Dr Caroline Leaf – 2 Corinthians 10:5 doesn’t support brain detoxing

According to Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist-come-theologian, 2 Corinthians 10:5 says that “We take every thought prisoner and make it obey the Messiah.”

Sure, part of it does, but does the scripture 2 Corinthians 10:5 lend any credibility to Dr Leaf’s idea that thoughts are toxic and we need to take them captive to detox from them?

She may want it to – her 21 Day Brain Detox is so scientifically anaemic that I can understand her desperation to bolster its credibility any way she can.  Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, misinterpreted scripture isn’t the elixir her teaching needs.

2 Corinthians 10:5 is Pauls famous scripture in which is pens the words “thought” and “captive”, a concept which seems to support Dr Leaf’s ideas.  Except that Paul isn’t speaking generally to us, the body of Christ, but specifically about the Corinthian church. Look at the verse in context:

“By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you – I, Paul, who am ‘timid’ when face to face with you, but ‘bold’ towards you when away! I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be towards some people who think that we live by the standards of this world. For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.  You are judging by appearances. If anyone is confident that they belong to Christ, they should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as they do. So even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of it. I do not want to seem to be trying to frighten you with my letters. For some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.’ Such people should realise that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.” (NIV UK, 2 Corinthians 10:1-11)

This chapter is a specific rebuke to some of the Christians within the church at Corinth, and also a defence against some of the murmurings and accusations that some in that church were levelling at Paul. For example, in verse 2, “I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be towards some people who think that we live by the standards of this world.”

Verses 3-6 are a specific and authoritative rebuttal against the accusations levelled at Paul, paraphrased as, “You may speak against us and the church, but we have weapons that smash strongholds, and we’re coming to take down those pretensions of yours and take every thought of yours captive to make it obedient to Christ, and punish every act of disobedience …”

The specific nature of the verse is also supported by some Bible commentary:

“But how does St. Paul meet the charge of being carnally minded in his high office? “Though we walk in the flesh [live a corporeal life], we do not war after the flesh,” or “according to the flesh,” the contrast being in the words “in” and “according.” And forthwith he proceeds to show the difference between walking in the flesh and warring according to the flesh. A warrior he is, an open and avowed warrior – a warrior who was to cast down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; a warrior too who would punish these Judaizers if they continued their disorganizing work; but a prudent and considerate warrior, deferring the avenging blow till “I am assured of your submission” (Stanley) “that I may not confound the innocent with the guilty, the dupes with the deceivers.” What kind of a preacher he was he had shown long before; what kind of an apostle he was among apostles as to independence, self-support, and resignation of official rights in earthly matters, he had also shown; further yet, what kind of a sufferer and martyr he was had been portrayed.”
(C. Lipscomb – http://biblehub.com/commentaries/homiletics/2_corinthians/10.htm)

Similarly, the translation from the original text is more specific than general. The verb used for “bringing into captivity” is aichmalōtízō, “to make captive: – lead away captive, bring into captivity” which is in the Present Active Participle form of the verb. The present tense represents a simple statement of fact or reality viewed as occurring in actual time. The active voice represents the subject as the doer or performer of the action. The Greek participle corresponds for the most part to the English participle, reflecting “-ing” or “-ed” being suffixed to the basic verb form. Actions completed but ongoing or commands are different verb tenses (see https://www.blueletterbible.org/help/greekverbs.cfm for a better explanation). Paul wasn’t making a general statement, but a specific statement about what he would do in his present time, not the future.

So, Paul isn’t telling us to “bring every thought captive into obedience to Christ”.  Paul is issuing a smack-down to his critics, not telling us to fight our thoughts.

Dr Leaf is guilty of perpetuating a common scriptural misunderstanding in order to try and validate her already weak teaching.

Our thoughts are not toxic.  We do not need to detox our brain.  Misquoted phrases of scripture taken out of context doesn’t change that.

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Dr Caroline Leaf and Testimonials – Good marketing, poor evidence

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She is a pseudoscientist of the highest order. She once wrote a PhD. Now she has episodes of her TV show titled “Surviving cancer by using the Mind”.

This weeks edition of her newsletter started off with some subtle boasting:

“We have received many E-mails over the past years asking for Testimonies with regards to Dr Leaf’s research and teachings. We have summarized eight pages of testimonies received at TESTIMONIES. Be encouraged and feel free to refer them to friends, family, acquaintances, and work colleagues struggling with Mind issues.”

Testimonials are an empty box wrapped in shiny paper and trimmed with a bow. They look really good but offer nothing of substance. They’re simply an old advertising trick.

According to the Market Science Institute, “Testimonial solicitations – in which firms solicit consumers’ personal endorsements of a product or service – represent a popular marketing practice. Testimonials are thought to offer several benefits to firms, among them that participating consumers may strengthen their positive attitudes toward a brand, through the act of writing testimonials.” [1]

Who can argue with a person who says that Dr Leaf helped turn their life around? Saying anything negative just makes you sound like a cynical old boot.

And that’s the real problem, because while publishing a whole bunch of positive stories is good for marketing, it makes it very hard for those who had a genuinely bad experience to say anything. No one wants to listen to those people whom Dr Leaf has confused or mislead – it makes for terrible PR. Those people feel devalued, and sometimes worse, because it seems like everyone else had a good result from Dr Leaf’s teaching, except them.

Testimonials also make for very poor scientific evidence. Indeed, testimonials are considered the lowest form of scientific evidence [2]. It’s all very well and good for a bunch of people to share their positive experiences, but as life changing as the experience may have been, they are not evidence of the effectiveness of Dr Leaf’s teaching. Without specific, well-designed research, no one can say if the testimonials Dr Leaf is publishing are the norm. Recent research demonstrates that self-help literature for depression may not have any benefit over a placebo treatment [3]. So it may be that any improvement attributed to Dr Leaf’s teaching was actually the placebo effect. Dr Leaf can list testimonials until she’s blue in the face, but that doesn’t prove that her work is scientific or therapeutic.

Indeed, selectively publishing testimonials is duplicitous, telling half-truths, positively spinning her own story. How many e-mails has Dr Leaf gotten from people who have found her teaching inaccurate, ineffective, unbiblical or harmful? Dr Leaf’s social media minions deliberately delete any negative comments and block anyone from her sites that disagree with her. And over the years, many people have shared with me how arrogant and dismissive her team has been to polite, genuine concern or criticism. I can personally attest to the same treatment. If Dr Leaf was honest with her followers, she would be openly publishing the brickbats as well as the bouquets.

For her readers and followers, the testimonials need to be seen for what they are: just individual stories. Sure, we should rejoice with those who are rejoicing (Romans 12:15), and so good for those who feel Dr Leaf has helped them. But they do not constitute evidence for the therapeutic efficacy or scientific integrity of the work of Dr Leaf.

For people genuinely struggling with “mind issues”, the last thing they need is testimonials collated by Dr Leaf’s marketing team.  They don’t need to be referred to Dr Leaf’s work, they need to be referred to psychologists and doctors.

And if Dr Leaf really wanted to prove her legitimacy, she would rely on independent peer-reviewed published research, not on the list of vacuous, self-serving cherry-picked testimonials that she is currently offering.

References

[1] Marketing Science Institute. Consumer Testimonials as Self-Generated Advertisements: Evaluative Reconstruction Following Product Usage. [cited 2014, Aug 3]; Available from: http://www.msi.org/reports/consumer-testimonials-as-self-generated-advertisements-evaluative-reconstru/.
[2] Fowler, G., Evidence-based practice: Tools and techniques. Systems, settings, people: Workforce development challenges for the alcohol and other drugs field, 2001: 93-107
[3] Moldovan, R., et al., Cognitive bibliotherapy for mild depressive symptomatology: randomized clinical trial of efficacy and mechanisms of change. Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, 2013. 20(6): 482-93

The Secret Teaching of Dr Caroline Leaf

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the decade, “The Secret” is no secret.  We’ve all heard of the book or the movie, or the countless gurus that promote how they’ve made millions of dollars and found untold happiness by unlocking the power of the Law of Attraction.  You can have that same success too if you buy their book or attend their seminar, or sign up to be part of their network marketing scheme.

Let’s be honest, we’ve probably all, at some point, indulged someone telling us that we just need to think positive or visualise our goal and it will be ours.  It’s even something that many preachers over the years have sold to us in various guises, like hyper-faith, name it and claim it, sowing your seed.

The Secret claims that if we understand we’re all energy, one with the universe and its power, then we can leverage that power to create or receive anything we want with our thoughts.  We just need to think positively and visualise it.  It’s a repackaging of the human potential movement, new age philosophy and cosmic consciousness, all of which is a repackaging of pantheism and Eastern religious teaching.

The author, Rhonda Byrne, (who I’m embarrassed to say is Australian) wrote, “If you’re feeling good, it is because you are thinking good thoughts.”  Ok, but what about when you’re thinking good thoughts and you still feel bad?  What exactly are ‘good thoughts’ anyway?

She also wrote, “Remember that your thoughts are the primary cause of everything.”  So the rise of ISIS is because of my thoughts.  Donald Trump might be President … my thoughts.  An oceanic tectonic shift cuts the undersea trunk line taking out the internet for half the eastern seaboard … Sorry, my bad, I was having negative thoughts again.

So The Secret really doesn’t make a lot of objective sense.  I could go on, but it’s been taken down well enough by a number of commentators and critics over the last decade or so (https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4096; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/june/20.71.html), so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel.  But suffice to say, The Secret fundamentally sells the power of thought to shape our reality … wait, that sounds oddly familiar.  Dr Leaf said the same thing at TD Jakes’ church, the Potter’s House, only this week.

leaf-the-secret

@bishopjakes proudly shared this Instagram post which Dr Leaf duly forwarded to her adoring fans.  “You can shape your reality by the way you think” was even the title of her message.  (She followed it up with an e-mail to her subscribers saying the exact same thing …)

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Dr Leaf’s teaching is eerily similar to The Secret in many other ways.  That quote from before: “Remember that your thoughts are the primary cause of everything” sounds remarkably similar to “Thoughts influence every decision, word, action and physical reaction we make.” (Who Switched Off My Brain, p13)

There are lots of others.  From The Secret:

“Everything else you see and experience in this world is effect, and that includes your feelings. The cause is always your thoughts.”

“Every thought of yours is a real thing – a force.”

“Everything else you see and experience in this world is effect, and that includes your feelings. The cause is always your thoughts.”

“Food cannot cause you to put on weight, unless you think it can.” (This one made me giggle more than the others … yep, those three bottles of Coke I just drank have absolutely no effect on my waistline because I believe that excessive soda consumption is slimming …)

“Your imagination is an extremely powerful tool.”

“Quantum physicists tell us that the entire universe emerged from thought!”

“Quantum physics … says that you can’t have a universe without mind entering into it, and that the mind is actually shaping the very thing that is perceived.”

“The amazing work and discoveries of the quantum physicists over the last eighty years has brought us a greater understanding of the unfathomable power of the human mind to create.”

“Thoughts are magnetic, and thoughts have a frequency. As you think thoughts, they are sent out into the Universe, and they magnetically attract all like things that are on the same frequency. Everything sent out returns to the source – you.”

“There are no limits to what you can create for you, because your ability to think is unlimited!”

Compare that to just a small sample of Dr Leaf’s work:

“Our mind is designed to control the body, not the other way around.  Matter does not control us; we control matter through our thinking and choosing.” (Switch On Your Brain, p33)

“Research shows that 75 to 98 percent of mental, physical and behavioral illness comes from ones thought life.” (Switch On Your Brain, p33)

“DNA actually changes shape according to our thoughts.” (Switch On Your Brain, p35)

“Whatever you are thinking about affects every cell in your body.” (Switch On Your Brain, p94)

“Everything you do and say is first a thought in your physical brain.  You think, then you do, which cycles back to the original thought, changing it and the thoughts connected to it in a dynamic interrelationship.  If your thinking is off … then your communication though what you do and say is off, and vice versa.” (Switch On Your Brain, pp98-99)

“Quantum theory converts science’s conception of humans from being mere cogs in a gigantic, mechanical machine to being freethinking agents whose conscious, free choices affect the physical world.” (Switch On Your Brain: p120-1)

“Thought signals seem to move faster than the speed of light and in ways that classical physics cannot explain.  This means our mind controls matter, and is therefore a creative force.” (Switch On Your Brain, p121)

“These statistics show that the mindset behind the meal – the thinking behind the meal – plays a dominant role in the process of food-related health issues …” (Think and Eat Yourself Smart, p84)

The only difference between The Secret and Dr Leaf’s ministry is Dr Leaf’s claim that science and scripture support it, though lexical contortions of scripture, and cherry-picked pseudoscience does not qualify as supporting evidence.

In the last ten years since The Secret was published, many critics have lined up to pull it apart, some prominent Christians included.  So they should, because The Secret is an abhorrent, unscientific concoction of new age humanism, or as one critic astutely put it, “spiritual narcissism”.

I’ve dissected Dr Leaf’s teaching over the last three-and-a-bit years and shown that her science is wanting, and her scripture is tenuous.  As this week’s sermon aptly demonstrates, Dr Leaf’s teaching appears to be a lukewarm re-serving of The Secret, sprinkled with some scripture and pseudoscience to try and make it more palatable for the Christian church.  Despite the shared narratives of self-obsession and magical thinking, the Christian church still fawns over Dr Leaf.  It’s embarrassing to see the same Christian leaders and media outlets lambaste The Secret but unquestioningly accept the same message woven through Dr Leaf’s teaching.  Dr Leaf’s teaching is so close to The Secret I’m surprised Rhonda Byrne hasn’t asked for royalties.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.  The same goes for ignorance—the only thing necessary for the triumph of ignorance is for smart men (and women) to do nothing.  We also need consistency.  Rejecting The Secret but accepting the same teaching from Dr Leaf creates a cultural cognitive dissonance amongst the Church that’s unhealthy.

Church, it’s time to stand against mistruth no matter what the source.

Bibliography

Byrne, R., The Secret, Atria Books, New York. 2006 ISBN 978-1-58270-170-7

Leaf C., Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. 2nd ed. Southlake, TX, USA: Inprov, Ltd, 2009.

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

Leaf C.M., Think and Eat Yourself Smart. USA: Baker Books, 2016.

Dr Caroline Leaf – Not a mental health expert

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Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  She wrote a PhD on a learning program developed for an educational setting.  She is not a medical doctor.  She is not a psychologist.  She has no experience or training in the diagnosis and management of mental illness.  She is no more qualified to give advice on mental illness than my hairdresser is.

And it shows in her latest social media post: “Lets really start loving as a church- true unconditional non judgmental love – pushing people away and locking them up and drugging them against their will is not the solution to the the problems of life.”

Her statements is a nonsense, nothing more than a scarecrow fallacy.  Yes, pushing people away and locking them up and drugging them against their will is not the solution to the problems of life, that’s why no one does it.  If people were locked up or drugged against their will because of “the problems of life” then we’d all be locked up and drugged.

The only people that are forcibly treated are those with the most serious of mental illnesses whose condition has deprived them of the insight they need to make the decision for themselves.  Even then, the consent for treatment is given by the next of kin, and if no next of kin can provide consent, then the consent is usually made by a independent statutory body so there’s no conflict of interest.

That Dr Leaf continues to make such inane statements about mental illness confirms that she is not fit to give the church, or anyone else for that matter, any advice on mental health.  She may have a PhD in communication pathology but that is a highly specialised field that doesn’t even begin to cross over to clinical knowledge of mental illness.

Dr Leaf has chosen to fill her vacuum of mental health experience with the opinions of Mad In America, a group that’s irrationally biased against modern mental health care.  She regurgitates their creed almost verbatim – mental illness is over diagnosed, psychiatric medications are useless and dangerous, and Dr Leaf also claims that psychiatric medications are only prescribed to bring the cabal of the American Psychiatric Association and the pharmaceutical companies more power and money.

Psychiatric medications are more helpful than harmful (Leucht et al, 2012, Torniainen et al, 2015).  I’ve discussed this in blog posts in the past.  Yes, they’re not without their side effects, and they’re not for every patient, but they have their place in psychiatric care.  That Dr Leaf can’t or won’t review this evidence is just another indictment against her ministry.  That she actively promotes the idea that pharmaceutical companies and the APA are actively attempting to harm people for their own power and riches is scandalous.

If Dr Leaf was serious about promoting good mental health through the church, she should stop promoting baseless anti-psychiatric propaganda, and start encouraging Christians with mental illness to seek the best treatment available, whether that be medications or counselling or both.  She should also start teaching the church the truth about mental illness … That mental illness isn’t caused by poor choices or toxic thoughts, but because of genetic abnormalities that make the affected persons brain more vulnerable to external stress.

Because to stop turning pain and trauma into shame, anger, fear and then hate, people need correct information to allow them to offer real loving understanding and nonjudgmental support to move through the pain.  At the moment, Dr Leaf isn’t offering the church anything even close to that.

References

Leucht S, Tardy M, Komossa K, et al. Antipsychotic drugs versus placebo for relapse prevention in schizophrenia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet 2012 Jun 2;379(9831):2063-71.
Torniainen M, Mittendorfer-Rutz E, Tanskanen A, et al. Antipsychotic treatment and mortality in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia bulletin 2015 May;41(3):656-63.

Anti-depressants – Not the messiah

 “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy, now go away!” 

 Ah, Monty Python – six university students with a penchant for satire who changed the face of comedy.  They say that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, and if that’s the case, Monty Python should be very flattered!  Nearly five decades later, you still hear people throwing around lines from their sketches and getting a laugh.

Their movie, “The Life of Brian” remains one of the most critically acclaimed and most controversial of all movies.  It was the story of Brian, born in the stable next door to Jesus, and who later in life unintentionally becomes the focus of a bunch of people who mistakenly believe he’s the messiah.  One morning he opens his window to find a large crowd of people waiting for him outside his house, leaving his mother to try and dismiss the crowd with that now famous rebuke.

The crowd at Brian’s window aptly demonstrates a quirk in our collective psyche.  We humans have a bipolar tendency to latch on to something that seems like a good idea at the time and blow it’s benefits out of all proportion, only to later discover it wasn’t as good as our overblown expectations and unfairly despise it on the rebound.

Anti-depressant medications are a bit like Monty Python’s Brian.  Back in the late 1980’s when Prozac first came on the market, doctors saw it as the mental health messiah.  Prozac improved cases of long-standing severe depression and was much safer in overdose compared to older classes of psychiatric medications.  The idea that depression and other mental illnesses were related to chemical imbalances fit nicely with the cultural shift away from the Freudian psychotherapy model that was prevalent at the time.  People were describing life changing experiences on Prozac: “One morning I woke up and really did want to live … It was as if the miasma of depression had lifted off me, in the same way that the fog in San Francisco rises as the day wears on.” [1]  Prescribing for Prozac and other SSRI anti-depressants took off.

Fast forward to the present day, where the pendulum has swung back violently.  Anti-depressants are considered by some to be nothing more than over-prescribed placebo medications used by a pill-happy, time-poor culture demanding simple cures for complex problems.  Some commentators have gone so far as to label anti-depressants as an evil tool of the corrupt capitalist psychiatric establishment.

“Anti-depressants are not the messiah, they’re very naughty boys, now go away!” they exclaim.

But are anti-depressants really the enemy, or could they still be friendly, even if they’re not the messiah?

In the Medical Journal of Australia this month, two Australian psychiatrists, Christopher Davey and Andrew Chanen, carefully review the place of anti-depressants in modern medicine [2].  It’s a very balanced and pragmatic view.

They bring together all the evidence to show that while anti-depressants aren’t the elixir of happiness that we once assumed, they also don’t deserve the accusation that they’re nothing but fakes.

When drugs are scientifically tested, they’re usually studied in placebo-controlled trials.  The medications are given to one target group of people and a fake medicine is given to a similar group.  In the best trials, the patients aren’t aware of which they’re actually getting, and the physicians aren’t aware either.  That way personal bias and expectations can be reduced.  To reduce these biases even further, other scientists can pool all of the quality research on a topic in what’s called a meta-analysis.

Trials on anti-depressants initially showed very strong positive results, or in other words, the patients on the drug did much better than those on the placebo.  Anti-depressants lost a lot of their shine in the last decade or so as researchers began pointing out that the placebo effect, the number of patients improving on the fake medicine, was also very high.

There was also the serious, and largely legitimate accusation that drug companies ignored trials with less favourable results to make their drugs look better.  The reputation of anti-depressants was forever tarnished.

One of the most out-spoken critics of anti-depressants, Harvard psychologist Irving Kirsch, tried to show that when all of the trials on anti-depressants were taken together, the placebo effect wasn’t just close to the effectiveness of the real medicine, but was actually the same.

The problem with Kirsch’s analysis is that not all trials are created equal.  Some have negative results because they were poor trials in the first place.  When experts reapplied Kirsch’s methods to the best quality trials, the results suggested that anti-depressants are still effective, but for moderate and severe depression [1].  Anti-depressants for mild depression weren’t of great benefit.

This is take home point number one: Don’t believe the hype.  Anti-depressants are useful, but not for all cases of depression. #happypillshelp

So if anti-depressants aren’t useful for all cases of depression, are other therapies better? This is where psychological therapies come in to the equation.  Those who are the most vocal opponents of modern psychiatry and psychiatric medications are also the most vocal promoters of the benefits of talking therapies.  They won’t admit it, but there’s usually an ideological bias or financial incentive driving the feverish worship of talking therapies and their overzealous defence.

Though in the cold hard light of evidence-based science, talking therapies aren’t much of a panacea either.  Pim Cuijpers, a professor of Clinical Psychology in Amsterdam lead a team who reviewed the effectiveness of trials of psychotherapy, and found that their effectiveness has also been overstated over the last few decades.  Quality studies show that talking therapies are equivalent in effectiveness compared to anti-depressants for depression [3].

What’s important to understand about talking therapies in general is that any benefit they have is related to changing behaviour, but that’s not dependent on changing your thoughts first [4-6].  Talking and thinking differently is fine, but unless that results in a change to your actions, there will probably be little benefit.

This is take home message number two: Talking therapies help, but you don’t need to change your thinking, you need to change your actions. #walkthetalk

The million-dollar question is how to apply all of this.  If talking therapies have the same benefit as anti-depressants, then do we go for tablets before talking or the other way around?  Are both together more powerful than each one alone?

In their paper, Davey and Chanen outline what has become the generally accepted pecking order for anti-depressant therapy.  They recommend that all patients should be offered talking treatments where it’s available.  Medication should only be considered if:

  1. a person’s depression is moderate or severe;
  2. a person doesn’t want to engage with talking therapies; or
  3. talking therapies haven’t worked.

Some overseas guidelines recommend this order based on projected bang for your buck.  While talking therapies are initially more expensive, they seem to have a more durable effect than medications, which are initially cheaper and easier, but have a greater cost with prolonged use [7].  In other words, if you learn better resilience and coping skills, you’re less likely to fall back into depression, compared to the use of the medications.

This is take home message number three: Use talking therapies first, with medications as a back up. #skillsthenpills

At this point in history, we seem to finally be finding some balance.  Just as anti-depressants aren’t the messiah, they’re not the devil either, despite the vocal minority doing their best to demonise them.

With a few decades of research and clinical experience since Prozac was first released on to the market, we’re finally getting an accurate picture of the place of talking therapies and medications in the treatment of depression.  Both are equally effective, and each have their place in the management of mental illness in our modern world.

References

[1]        Mukherjee S. Post Prozac Nation – The Science and History of Treating Depression. The New York Times. 2012 Apr 19
[2]        Davey CG, Chanen AM. The unfulfilled promise of the antidepressant medications. Med J Aust 2016 May 16;204(9):348-50.
[3]        Cuijpers P, van Straten A, Bohlmeijer E, Hollon SD, Andersson G. The effects of psychotherapy for adult depression are overestimated: a meta-analysis of study quality and effect size. Psychological medicine 2010 Feb;40(2):211-23.
[4]        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.
[5]        Longmore RJ, Worrell M. Do we need to challenge thoughts in cognitive behavior therapy? Clinical psychology review 2007 Mar;27(2):173-87.
[6]        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.
[7]        Anderson I. Depression. The Treatment and Management of Depression in Adults (Update). NICE clinical guideline 90.2009. London: The British Psychological Society and The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2010.

IMPORTANT

If you have questions about what treatment type might be better for you in your situation, please talk to your local GP, psychologist or psychiatrist, or if you need urgent crisis support, then:

In Australia

  • you can call either Lifeline on 13 11 14,
  • BeyondBlue provides a number of different support options
  • the BeyondBlue Support Service provides advice and support via telephone 24/7 (call 1300 22 4636)
  • daily web chat (between 3pm–12am)
  • email (with a response provided within 24 hours) via their website https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us.

In the US
-> call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

In New Zealand
-> call Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline on 0800 543 354

In the UK
-> Samaritans offer a 24 hour help line, on 116 123.

 

Dr Caroline Leaf and the nonsense of ‘negative’ thinking.

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The power of positive thinking. It’s like rust on our collective consciousness, an idea that’s seems virtually impossible to eradicate, slowly eating away at our collective psyche. The idea has become so ingrained in our culture that it’s part of our folklore and our idiom, and it continues to be deliberately perpetuated by success coaches, business leaders and others who make a very tidy living by peddling baseless optimism. It’s been repeated so often that the ‘power of positive thinking’ has become an Availability Cascade (a self-reinforcing process by which an idea gains plausibility through repetition).

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]

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She is one of the many that continue to perpetuate the myth of positive and negative thinking.

Today’s social media meme was yet another promotion of this misguided idea, and to top it off, she misquoted scripture again in an attempt to reinforce it.

“If you randomly allow any negative thought into your mind damage can ensue on a mental & physical level. ‘We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ.’ 2 Corinthians 10:5 NLT”

Lets quickly break meme down to see exactly why Dr Leaf is, yet again, misleading her audience.

1. The mind does not control the brain

Dr Leaf’s meme implies that negative thought damages us mentally and physically. The problem with that is that the mind doesn’t control our brain or our body, so negative thought can’t damage us mentally or physically.

Instead, it’s our brain that gives rise to, and controls our thoughts and feelings. We don’t see what goes on ‘under the hood’ so to speak, we only experience our thoughts and feelings, so we assume that regulate each other. But it’s our brain and a number of other processes that are responsible for generating both our thoughts and feelings (CAP blog).

‘Negative’ thoughts can sometimes be the result of damage to our brain, but ‘negative’ thoughts don’t damage the brain.

In fact, often the so-called ‘negative’ thoughts are actually good for us.

2. Negative thinking is normal and healthy

Dr Leaf’s meme also implies that we control the content of our thoughts by suggesting that we ‘allow’ negative thoughts into our minds. But negative thoughts are meant to be there, which is why we have them. ‘Negative’ thoughts have a positive function. We need them to survive.

For example, we have a fear response to prevent us from continually putting ourselves in danger. We have an anger response to motivate us through difficult obstacles. We have feelings of embarrassment to help maintain social cohesion. As Skinner and Zimmer-Gembeck state, “adaptive coping does not rely exclusively on positive emotions nor on constant dampening of emotional reactions. In fact, emotions like anger have important adaptive functions, such as readying a person to sweep away an obstacle, as well communicating these intentions to others. 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]

Dr Leaf isn’t helping anyone with her meme today. She’s simply promoting an outdated and unscientific notion, encouraging her audience to suppress normal, helpful adaptive functions for fear of harm that’s not scientifically possible.

Then as if to add insult to injury, she follows up her misleading meme with an equally misleading misrepresentation of 2 Corinthians 10:5.

3. Taking every thought captive?

2 Corinthians 10:5 is Pauls famous scripture about taking every thought captive, a concept which seems to support Dr Leaf’s ideas, except that Paul isn’t speaking generally to us, but specifically about the Corinthian church. Look at the verse in context:

“By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you – I, Paul, who am ‘timid’ when face to face with you, but ‘bold’ towards you when away! I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be towards some people who think that we live by the standards of this world. For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.
You are judging by appearances. If anyone is confident that they belong to Christ, they should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as they do. So even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of it. I do not want to seem to be trying to frighten you with my letters. For some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.’ Such people should realise that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.” (NIV UK, 2 Corinthians 10:1-11)

This chapter is a specific rebuke to some of the Christians within the church at Corinth, and also a defence against some of the murmurings and accusations that some in that church were levelling at Paul. For example, in verse 2, “I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be towards some people who think that we live by the standards of this world.”

Verses 3-6 are a specific and authoritative rebuttal against the accusations levelled at Paul, paraphrased as, “You may speak against us and the church, but we have weapons that smash strongholds, and we’re coming to take down those pretensions of yours and take every thought of yours captive to make it obedient to Christ, and punish every act of disobedience …”

The specific nature of the verse is also supported by some Bible commentary: “But how does St. Paul meet the charge of being carnally minded in his high office? “Though we walk in the flesh [live a corporeal life], we do not war after the flesh,” or “according to the flesh,” the contrast being in the words “in” and “according.” And forthwith he proceeds to show the difference between walking in the flesh and warring according to the flesh. A warrior he is, an open and avowed warrior – a warrior who was to cast down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; a warrior too who would punish these Judaizers if they continued their disorganizing work; but a prudent and considerate warrior, deferring the avenging blow till “I am assured of your submission” (Stanley) “that I may not confound the innocent with the guilty, the dupes with the deceivers.” What kind of a preacher he was he had shown long before; what kind of an apostle he was among apostles as to independence, self-support, and resignation of official rights in earthly matters, he had also shown; further yet, what kind of a sufferer and martyr he was had been portrayed.” (C. Lipscomb – http://biblehub.com/commentaries/homiletics/2_corinthians/10.htm)

Similarly, the translation from the original text is more specific than general. The verb used for “bringing into captivity” is aichmalōtízō, “to make captive: – lead away captive, bring into captivity” which is in the Present Active Participle form of the verb. The present tense represents a simple statement of fact or reality viewed as occurring in actual time. The active voice represents the subject as the doer or performer of the action. The Greek participle corresponds for the most part to the English participle, reflecting “-ing” or “-ed” being suffixed to the basic verb form. Actions completed but ongoing or commands are different verb tenses (see https://www.blueletterbible.org/help/greekverbs.cfm for a better explanation). So Paul wasn’t making a general statement, but a specific statement about what he would do in his present time, not the future.

So, Paul isn’t telling us to “bring every thought captive into obedience to Christ”. Dr Leaf is perpetuating a common scriptural misunderstanding.

A verse which better clarifies what God wants for our thought life is Paul’s exhortation to the Philippian church in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” Both the context, and the form of the verb, suggest that this is an ongoing command. And it makes better sense too. If we spend all of our time trying to fight against every thought that comes into our head, we’d become exhausted, but we can divert attention to those things that are worthy of our attention. And in many ways, what Paul is encouraging is what would be considered now as simple meditation, which is more scientific than the power of positive thinking.

The moral of this story … ‘negative’ thoughts and feelings don’t do us damage, but trying to unnecessarily suppress them does.

References

[1]     Herbert, J.D. and Forman, E.M., The Evolution of Cognitive Behavior Therapy: The Rise of Psychological Acceptance and Mindfulness, in Acceptance and Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy. 2011, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 1-25.
[2]     Skinner EA, Zimmer-Gembeck MJ. The development of coping. Annual review of psychology 2007;58:119-44.

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