than no treatment [10].

Though given that anxiety is a future orientated emotion, excessively anticipating possible unwelcome scenarios and consequences, it’s easy to see why prayer should work well for anxiety. Trusting that God has the future in hand and knowing “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28) means that the future is less uncertain. The Bible also encourages us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7) When we give the future to God, he will give us peace in return.

Again, like in the case of depression, it’s sometimes hard for Christians to understand how strong Christians can suffer from anxiety in the first place. After all, we’ve just read how God gives us peace. And the Bible says that the fruit of the Spirit is peace (Galatians 5:22).

So when you’re filled with the opposite, when all you feel is overwhelming fear, it makes you feel like a faithless failure. Christians without anxiety assume that Christians with anxiety aren’t living in the Spirit. And it’s the logical conclusion to draw after all – if the fruit of the Spirit is peace, and you’re not filled with peace, then you mustn’t be full of the Spirit.

But like depression, when you look through the greatest heroes in the Bible, you see a pattern where at one point or another in their lives, they went through physical and emotional destitution, including mind-numbing fear … Moses argued with God about how weak and timid he was (Exodus 3 and 4), Elijah ran for his life in panic and asked God to kill him, twice, over the period of a couple of months after Queen Jezebel threatened him (1 Kings 18 and 19). Peter had spent three years with Jesus, the Messiah himself, hearing him speak and watching him perform miracle after miracle after miracle. But Peter denied his Messiah three times when he was confronted with possible arrest (John 18).

For the same pattern is also seen in King David, Gideon, and a number of other great leaders through the Bible. The take home message is this: it’s human nature to suffer from disease and dysfunction. Sometimes it’s physical dysfunction. Sometimes it’s emotional dysfunction. It’s not a personal or spiritual failure to have a physical illness. Why should mental illness be treated any different?

As the stories of Moses, Elijah and Peter testify, being a strong Christian doesn’t make you impervious to fear and anxiety. Hey, we’re all broken in some way, otherwise why would we need God’s strength and salvation? Having anxiety simply changes your capacity to experience God’s peace. As I said in the last chapter, closing your eyes doesn’t stop the light, it just stops you experiencing the light. Being anxious doesn’t stop God’s peace, it just makes it harder to experience God’s peace.

In summary some anxiety, at the right time and at the right intensity, is normal. It’s not unhealthy or sinful to experience some anxiety. Anxiety at the wrong time or at the wrong intensity, can disrupt our day-to-day tasks and make it hard to live a rich and fulfilling life. Anxiety related to a dysfunctional approach to uncertainty, and is a future-orientated emotion because anticipating or ‘pre-viewing’ the future induces anxiety largely because the future is intrinsically uncertain. Anxiety disorders can be debilitating.

Like depression, anxiety disorders can be managed in four main ways, by reducing the amount of stress coming in with stress management techniques, by increasing capacity to cope with psychological therapies like CBT and ACT, and sometimes by using medications, which help the brain to process the uncertainty of each situation more effectively. Prayer is can also useful to helping to manage anxiety.

Christians are not immune from anxiety disorders, and it’s important for the church to understand that Christians who suffer from anxiety are not weak, backsliding or faith-deficient. Having anxiety is not because of making poor choices. Though if you have anxiety, trust in the promises of the Bible, that God has the future under control.

References

[1]        Grupe DW, Nitschke JB. Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: an integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective. Nature reviews Neuroscience 2013 Jul;14(7):488-501.
[2]        Duman EA, Canli T. Influence of life stress, 5-HTTLPR genotype, and SLC6A4 methylation on gene expression and stress response in healthy Caucasian males. Biol Mood Anxiety Disord 2015;5:2.
[3]        Wu G, Feder A, Cohen H, et al. Understanding resilience. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience 2013;7:10.
[4]        Russo SJ, Murrough JW, Han M-H, Charney DS, Nestler EJ. Neurobiology of resilience. Nature neuroscience 2012 November;15(11):1475-84.
[5]        Porges SW. The polyvagal perspective. Biological psychology 2007 Feb;74(2):116-43.
[6]        James AC, James G, Cowdrey FA, Soler A, Choke A. Cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety disorders in children and adolescents. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2013;6:CD004690.
[7]        Swain J, Hancock K, Hainsworth C, Bowman J. Acceptance and commitment therapy in the treatment of anxiety: a systematic review. Clinical psychology review 2013 Dec;33(8):965-78.
[8]        Quide Y, Witteveen AB, El-Hage W, Veltman DJ, Olff M. Differences between effects of psychological versus pharmacological treatments on functional and morphological brain alterations in anxiety disorders and major depressive disorder: a systematic review. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews 2012 Jan;36(1):626-44.
[9]        Sokolowski K, Corbin JG. Wired for behaviors: from development to function of innate limbic system circuitry. Frontiers in molecular neuroscience 2012;5:55.
[10]      Boelens PA, Reeves RR, Replogle WH, Koenig HG. A randomized trial of the effect of prayer on depression and anxiety. Int J Psychiatry Med 2009;39(4):377-92.

If you’re suffering from anxiety or any other mental health difficulties and if you want 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